Ten Labor Laws Everyone Should Know in Japan

Feb 10, 2016

In fact, you could face an issue a hundred times and never know that what you were (proverbially) looking at was aberrant.

For comparison, think of the myriad of medical issues that people endure, day after day, ignorant of how deadly those medical issues might be. Ignoring the suspicious lump because it’s probably nothing, only to later find out that it’s a tumor; dismissing the unusual mole, only to later discover that it’s cancerous; discounting that intermittent pain that just won’t go away, only to later learn that it’s heart disease.

Consider, also, the various non-medical problems that people often overlook until they become unavoidable. The car with a rattle that eventually turns into engine problems; the PC that seems to incoherently reset itself until the power supply unit eventually dies; the leak in the roof that ultimately leads to the ceiling crashing down, bathroom and all.

It’s not enough to be able to solve a problem – you have to be aware of the problem, first.

Education remains one of the General Union’s main tenets. We want to empower people with the understanding that what they might be experiencing isn’t normal, isn’t fair, and that they don’t have to stand for it. With that understanding, we can work together to tackle these issues and make life better for everyone.

To that end, here are nine laws from the Labor Standards Act, and one law from the Civil Code, that we think everyone should be aware of.


01. Article 3 – Equal Treatment

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.

What is it?
This is Japan’s main anti-discrimination law, prohibiting an employer from discriminating against someone just because of the country that they’re from, the color of their skin, or their social background.

Is your employer paying you less than your American counterpart, just because you’re from the Philippines, even though you’re doing the same job with the same hours? Invoke Article 3.


02. Article 4 – Principle of Equal Wages for Men and Women

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.

What is it?
This is the gender equality law, prohibiting an employer from engaging in gender discrimination, more commonly known as the “gender pay gap”.

Unfortunately, while this is a large problem all across the world, it seems especially engrained within Japanese corporate culture, although things do seem to be getting better with growing awareness and new generations of Japanese entering the workforce.

Are you a woman who is being paid less than your male counterpart, even though you’re doing the same job, with the same hours? That’s illegal.

Additionally, this law could ostensibly be invoked to tackle sexism in the workplace (for example, forcing female workers to make coffee for the men).


03. Article 5 – Prohibition of Forced Labor

An employer shall not force workers to work against their will by means of physical violence, intimidation, confinement, or any other unfair restraint on the mental or physical freedom of the workers.

What is it?
Have you ever heard of “power harassment”? In English, we would call it “abuse of power” or just simply “workplace bullying”.

As Japan Intercultural explains it, “The specific power harassment behaviors might include yelling at a subordinate, belittling them, criticizing them harshly in front of others, assigning unpleasant or boring tasks, or excluding them from group activities or the mainstream of work.”

Regrettably, this is another one of those issues that is prevalent in Japanese corporate culture, exacerbated by the psychological stress of long-working hours, and the demoralizing effects of a declining economy.

It also fits within the framework of having to “understand that a problem is a problem” before it can be tackled.

As Japan Intercultural adds, “For many Japanese, the only kind of management style they have ever experienced is one in which subordinates are treated harshly and no complaints are tolerated. This makes the nightmare boss seem normal, and those who have never had a different role model for management style find themselves falling back on the old methods.”

Power harassment is a big problem. It is, however, also illegal, and you don’t have to stand for it.


04. Article 6 – Elimination of Intermediate Exploitation

Unless permitted by act, no person shall obtain profit by intervening, as a business, in the employment of others.

What is it?
Have you ever looked at your contract and discovered a clause that says that you are not allowed to seek employment with a different company after you quit, or that you’re not allowed to pursue any additional work at all, at any time, without the company’s approval? Surprise, that’s illegal!

Simply put, you have the freedom to work for whomever you want, whenever you want to, wherever that might be.

You don’t have to seek approval from a manager or even tell anyone about your second job (well, except the tax office), because it’s none of their business.

If you’re also fortunate enough to be offered a direct hire position by the very same Board of Education that you were previously to, this law also prevents your former dispatch company from complaining about it.


05. Article 16 – Prohibition of Predetermined Compensation

An employer shall not make a contract which fixes in advance either a sum payable to the employer for breach of contract or an amount of compensation for damages.

What is it?
In an attempt to intimidate people, some companies will claim that an employee will be subject to a fixed penalty (often equal to one month’s worth of salary, but sometimes more) if that employee decides that they want to quit their job and work for someone else. This can be considered to be the “quit at your own peril” clause.

In more extreme cases, a company might tout such as a clause as a means to coerce employees into doing whatever a contract or a manager told them to do, no matter how illegal that order might be.

In reality, any and all such coercion is illegal.


06. Article 18 – Compulsory Savings

An employer shall not require a contract for savings or make a contract to take charge of savings incidental to the labor contract.

What is it?
Essentially, this law prohibits a company from telling you that you HAVE to open an account with a specific bank, and that they will ONLY pay your salary to that bank, usually because doing so will save them some money.

It might seem like a trivial issue, but this is a practice that a lot of companies engage in, often to the annoyance of people who don’t know that it’s illegal for the company to force them to open new bank accounts if they want to get paid, resulting in them having various accounts at different banks with money all over the place.

The company has to pay your salary (and any other forms of monetary compensation) to a bank of your choosing. They cannot make it a contractual requirement that you have to agree to let them pay to a bank of their choosing.


07. Article 18-2 – Restrictions on the Dismissal of Workers

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

What is it?
One of the strongest labor laws in Japan, Article 18-2 prevents an employer from dismissing an employee based on whatever whim the company feels like. In effect, it requires that a company has to have a VERY GOOD REASON to want to fire you.

For example, an employer cannot fire you because the manager doesn’t like you very much. An employer cannot fire you because you broke some arbitrary rule that the company was using to manipulate you. An employer cannot fire you because they have decided that you are not good at your job.

Suffice to say, companies hate this law, but there isn’t much they can do about it. Please note that this doesn’t protect “bad workers”, but rather protects everyone from flagrant abuses of power. It is still possible for a company to dismiss an employee for doing something extreme (such as breaking the law or causing a serious accident), but they can’t just make up a reason to fire someone based on frivolous reasons.


08. Article 19 (1) – Restrictions on the Dismissal of Workers

An employer shall not dismiss a worker during a period of absence from work for medical treatment with respect to injuries or illnesses suffered in the course of employment nor within 30 days thereafter, and shall not dismiss a woman during a period of absence from work before and after childbirth in accordance with the provisions of Article 65 nor within 30 days thereafter; provided, however, that this shall not apply in the event that the employer pays compensation for discontinuance in accordance with Article 81 nor when the continuance of the enterprise has been made impossible by a natural disaster or other unavoidable reason.

What is it?
In a nutshell, Article 19 states that a company may not dismiss an employee if that employee is absent from work due to illness, and cannot dismiss a woman for being pregnant, during the term of that illness/pregnancy, and not for thirty days AFTER that illness/pregnancy.

Essentially, it prevents an employer from replacing someone while they are ill or pregnant.


09. Article 24・(2) – Payment of Wages

Wages shall be paid at least once a month at a definite date; provided, however, that this shall not apply to extraordinary wages, bonuses, and the like which will be defined by Ordinance of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (referred to as “special wages etc.” in Article 89).

What is it?
Simply put, if you do work, you must be paid for that work. In addition, you must be paid for work on a set date, without exception.

There are some companies which claim (and still claim) that if you do not do what you are told, then you won’t get paid. Alternatively, if you don’t do what you are told, then your salary may be subject to a sinister-sounding “delay”.

This is illegal, and you may remember that the General Union recently lodged a protest with Interac after one of their “Head Teachers” effectively threatened that failure to submit records of work on time would result in an entire BRANCH of employees not being paid on time.

You might also recall that the General Union managed to get an apology from Interac, too. This should demonstrate that this law has teeth, and is not to be dismissed lightly.


10. Civil Code, Article 627 (1) – Offer to Terminate Employment with Indefinite Term

If the parties have not specified the term of employment, either party may request to terminate at any time. In such cases, employment shall terminate on the expiration of two weeks from the day of the request to terminate.

What is it?
Finally, we take a look at a very important law from the Civil Code. This law makes it clear that, should an employee wish to leave their job, they only have to give two weeks of notice to their company.

Note that that is two weeks FROM the request to terminate. It is not two weeks AFTER a company makes you go to the office and sign a document.

It is also important to note that a lot of companies write their own rules into the clauses of contracts. For example, one large dispatch company claims that you must give them one month of notice, and that you have to follow that rule because it is in the contract that you signed.

What the contract says, and what the company says, is completely irrelevant.

A contract can claim that you have to give them one month, three months, one year, or a million years, for all that it matters.

Two weeks is the LAW, and the law is the absolute authority, regardless of what your manager might claim.

The only real exception to this rule is that an employer does have the right to dismiss an employee during the first fourteen days of their employment, known as the “probation period” (Article 21).


With these laws in mind, and armed with the knowledge of the rights that they provide, the General Union hopes that you’ll be well equipped to deal with any problems that you encounter in the future, and maybe even recognize problems that surround you right now.

If you do find yourself troubled by problems that go against the laws that are in place to prevent them from happening, please don’t feel that you have to handle them alone. Contact the General Union, and let us know what problems you’re facing. We’re here to help, so help us to help you.


Would you like to discuss legal issues, or talk about the problems that you’re facing at your place of work? Maybe you’d just like some clarification about a particular law, or more information about your rights? Contact the General Union at:


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