Black Companies: What they are and how to spot them
In Japan, Black Companies are infamous among job seekers for long work hours, bad pay and harsh rules. While they can be hard to identify, there are some things that you should keep an eye out for.
What is a Black Company?
“Black Company” (ブラック企業, ブラックきぎょう) is a Japanese umbrella term for corporations that are perceived as having especially bad working conditions or company culture.
While the specific reasons for the use of this label depend on the company, these things are most commonly associated with the term:
- ■ Bad overall pay
- ■ Bad or no overtime pay
- ■ Long working hours
- ■ Bad employee benefits
- ■ An abundance of arbitrary rules
- ■ Low number of paid leave days (or: low usage ratio of allotted paid leave days)
- ■ Power Harassment (パワハラ), Sexual Harassment (セクハラ) or Moral Harassment (モラハラ) from higher-ups or colleagues
However, making decisions based on these points is not always easy. For example, from all the things on the list, “long working hours” are often associated with Japanese companies in general, and small ones in particular. On the other hand, big corporations like Mitsubishi or Toyota are generally considered to be a safe bet.
While these generalizations are grounded in reality to some degree, they won’t help you much when it comes to deciding whether or not to join one specific company.
Ultimately, work conditions can differ wildly depending on the workplace and there very much are Japanese companies that offer good (or, at least, acceptable) working environments. Furthermore, it’s not rare at all for quality-of-work or cultural divides to exist within the same company, e.g. between sections or departments.
Each year, an independent committee of lawyers, journalists, and NPO workers gives out the “Most Evil Corporation of the Year” Awards (ブラック企業大賞, ブラックきぎょうたいしょう). In 2016, the main award went to the advertising firm Dentsu, after an employee at the company had committed suicide due to overwork (過労自殺, かろうじさつ) and it became clear that the preconditions that lead to the case were baked into the company’s system.
Dentsu shows up even in the most recent lineup of “winners” from 2019, dusting off a “special award”. The main award for that year, though, went to Melco Semiconductor Engineering, a company of the Mitsubishi Electric Group. The main reason was another similar suicide case similar to Dentsu’s.
The “Most Evil Corporation of the Year” Award usually features big companies or employers. Other winners from 2019 were Rakuten, Seven-Eleven, Toyota and the entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto Kogyo as well as the City of Nagasaki. While this may be due to big companies being under harsher scrutiny, it shows that the common assumption “big company = safe” isn’t necessarily true.
(Fun Fact: Since 2012, the “winners” are invited to an annual award ceremony. Naturally, no company that was ever invited has shown up yet.)
How to identify a Black Company
Below are some pointers that can help evaluate whether you’re dealing with a “black company” or not. Note that these are only guidelines – in the end, you have to make a decision based on the sum of your observations.
Abstract and Fluffy Language
Companies always have to present themselves in the best possible way – and the hiring season is high-time for flowery phrases. Corporations love leading with and throwing around big words, hoping to appeal to the idealistic spirit of young college graduates. There are whole industries that are only able to thrive by preying on the passion of their “rank and file” employees.
When looking at job adverts or attending company seminars, pay attention to words like the ones below and how they are used.
- ■ Growth (成長, せいちょう)
- ■ Dreams (夢, ゆめ)
- ■ Passion (熱意, ねつい)
- ■ Determination (やる気, やるき)
- ■ Responsibility (責任, せきにん)
- ■ “Something worth living for” (生き甲斐, いきがい)
- ■ Tenacity, Endurance (根性, こんじょう)
- ■ Applicants with no Experience welcome (未経験歓迎, みけいけんかんげい)
A place that’s open to people with no previous experience can be a great opportunity to get experiences or acquire new skills. However, it can also later be used as an excuse to talk employees into accepting bigger and bigger workloads (“you have no experience, so you have to work longer/harder”).
But of course, you can’t immediately rule out a company because it uses these words or phrases. What matters is the context and “the how”. Generally speaking, trustworthiness increases with higher levels of transparency. This is especially true when it comes to the answers given to questions from the applicants.
So if a company representative’s speech hinges entirely on “seeing the happy faces of the customers” and offers little to no concrete information about everyday work, then you should be wary. Another warning sign is the excessive use of foreign loanwords (横文字, よこもじ) that mask mundane or taxing tasks as grand undertakings.
Unusually Short Recruitment Process
While recruitment processes outside of Japan are usually short and sweet – letter and CV, an interview, that’s it – the same is not usually true for Japanese companies. Fresh-out-of-Uni recruitment takes a long time, often featuring multiple company seminars, tests and interviews. If a company accepts applicants without much testing, that can mean they are mostly looking to recruit “cannon fodder”.
In contrast to their Japanese peers, many international students don’t have much time for their job hunt. When the goal is to live in Japan and you only have a few months left, the temptation to agree on an “easy” (or simply the first) job offer can be pretty high. However, if you don’t have an idea about why the company wants to hire you specifically, it’s a good idea to ask some follow-up questions and (if the answers sound overly vague) reconsider.
A lack of communication and further guidance after getting a job offer is another red flag. This is especially true for international students since you are most likely to return to your home country for a short while before starting to work in Japan.
An exemption to this rule are foreign companies (外資系, がいしけい) that “bring over” their home country’s hiring style and – to some degree – startups (ベンチャー).
Unusually low (or high!) pay
According to data from the SANRO Research Institute, the average monthly pay for a fresh university graduate in 2019 (across all sectors) was ¥208,826. This means a yearly salary of around ¥2.5 million (plus a small bonus).
Of course, entry salaries differ depending on the sector, job position, type of company, etc. Always make sure to cross-check the proposed salary with pay offered by the competition.
Low salaries speak for themselves. Companies that aren’t even willing to pay the industry average are not valuing their employees enough. Stay clear of those places.
Then, there’s higher than usual pay. I might sound great at first, but don’t take it at face value. Higher numbers often mean that there’s some small print that, in the end, makes the salary less appealing than it first seems.
A common occurrence in work contracts is so-called fixed overtime (みなし残業, みなしざんぎょう or 固定残業, こていざんぎょう). In this case, the listed salary contains an amount of pre-assumed monthly overtime hours. Fixed overtime pay is not included in the base pay, but – like regular overtime pay – comes as a premium on top.
Fixed overtime doesn’t mean that you have to stay at the company for that many hours each month no matter what. However, the higher your initial pay (and thus, the amount of assumed overtime hours) is, consistently leaving early can lead to unpleasant conflicts with higher-ups.
READ ON Overtime Work in Japan
Also, pay attention if only annual pay is listed. Annual salary schemes (年俸制, ねんぽうせい) are legal but can hide specifics behind huge sums of money. If necessary, ask how much overtime is included in the salary, how high the monthly payments are compared to the boni, etc.
One relatively objective way of judging if a company is any good is looking at the job turnover rate (離職率, りしょくりつ). In Japan, this rate is usually expressed in the percentage of employees that have left the company within three years after joining. Japanese people still tend to stay at one company for a long time, so a high turnover rate is seen as a sign of bad working conditions.
Numbers from the Japanese Government indicate that the average job turnover rate for companies in Japan sits in the 30% range. As a result, any company with a rate of over 50% probably deserves a long, critical look. However, don’t forget to put the number in relation to the number of new hires. If a firm only hires three people on average per year, a rate of 66% doesn’t have to mean much.
In some cases, you can get access to these kinds of data through online job portals. However, since these sites are free for applicants, companies with bad rates aren’t likely to list theirs.
Another way to get a look at the numbers is the 就職四季報 (しゅうしょくしきほう), a yearly publication from the Toyo Keizai Newspaper that will cost you about ¥2000. It’s all in Japanese, but also includes some other helpful numbers like average income after X amount of years, the age range of employees, etc.
Reviews of Former Employees
Another way to get an idea of a company’s work environment is to look at what former employees say about it. You can just google [company name] 評判 or browse portal sites such as Kaisha no Hyouban, openwork and Career Connection. Most of the portals are limited in one way or another, though. In most cases, you’ll have to create an account or pay a small amount of money for full access.
Keep in mind though that company review portals don’t give you a completely unbiased perspective on things. Former employees that parted with their company on good terms or those that have been working there for years have fewer reasons to complain and are less likely to leave a review.
Choosing a workplace is not easy, especially when it’s your first “real job” in a foreign country. There is a general consensus of what the word “black company” means, but the concrete definition of the term varies from person to person. It can be difficult to draw the lines between your “outsider standards”, “Japanese normality” and things that are deemed undesirable or unacceptable even in Japan.
While precautions might spare you from the worst of the worst, they can only take you so far. Try to get to know the companies you apply to as well as possible and get a clear image of what working there looks like (e.g. through internships and part-time jobs). If possible, get multiple job offers to ensure that your “ticket to Japan” doesn’t end up hinging on a sketchy job.