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Coming to Work in Japan? Read This First

If you’ve been eagerly attending interviews and submitting resumes, hopefully this is around the time when you will start to receive some responses, and (luck permitting) the odd job offer or two.

For those coming to Japan from abroad to work, the vast majority of whom are still English teachers these days this is also one of the peak recruitment times.

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

With August representing the start of the school term, it is a time when many Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) public school positions will begin. There are also a multitude of private language school (Eikaiwa schools) and corporate English teaching roles open at every time of the year.

As happens every year another batch of fresh young graduates eager to gain an experience of Japan will head for this land in pursuit of their childhood dreams. However, in the midst of their youthful exuberance and enthusiasm, it can be all too easy to sign up for that “dream job” without carrying out the necessary due diligence. If you don’t check ahead, then that dream can very quickly become a nightmare. 

As someone who has been here a long time I’ve seen a lot of people come to Japan, and after a period of understandable upheaval and adjustment, they have come to love living and working here. Many have gotten married and settled here, some have even went on to set up their own English schools. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen far too many people crushed under the disappointment, the broken promises, and the general feeling that they were lulled into this line of work under false pretenses. 

Hopefully, today, I can offer some of my own advice and experience to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and that from now, we can know what exactly awaits us before we start our big Japanese adventure. Today, let’s consider what we should look for when considering signing a contract.

1. Holiday Entitlements

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It’s amazing how many schools in Japan put down “paid holidays” as a perk of the job. Despite what any school may tell you, holidays are mandated in Japanese law and a full-time worker on a one year contract is entitled to a minimum of 10 days annual paid leave, at the days of their choosing. There are various tricks that companies may use to try and circumvent this law. Be aware, any reputable company will offer you a minimum of 10 days paid holiday per year, don’t accept anything less, if you are applying for a full-time job.

2. Health Insurance and Pension

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Again, this is an area where many less reputable companies are less than forthcoming when it comes to disseminating honest information. If you are here on a working holiday visa then the issue is less clear cut, however, under Japanese law, all full-time workers in the country are, in principal supposed to be enrolled in national health insurance and pension. With the recent updates to the employment laws and regulations, enforcement is becoming more and more prevalent. Nonetheless, be aware of some companies who may try to avoid their obligations in this regard. Reputable companies will pay 50 percent of your pension contribution with the employee being expected to make up the other 50%. The actual amount deducted from your salary each month to cover health and pension provisions will vary depending on your gross salary. Much like the UK’s PAYE system, the higher your salary, the greater the deduction. Once you are registered on the pension and healthcare system, these deductions will be taken at source.

3. Contract Term Limits

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This is one that you really need to watch out for, not only if you are an English teacher, but if you are on any form of non-permanent contract. 

Until a couple of years ago, it used to be the rule that any worker employed on a temporary basis for 5 years consecutively by a company in Japan would then have the right to request permanent employment. This was shortened to 3 years recently in the hope that it would promote greater uptake of permanent positions in the Japanese workforce. Unfortunately, many companies and indeed government bodies have acted against the spirit with which this law was intended to be enacted and have instead imposed 3 year term limits on employment. This doesn’t really affect you if you are the type who is only planning to work in Japan for a year or two, but if you are of the mind to settle here permanently then I would recommend you don’t apply for these kinds of jobs. 

4. “Independent Contractor” Contracts

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Whilst the vast majority of companies in Japan are fair and honest, and act within the law, it seems there are a few who will stop at nothing to get out of their obligations to their employees. Recently, some English teaching companies, have tried to compel workers to switch over to “independent contractor” contracts. These contracts have the aim of forcing staff to work without any insurance, pension provision or paid vacation. Cutting through all the legalese, it basically categorizes the worker as a service provider rather than an employee. As such you are paid a fee for the service you provide to the company rather than being treated as an actual employee. The legality of this remains highly questionable, and indeed in what could represent a landmark test case, the fast food chain “Sukiya” lost a case brought against them by staff last year. The staff were able to successfully argue that since they weren’t able to choose the time and location of their work, nor negotiate payment on a case-by-case basis, they were, in fact, employees. It remains to be seen if the result of this case will have any knock-on effect on foreigners working in Japan, but in the meantime, I would strongly advise anyone new to Japan to not sign up for a job offering one of these, legally questionable, contracts.

Above all else, keep your feet on the ground and your expectations realistic. 

From the tone of this article, one could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is a treacherous and perhaps highly unfair place to work. That is not true, and I can honestly say that, down the years the vast majority of people I have worked with here have been honest, reasonable and fair. However, as they say it only takes a few bad eggs to spoil an entire batch, and we all need to do our part to combat these so-called “black companies”. In particular those of us new to Japan, less aware of our rights, and, rightly, enthusiastic and eager to please our new employers, may not be fully aware of these issues. Hopefully, this article can provoke a little more open discussion on these issues, and together we can make Japan an even better place to live and work.

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