"Black Companies" Are Feeding on the Follow-the-Crowd Mentality of the Japanese

By Shinya Sekita : Reporter of Toyokeizai
March 10,2016
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(Photo by Rawpixel/PIXTA)

Infamous employers, running so-called black companies, still prevail in Japan and are growing in number and expanding in scale.

The word “black company” first appeared on the Japanese web about a decade ago as a slang term, used by young Internet users who criticized how poorly they were treated in their workplaces. It is a colloquial term that carries different connotations, mostly negative; however, its definition is still not fixed.

Nevertheless, it is often used to refer to a company that has one or more of the following behavioral patterns:

➢ Gives employees excessive mental and/or physical stress;

➢ Tolerates power harassment;

➢ Sets unreasonably high targets;

➢ Forces employees to work in cruel (and some cases, illegal) labor conditions and/or for extremely long hours (for which overtime is often unpaid)

Industry-wise, many such companies are found among restaurants, retailers, nursing-care facilities, and IT firms that offer labor-intensive services.

"Work until you die, 24 hours, 365 days"

One employer that is frequently mentioned as a notorious example of a black company is the Watami Group, which runs multiple restaurant chains nationwide. According to sources familiar with the inner workings of the company, the management makes its employees chant the slogan “Work until you die, 24 hours, 365 days.” This employer insists that all employees are obligated to contribute to the company limitlessly and must therefore cooperate by sharing the burden with other colleagues.

"It is difficult to find a radical solution to the problem of black companies because there is a limit to what we can do to improve the situation," says Associate Professor Taichi Itoh of Osaka University of Economics. "We may sue the individual companies that are making their employees work beyond a legitimate extent or criticize their harsh practices through the media or other effective means. But these actions are currently not enough to eradicate these companies completely.”

Professor Itoh further explains that these companies have emerged and managed to stay in business by “taking advantage of the weak aspects of the Japanese employment system. They tapped into the dark side of this system and dyed themselves as black as they could get within that gray area, so to speak.”

To understand the real nature of this problem, we need to recognize the peculiarities of the Japanese employment system. Unlike in Europe and the United States, where job descriptions and the scope of responsibility are clearly defined and understood by those who assume a position, those applying for full-time positions in Japan are often not told what kind of work they will be assigned or where they will be stationed until they are officially employed by a company.

Moreover, many employees in Japan do not necessarily mind about working overtime if their boss requests or allows them to do so, even if the regular working hours are prescribed as 9:00 a.m.–5 p.m. on their employment contract.

It is quite common for Japanese employers to evaluate their employees not only by assessing their capability in adapting to newly assigned jobs after transferring to different positions or workplaces but also by observing how willing they are to devote their time to the company, even at the expense of sacrificing their private life.

The employees hired by such employers know how their company’s evaluation system works, so they try their utmost to gain better evaluation scores, even if that means they have to work unbelievably long hours. Such unhealthy practices started escalating in the 1970s and drew increasing public attention because the number of workers getting depressed or dying from overwork began to rise.

When lifetime employment was still the norm in the Japanese employment system, the custom of not specifying the job description beforehand was something that supported permanent employment. During those days, no permanent employee had to worry about losing his/her position in the company, even if the employer decided to appoint someone else to the job currently held by that employee.

When the time came for the personnel to reshuffle to refresh the organization, most permanent employees were automatically relocated to different positions within the company and would do what the company requested without complaining about what kind of job would be assigned to them next.

By continuing to work obediently in this manner, in different job positions that changed over time, they were eventually promoted and paid better according to their length of service, making them feel secure and comfortable about planning for their future.

This sense of security was fueled by the assurance of longevity and led many Japanese permanent employees to maintain an allegiance to their company. The stronger their allegiance, the more they felt obligated to contribute limitlessly to their company. Indeed, this was the mindset that the black companies took advantage of, likely the only element of the traditional Japanese lifetime employment system that was useful for their business model.

They would use the employer’s right to give directions to the employees as well as the employees’ obligation to follow them as an excuse to overload them with enormous amount of work, expecting them to get it all done, no matter how long it may take. However, they do not compensate these employees fairly for the time they put in to meet these expectations.

Some of these relentless employers set an upper limit on the extra wages they pay for overtime but still expect the employees to work beyond that limit if needed. Some others intentionally do not keep record of the exact hours the employees work and enter into their attendance sheets so that they can manipulate the figures later and pay less than what the employees should receive. Through such contrivances, many of these black companies are essentially making their employees work at an hourly rate that is lower than the statutory minimum wage.

Accepting the social devide

So, what can we do to stop these rogue employers from continuing to exercise their rights abusively and exploit their workers? Harutaka Konno, who heads POSSE, a non-profit organization that specializes in providing support to those facing labor-related problems, thinks that there is a possible solution.

"The Japanese should start understanding that the working members of their society can serve their roles in different ways," says Imao. "The people who seek employment can be largely divided into those who prioritize maintaining a healthy work–life balance and those who are career-crazed. Those in the former group prefer to live with little stress: they choose to work only to the extent that they do not wear out. Those in the latter group, however, commonly look at things from an elitist or entrepreneurial standpoint and are eager to make the best of their ability to work hard and gain a high return.”

“We need to clearly distinguish between these two groups and respect the distinct differences in their workstyles,” says Konno. “If such a distinction becomes widely accepted, there will be more demand for employers to offer varied forms of employment and different labor conditions that meet the diverse needs in terms of the number of hours they want to work each day and the level of wage they would be content with.“

Konno also indicates that “such divide already exists in Japanese society, but not many people acknowledge it yet. If public awareness changes, a political mechanism would work to adjust the interests between these two groups. By adjusting their interests proactively, the gap between the two will eventually narrow.”

Japanese society has long valued the notion that people from all walks of life should be treated equally and considered it a taboo to accept the existence of a social divide. The black companies have been applying the unwavering belief that “everyone can become better off if they try harder than others” as a justification for flooding their employees excessive amounts of work.

Accepting the fact that not all Japanese workers aspire to be hard workers does not necessarily mean that the social divide will be tolerated. Rather, the shift in perspective in this direction would most likely drive society to bridge that gap to deter the further proliferation of black companies.

The Japanese people should therefore realize that there is a way out of this uninviting labor situation. They must continue to work on building a heathy society that provides maximum support to those who wish to climb the social ladder and succeed in ambitious endeavors to find their sense of fulfillment, while at the same time, securely protect those who opt to lead a more ordinary life and find happiness through other, non-materialistic means.