Awful Japanese “Black Companies”

If you hear the term “black company”, what kind of company do you imagine? As we all know, black is the darkest color, so if you pictured an evil company with a dark side then you would be on the right track. A black company (aka “black corporation” or “black business”) is ブラック企業 (black kigyou) in Japanese. In general, it is a term used to refer to an unacceptably exploitative employment system.

Now, maybe you’re thinking this is a word to describe a factory somewhere in China, but you’d be wrong. The term is actually usually associated with white-collar industries rather than blue-collar ones. It was coined by young IT workers in the early 2000’s and, being the IT workers that they were, spread this nickname around the internet as an internet meme. Now, thanks to its fame, it is a term that can be used for other industries that are not IT.

The Black Company And A Film

As the popularity of the term grew, the black company problem received more and more attention in Japan. In 2009, a drama film called “A man on the verge at a BLACK company” was released. It was based on an office worker who started a 2ch thread about the black company he worked at. This company’s ruthless and unethical work environment was duplicated in the film.

As you can see in the film clip, the workers are being pushed to their limit and obviously not in good shape. Can you imagine working someplace like that for real? Well, bad (black) companies are really out there and this sparked a move towards calling them out. Still, there was a long way to go to bring about public awareness.

The Black Company Awards

black-company

Photo by Beshef

In 2012, a group of people that included journalists, activists, and university professors formed a special committee to create the “Black Corporations Award” where the public could vote on “the most evil corporations of the year.” The award name may sound silly, but its creators were not joking. They were hoping to raise awareness of black company issues as well as expose some of the evil abusers of employees. This is now an annual award.

black-company

The most recent award, which took place on June 17th of 2013, nominated eight companies:

  1. Watami Foodservice Co., Ltd (Restaurant Chain)
  2. Cross Company Inc. (Clothing Retailer)
  3. Benesse Corporation (Education and Publishing)
  4. Sun Challenge Corporation (Steak Restaurant Chain)
  5. Ohsho Food Service Corporation (Restaurant Chain)
  6. Seino Transportation Co., Ltd (Transportation Service)
  7. Tokyu Hands Inc. (Department Store)
  8. Tohoku University

All nominations were made on the following basis:

  1. Actual public records on occupational problems such as a long work time, sexual harassment, or abuse of power.
  2. Long intense work hours.
  3. Low pay.
  4. Compliance violations.
  5. Flaws in the system, such as lack of childcare leave or maternity leave.
  6. Hostility to unions.
  7. Discrimination against temporary workers.
  8. Temporary worker dependance.
  9. Unpaid overtime (and lies about paid overtime in the job advertisements).

Most black companies already have the above problems, so the nominees were chosen for being especially bad. After the nominations, there was a period in which people could vote. The winner? Watami Foodservice Co., and by a wide margin. They got 21,899 votes, 72% of the total. This was followed by Tohoku University (3,475 votes), Benesse Corporation (1,258 votes), Cross Company Inc (1,220 votes), Seino Transportation Co., Ltd (1,000 votes), Ohsho Food Service Corporation (744 votes), Sun Challenge Corporation (649 votes), and Tokyu Hands Inc (346 votes). Watami has won this award for two years in a row so far.

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Watami’s winning streak is due to its notoriously abysmal mistreatment of young workers. In 2008, Mina Mori, a female employee of Watami, committed suicide at the age of 26 after reportedly working 141 hours of overtime in one month. It happened just two months after joining the restaurant chain. Some people may think committing suicide is an individual matter and that a company cannot be held responsible. However, it is reasonable to assume Mori would not have chosen suicide for herself had she not been forced into such a desperate situation. Furthermore, it is apparent just how “black” the Watami company is simply by the cold reaction of Watami founder Miki Watanabe’s reaction to the case. He not only refused to meet with her family but also refused to apologize to them until last month. He finally did offer an apology in court on March 27, 2014, though he still has denied liability.

According to an interview with a former Watami restaurant manager conducted by Takarajima magazine (September 2013 edition), upon hearing the news of Ms. Mori’s suicide, the ex-manager wondered if it was really just 141 hours. During his time at Watami, he regularly worked from 7am to 12am with almost no break, making his monthly overtime over 300 hours. He also revealed that Miki Watanabe gives extreme messages to workers on every payday, such as: “Regret as hard as you die!” He even received a personal letter from the evil president in his paycheck envelope saying: “you should reflect on your sales this month by killing yourself.”

watami

Photo by Miyo Sekimoto

There was also an illegal but mandatory 1,000 yen deduction from every payment and workers were told that it was for “social contribution.” When Watanabe published his own book, the price of the book was automatically deducted from the payment and workers were forced to buy them as well. Although there wasn’t any physical violence, he remembered that there was much verbal violence, often relating to “killing himself.”

That sounds pretty awful, right? These workers were not treated like human beings… more like robots. Though even robots shouldn’t have to work this hard. Obviously a lot of other people felt the same way and anti-Watami movements have risen. On the same day that Watami apologized to Ms. Mori’s family, Watami decided to temporarily close 60 restaurants (about 10% of the total) to improve their work environment. I hope this will really be the start of some reform so that others won’t have to endure the same mistreatment.

Perhaps thanks to this and the awareness brought about by the Black Company Awards, the term ブラック企業 (black kigyo / black company) made the final 10 of the most popular or influential Japanese buzzwords in 2013! So, consider the checkbox of “raising awareness” filled in, though there’s still much work to be done.

What Colors A Company Black?

black-wall

Photo by David Gunter

So what are the exact qualifications for a company to be considered a black company? You can get some idea from the stories of Watami, but a lawyer named Yoshiyuki Iwasa, who is also the author of “ブラック企業に倍返しだ!” (which means “to take double revenge on the black company”) created a checklist for a website called Business Media to find out whether the company is “black” or “not black.” There are thirty items on the list and if none of them apply to the company, it is pure white. If 1-9 items are applicable, it is considered gray. 10-14 is dark gray. 30 out of 30 is pitch black. You get the picture. Now let’s take a look at the list.

  1. I do work overtime, but overtime is never paid.
  2. It’s usual to work more than 80 hours overtime a month.
  3. I don’t have a break, or at the most, 10 minutes a day.
  4. I work on my days off. Actually, I’m not even sure when my days off are.
  5. There is no paid time off system or if there is such a system, I am never allowed to use it.
  6. I never get reimbursed for expenses and always have to pay out of pocket.
  7. There is no social insurance, benefits, or pension. If I ask about this, I would be bullied.
  8. If I converted my monthly wage into an hourly rate equivalent, it would be less than minimum wage.
  9. Regardless of how long I work overtime, the overtime payment is a fixed amount.
  10. The company is constantly hiring new employees.
  11. The advertised job wage is different from the actual amount paid.
  12. There are no time cards or someone else punches you in and out.
  13. There are one or more workers who can’t come to the office due to psychotic depression or nervous breakdown.
  14. I’m so busy that I often can’t get adequate sleep.
  15. There is no union or company regulations.
  16. Some employees are promoted to an administrative position right after joining the company, but there is no extra remuneration for that.
  17. Employees have to run private errands for their employers.
  18. There is a slogan saying “work until you die” on the company wall.
  19. Abuse of power and sexual harassment are very common.
  20. There are so many affiliate companies and subsidiaries, though I don’t even know what those companies do.
  21. Whenever some incident happens, the company changes its name.
  22. There are training sessions, which use what can be considered brainwashing or hazing.
  23. Threats such as “I’m going to kill you” can be commonly heard at the office.
  24. Violence is rampant.
  25. All the supervisors are relatives of the CEO.
  26. I was told to quit the company in a roundabout way like, “you may not be cut out for this position.”
  27. I can’t quit the job. If I say I’m going to quit, I’ll be threatened that I will have to pay damages for quitting.
  28. They don’t provide the necessary documents such as the separation slip to those who try to quit.
  29. The worker’s average age is really young.
  30. The rate of people leaving their jobs within 3 years is really high.

Now after looking through them, do any of these conditions apply to your company? Many of the items may sound ridiculous, but I have worked under some of these conditions before and I have some friends who work for such companies. However, I’m not sure if their companies are pitch black. Maybe just very, very dark?

Increasing Or Exposing?

dripping-paint

Photo by rockandbacon

According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of cases delivered to the General Labor Consultation Center in 2012 was 1,067,210. 254,719 of them involved troubles at work such as encouragement of early retirement, worsening work conditions, the lowering of pay, long periods of overtime without payment, or mean, abusive bosses and/or coworkers. A decade ago, only around 100,000 cases were reported. This number has increased about 2.5x, showing that either black companies are increasing in number, or, what is more likely, more people are coming forward. These companies are finally having their true colors exposed (black).

In September, 2013, the Labor Ministry began a crackdown on black companies, too. They examined 5,111 such companies based on their high turnover rates of young workers, their past violations, and complaints from employees. Then it was revealed that over 80% of them, 4,189 companies, were indeed actually black companies engaged in illegal business practices. They were flagged for violations against the Labor Standards Act. The ministry intends to discipline the companies in question and if those companies continue to violate the Labor Standards laws, their names will be made public.

So, now that the Labor Ministry is getting involved, can we call this the end of the story? Well, I’m afraid it’s not over yet. This was only the ministry’s first survey on black companies and there are over 4 million companies in Japan. So, the exciting fight has only just begun! We’re counting on you, Black Company Awards and Japan’s Labor Ministry!

  • Matthew MacEwan

    Haha nope, but they would probably wear the term “black company” with pride!

  • Diffusor

    These companies aren’t run by psychopaths. They are run by patriots who honestly believe they are doing everything they are supposed to. It’s their culture. Black Companies are definitely an unintended consequence of Japanese culture, but they are very much 100% Japanese culture. See, this is the price of “harmony” in Japan. When you and I hear the word “harmony,” we think peace and quiet. But you know what? You gotta break a few eggs, and the reality of “harmony” is that it really just means people go to work and suffer unspeakable abuses in silence, because harmony means doing what you’re told without complaint.

    In other words, no. The men running these countries are not psychopaths. They are living according to the tenets of Japanese harmony – they are in charge, and they tell people what to do. And their employees? They, too, are following the tenets of Japanese harmony: they suffer in silence.

    Here’s the takeaway: it’s OK to criticize culture sometimes. These men running these companies are NOT psychopaths. They are in every possible way sane. To accuse them of psychopathy misses a vast number of points. This is Japanse culture, and if it turns your stomach, well, get used to. That’s why they call it culture shock.

  • Diffusor

    It’s not exactly ageism as much as it is the hierarchy in action. They hire young people and then fire them without consideration because that’s Japanese culture. Do you know the term “amakudari”? If not, look it up. If you do know that word, then you see what I’m getting at. Japanese business culture is that the men on top get to sit and do nothing – in fact, if you look at the gaffes “important” men in Japan are constantly making (Momii or Hyakuta of NHK, for example), you’ll see that, in Japan, the rich and elite do nothing but fail up. (Failing up means they do nothing but fail, yet are constantly promoted to higher and higher levels, far beyond their competence.)

    The young people – no matter how skilled or qualified – are treated like garbage because that’s Japanese culture. There is a LOT happening there. This is also connected to Japan’s use of bullying to enforce their cultural norms – social pressure is a natural part of all cultures, but Japan uses very brutal bullying techniques that are socially accepted at all levels of society to enforce their norms. Ageism, as you describe it, is part of it.

    There’s honestly a lot going on here, but to put it more simply: it’s not ageism; it’s just that abusing subordinates is an inherent part of Japanese culture. Sad, but true.

  • Flora

    …So basically, ageism. Institutionalized discrimination is still discrimination.

    That’s like saying Jim Crow wasn’t racism because it was widely used & accepted. It’s still wrong and shouldn’t be done (and we see all the good it’s doing for the country).

  • Rayne Sazaki

    Very insightful, thank you for writing up on something more “Real” about Japan.

    We are in the Information Age, where it’s “Old vs New”. The internet is a great leverage and tool for the people to voice themselves.

    Really looking forward to future posts ^_^

  • blah

    Great analysis! I would only say that America being a meritocracy is pretty much a myth used in the US to deny benefits to the poor and minorities. That said, our labor laws are generally pretty good, which is what you were getting at in the first place.

  • Max Hodges

    Unfortunately it seems government agencies have no real bite here (in Tokyo). I had trouble with a former employer who stopped paying me and other staff. I went to some labor office to get help, but the only thing they could do was to suggest that our company’s president pay us. They didn’t seem to have any power to enforce payment, penalties, fines or anything else. Why even exist I wondered? I quit that job after having lost six weeks salary for IT work. Two counterparts stayed longer and lost another month or two in wages.

  • Max Hodges

    btw your product reviews post solicits suggestions, but the comments are closed.
    http://screencast.com/t/5Y96FLjZj

  • Kevin O’Leary

    I’ve worked at Watami for more than two and a half years just part time. They seem to follow the letter of the law and it’s all fair in my neck of the woods. Company has been extremely generous and good. I do have to work with obnoxious co workers though but that’s not really something the company has much control over.

  • yoru.morino

    Wow, the “work til you die” “kill yourself” and such things…Fortunately, I have never heard of a company like that, that’s just too evil haha
    “Whenever some incident happens, the company changes its name.” Sooo shady!

    Well, at least they are doing something to end those companies. Hope it works.

  • Difussor

    “America being a meritocracy is pretty much a myth used in the US to deny benefits to the poor and minorities.”

    VERY good point.

    But, no, I’m not saying our laws are great; I’m saying that, somehow, Japanese companies seem to bring out the latent meritocratic values in us. It’s a great example of how cultures can mix and help each other.