The letter of the Law

Despite what you may think and in the face of all evidence to the contrary Japan actually has a set of laws to protect the employee in the shape of the Labour Standards Law which is provisionally translated into English and available from such websites as the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. The biggest problem is of course Japan’s cultural attitude towards making waves, as in it being best not to. This usually ends up as the victim’s albatross, with police, lawyers and judges trying to get, say, the victim of a car accident to accept the official apology and the free luncheon voucher because, you know, lengthy litigation would just be so embarrassing for all parties involved and we don’t want that now do we?

Though I’d hate it for Japan to become as litigious as America I do think some cases need to be made. Employers are not going to change things for the benefit of the employees unless they are absolutely forced to do so, are they? Take for example the case of a dozen developers at Sega Japan who were confronted with the “empty room” treatment. This trick was a favourite of corporations all over Japan when they needed to get rid of people; they would change their job description and have them sit in an empty room with a telephone, ostensibly to answer it. No notebooks, no books, no coat or bags were allowed in until eventually the employee quit out of bored desperation but, importantly, of his own “free” will. These developers started a lawsuit against Sega which they won; I’m not sure if it was settled or the company lost in court, as information is a little thin on the ground even though the case was widely reported, but the corporation hasn’t used this trick since, almost no game company has.

Another problem with the Labour Standards Law is that the punitive measures are a bit on the low side, making it sill very much an attractive proposition for shady employers to try and circumvent the law. If only a few people bother to complain or take them to court they’re still better off than playing by the rules. Every year the government hands out fines to a lot of companies that have violated the working hours and overtime pay rules, but the list doesn’t seem to get shorter by the year. Of course a lot depends on the employees themselves taking responsibility and daring to complain, but in a country like Japan that is obviously not a strong point, shifting the balance of power firmly to the employers’ side. Still, it’s nice to know that if you’re being screwed at least you have a law behind you. Not that it is any consolation or safety net but at least you can rest assured you’re being screwed illegally. Here are some of the more interesting Labour Standard Laws:

Working conditions shall be those which should meet the needs of workers who live lives worthy of human beings.

This is a doozy, isn’t it? Obviously this provision is aimed at those working in harsh conditions and probably do manual labour, but the fact they included the “worthy of human beings” part makes it perfectly applicable to game development if, like me, you think it’s worthy of being human to see your kids and family at least every day or aren’t forced to eat convenience store food for dinner every night.

An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment with respect to wages, working hours or other working conditions by reason of the nationality, creed or social status of any worker.

I can’t comment on this too much. Every time I felt I was being held back for being a foreigner they throw some good excuse in my face like “your Japanese isn’t good enough”, which is a very hard fact to refute or disagree with. On top of that I get away with more and get paid more by simple virtue of my foreignness and my abrasive foreign ways. We should look at how the Chinese and other Asian colleagues are paid and though I have no hard evidence, proof or any information of any kind I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up at the lower end of the curve.

An employer shall not engage in discriminatory treatment of a woman as compared with a man with respect to wages by reason of the worker being a woman.

I have written before on the status and treatment of women in not just our industry but any kind of working environment in Japan. They are still seen as part-time workers until they get with child and inevitably quit. Why invest time and money in the career of an employee you know is going to step out as soon as she gets one in the oven or finds a lucrative husband? Sadly a lot of women actually encourage this kind of thinking by living up, quite willingly, to the stereotype. However, this makes it all the harder for those women who want to build a career. Though things are changing slowly I doubt Japanese businesses are fully compliant with this law yet.

A dismissal shall, where the dismissal lacks objectively rational grounds and is not considered to be appropriate in general societal terms, be treated as a misuse of that right and invalid.

Another strangely worded law, this seems to imply that you can’t just fire someone willy-nilly. These kinds of laws led in the past to the aforementioned “empty room” tactics and other strange ways to circumvent having to explain in court why your reasons are objectively rational. Still, compared to the west I see far less creatively staged dismissals than you’d expect. With a full-time contract most people seem to expect a certain level of job security which may or may not be warranted.

An employer shall not have a worker work more than 40 hours per week, excluding rest periods.

Excluding rest periods, which a later paragraph tells us is at least 1 hour for a working day of eight hours or more, which, believe me, is the standard in the game industry. So that makes a 45 hour week the accepted maximum, by law if not by your employer. Combine this with the following statement:

In the event that an employer extends working hours or has a worker work on rest days, pursuant to the provisions of Article 33 or paragraph 1 of the preceding Article, the employer shall pay increased wages for work during such hours or on such days at a rate no lower than the rate stipulated by cabinet order within the range of no less than 25 percent and no more than 50 percent over the normal wage per working hour or working day.

The Articles and paragraphs referred to concern trade union approval or the consensus of a committee or body made up of or representing the majority of employees, which, in all truth, I have never seen happen. But that’s besides the point. By law you have a right to expect overtime pay, so why aren’t you getting any?
A lot of companies get away with this with some semantics. Salaries, as stated on the contract, usually say something like “including overtime” or a portion of your monthly wages may be paid under the “overtime” header. It’s not overtime pay, of course, just a small percentage of your dues with a different name, but they can show that they do pay “overtime” this way. Even in the most optimistic interpretation it shows the mentality of this industry; overtime is a given, scheduling isn’t.
I am curious what would happen if an EA_Spouse kicks off a similar shitstorm in Japan; the chances of winning would appear good, especially as this is the one area where the government is slowly and, until now, ineffectually taking measures into hand

An employer shall provide workers at least one rest day per week.

The law has a proviso that states that alternatively it should amount to four days per four weeks. Here a big exclamation mark pops up over my head, Metal Gear style, that reminds me of the three months of weekends and continuous work I've done last year. Except, of course, I was not made to work weekends and holidays, merely “asked”. I could have declined and be perfectly in my right, but that would have cast a shadow over my continued employment. I would be the troublemaker not playing by the unwritten rules, not a team-player by dumping the extra work on my colleagues, etc. There are many devious ways to interpret this so to avoid getting into illegal trouble we often find ourselves just going along with it and foregoing a few free weekends and holidays. We’re all idiots.

When a woman for whose work during menstrual periods would be especially difficult has requested leave, the employee shall not have the said woman work on days of the menstrual period.

This one was an interesting surprise to me. Not being a woman, of course, I can’t really comment on it but from experience I see this is a little used excuse. One wonders why my female colleagues don't (ab)use this law.

An employee shall not exploit an apprentice, student, trainee or other worker, by whatever name such person may be called, by reason of the fact that such person is seeking to acquire a skill.

Maybe the word “shall” should be replace by “shouldn’t” as it certainly happens if you interpret “exploit” as “pay terribly low wages”. I’ve seen a lot of graduates enter this industry, often with a few months’ work placement to pave the way to their first contract. For the employer it means cheap and willing labour, for the graduate it means a foot in the door. Though both parties benefit to an extent, fair it is not and neither is it legal, apparently.

~ ~ ~

As you can see, there are plenty of laws out there to protect an employee’s interests. It’s up to us to make our employers adhere to them. We must speak up if these laws are broken, even if it endangers our short-term employment prospects. Without people willing to stand up for positive change things simply aren’t going to happen, and even in Japan where formal apologies can excuse the worst crimes and people are encouraged not to make a fuss because it’s generally embarrassing, there are avenues to protect your rights. Use them!!

WARNING! Reading up on laws and your rights is not enough. Contact the Labour Office or ask a lawyer for information before taking any action. Do not rely on internet-published PDF files or mouthy blog writers when it comes to matters of law!


  1. Hrm, guess this post was so serious and detailed nobody had any good comment to make.

    Ah well, I've posted this just to say I've read and am a bit more enlightened by it.

  2. Hehe, and I was getting all paranoid. "Don't people love me anymore?" :) No, I realise the subject is a bit dry, but I did want to cast at least a little light on it.

  3. Americans put up with infinite abuse.

    We have an entirely undeserved reputation for being assertive. We can be rude, but that's not the same thing as having the balls to form a union or demand our rights.

    It would be funny, if Japanese workers, with their reputation as dish rags, started to stand up for their rights, and proved that they have more spine than Americans.

  4. Not dry! It is a useful article! I'd really like to know more about the work situation in Japan, since I'm planning to migrate there in April 2008.

    Your blog is a very rich source of useful information for people who are preparing to move there. It's in my feeds :)

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