Black Companies – The Dark Side Of Japanese Working Culture

black company japan

Working in Japan is an attractive prospect to many. For those wishing to experience the cultural, culinary, and environmental riches the country has to offer, a job allows one the freedom to do so. On top of this, with benefits like job security and health insurance, it’s no surprise many dream of living here.

However, for those who do, it’s important to be aware of black companies. Otherwise, it’s possible to find yourself living in more a nightmare. In this article, we are going to talk about what black companies area, signs a company is one, precautions you can take to ensure you don’t join one, and finally, what you can do if you find yourself working for one.

What Does “Black Company” Mean?

black company japan

As an umbrella term, “black company” is used to denote companies which operate in a manner exploitative of their employees. However, specific reasons for labeling a company “black” can vary. Common symptoms include power harassment, sexual harassment, little to no overtime work pay, and little to no work/life balance.

The term black company was said to have been coined two decades ago by office workers in the IT industry. Circulation grew when a film was released in 2009 called “On The Verge at A Black Company,” based around an online thread started by a man working at a black company. Since then, it’s entered the mainstream.

What is “Karoshi”?

Man working at office at night

While a label for black companies came into existence twenty years ago, they’ve been around for longer. Ever since the latter half of the 70’s, as Japan entered an economic bubble, “karoshi” (death by overwork) became a national issue. The result was a double-edged sword. While the nation developed into a global economic superpower, it was at the cost of its citizens’ livelihood, and in the worst case, their lives.

Even today, karoshi is a problem. A 2016 report examining karoshi cases and their cause of death found more than 20% of the surveyed 10,000 Japanese workers to have worked upwards of 80 hours overtime in a month at least once.

The most common medical causes of karoshi deaths are heart attacks and strokes, stemming from stressful working conditions. It’s vital to never put yourself in a situation where this could happen. To do so, you’ll need to know how to spot a black company.

How to Identify a Black Company

black company japan

Labour Standards Law

The most definitive method of figuring out whether a company is “black” is by referring to government mandated documents. An outline of the Labour Standards Law, which stipulates the rules and regulations a company must follow is listed below.

Labour Standards law

  1. It is prohibited to discriminate against people because of their nationality.
  2. In concluding a labour contract, working conditions must be made clear to the employee.
  3. Forced labour is prohibited, and violence or intimidation must never be used as a means of exploitation.
  4. An employer cannot fix a contract which sets a predetermined compensation if said contract is breached.
  5. An employee who has become injured or ill in connection with their work and is receiving medical attention cannot be dismissed for the duration of their absence and 30 days after.
  6. 30 days notice of a dismissal is required.
  7. Payment of an employee’s wages must be made once a month and on a fixed date.
  8. Employees must receive a wage above what is stated in the Minimum Wages Law.
  9. Statutory working hours are 8 hr/day and 40hr/week.
  10. For work done aside from the statutory working hours, overtime must be paid. (*however, many companies have deemed overtime written into contracts so this is tricky to navigate.)
  11. Annual leave with pay must be given to employees who’ve been employed for at least 6 months.
  12. Money and other goods must be returned to employee upon resignation.
  13. Industrial safety and health measures must be met.

It’s important to be aware of such laws to ensure your safety when dealing with a prospective employer. However, even equipped with such knowledge, it remains possible to find yourself working for a black company. The reason is because of how subjective cases are from company to company.

For many corporations in Japan, divisions exist between various departments. While a company may appear fine overall, it’s possible for sections of it to be “black”. This is a frightening notion, and it makes you wonder whether it’s possible to avoid getting trapped. To assuage such nerves, in the next paragraphs we’ll discuss effective safety measures you can use.


black company japan

One of the most prudent decisions you can make before signing a contract with a company is to conduct proper research. While it may seem like common sense, the type of research you do proves useful in determining whether a company is black. Below, we’ll list five ways of going about this.

  • Checking with someone who works at the prospective corporation.
  • Checking employee reviews.
  • Checking company turnover rates.
  • Checking company working hours.
  • Checking competing salaries.

A good starter for finding out whether a company is “black” is by talking to someone who works at the prospective corporation. Such knowledge is valuable as it provides information from the source, making it accurate and trustworthy. However, you cannot always rely on knowing someone well enough to ask them for details of a company’s working conditions.

The four other methods are also helpful. For example, reading employee reviews gives you an idea of whether a company could be “black”. This information can be found on job-hunting websites. A company can be rated based on their work-life balance, pay and benefits, job security & advancement, management, and culture. While this information is beneficial, it should be taken with a grain of salt. A poor employee review should not determine whether you choose to work at a specific company, as they tend to be biased towards the negative.

Black Company Awards

black company japan

Another means of finding out whether a company is black is through the annual Black Company Awards (Japanese). They began in 2012 by a group of rogue journalists, lawyers, and university professors. Nominees are announced by the committee who create a blacklist of that year’s most “black” companies, the “winner” taking the title of the “Most Evil Corporation.” Aside from that, the public can vote for their choice, which receives the Citizen’s Award.

Factors that are taken into account when deciding which companies make the list includes long working hours, no overtime pay, bullying and harassment, and other problems with the work environment. Winners are presented with a copy of the labor law dictionary, but as of yet, none have accepted the prize.

In 2019, Mitsubishi Electric Co. was the recipient of the Most Evil Corporation Award for the second time running. Reasons for this included several cases of karoshi from both the main company and a subsidiary company, two of which were part of five male employees who showed signs of mental duress, and allegations of an employee who oversaw training being suspected of instigating suicide.

What Can You Do if You’re in a Black Company?

black company japan

If you find yourself in the unfortunate scenario of working for a black company, there are a number of ways to progress. First and foremost, it’s vital to determine what the issue is and how you want to resolve it. Victims of a black company working environment will sometimes feel powerless. As procedures moving forward vary from situation to situation, it’s important to consider all your options. The solutions below can be of use.

Consult Your Employer

black company japan

The first step is to speak to your boss or your company’s human resources department. In an effort not to sound too pessimistic, this option is more precedent than anything. The reason is because if you’re working for a black company, they’re not likely to be accommodating. However, putting in a word ensures they cannot claim ignorance in mediation or, in the most extreme cases, in a court of law.

It’s useful to know there are only two reasons an employer could legally fire you. The first is if you’re horribly incompetent. Given that you’re speaking out against your company, we take it there are no grounds for them to claim this. The second reason is if the business is seeing a devastating loss of money. However, evidence of this needs to be provided. If it is, a 30-day notice must be given, as well as the option for voluntary resignation. Above all, it’s vital to know that terms are negotiable and the decision is not unilateral.

If after consulting your employer, you find a way to move forward in the same company, the decision should be yours to make. In such a case, don’t be afraid to suggest the changes you want to see and try negotiating better conditions for the future.

Search For a New Job

black company japan search for a new job

Your best option if you’re working for a black company is to leave. If you decide on doing so, you’ll need to find a new job. We suggest you start your job search as soon as possible but leave the black company you are currently working for just after you passed all the necessary interviews and received an official job offer from your future company. Valuable allies in your job search are job sites and recruitment agencies aimed to foreigners.

Furthermore, you can consult Hello Work , a government department dealing with various employment support services in Japan that can be contacted for issues related to abuse at the hands of a black company. Their websites (Japanese) can be consulted for information on steps to take in such a scenario and how to move forward.

What Next?

If you’re planning a move to Japan, it’s important to recognize the reality of black companies. While the issue and similar ones like “karoshi” continue to plague Japanese working culture, it’s important not to let the threat of a black company prevent you from living here. There are various ways to ensure you steer clear of them and with the proper knowledge, you’ll never have to worry about being associated with one.

For more information on working in Japan, why not take a look at this article on “7 Ways to Find a Job in Japan as as Foreigner.”

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.