[OP-ED] “Make Happy”? No Thanks!

Sep 2, 2019

I was always a very active Labour Party member back home and have always been quite switched on when it comes to labor matters.

Since coming here, I have paid particular attention to foreign workers who come here, and their issues.

Consequently, I joined the General Union – albeit too late.

The experiences from both employers and employees point of view have fascinated me.

Like many others, I taught here.

During my time in Japan I worked at a language school in Gifu City, an international high school in Nagoya, and for the past two years for a dispatch center in Hiroshima teaching multiple languages.

Therefore, I have worked in the private sector with all age groups and for in-company classes.

I want to share some of my experiences with you here.

Welfare! What Welfare?

When I first arrived in Gifu, my employer told me that they didn’t pay for the most basic form of social insurance called nenkin.

They told me that this was because one needed to be enrolled for 25 years before getting anything back.

My employer at the dispatch school in Hiroshima said the same.

However, by the time I worked there, I explained that teachers could get a lump-sum back or have it added to their contributions back home.

That information is publicly available in many languages below.


It was interesting to observe how much attention to detail was paid to making sure that teachers were only paid for the time they were in classrooms, and therefore avoiding shakai hoken.

This is a level of insurance that really is a necessity for retirement and for a level of support to survive with humility should one be unlucky enough to suffer from a serious health issue.

This baffled me considering how much my employers assured me that they were straight talking and honest people.

I understand the often pointed to concepts of honne, meaning real intention, and tatamae, meaning what you show on the surface level, but that was outright misleading.

The General Union has published a lot about shakai hoken which I recommend people read.


A key problem which makes it possible for small private companies to exploit foreign workers emerges from the following:

Employees should be enrolled when they work above 30 hours, [or when they work more than 20 hours per week and earn more than 88,000 yen per month / 1,060,000 per annum, if the company has more than 500 employees who are enrolled in shakai hoken- General Union].

However, in the real world we know “official” working hours are different from actual hours, and herein lies structural failure.

Sadly, my Hiroshima/Gifu employers – like many small schools here – saw a loophole and didn’t add administration, travel, and gaps between classes as working time.

After all, it was just the way it was done!

As time went on in Japan, I discovered more and more examples like this and realized that being a part of the union was not only in my self-interest but a moral and ethical necessity.

In Hiroshima, I was never offered employment insurance; however, my employer in Hiroshima brought it up once after I mentioned it and planned to enrol us in it.

Months passed, and she simply said that since nobody else brought it up for months, it was not something she needed to enrol us in.

In a nutshell, I encountered significant resistance and apathy towards staff security.

Management was… ahem… a bit on the dodgy side!

Nemawashi in Japanese is sometimes called spadework in English.

But I found it to be a tactic used to make agreements with individuals away from others.

I have reflected on this method and conclude that it prevents transparency and therefore accountability.

Effectively, it only works if a very honest character utilizes it.

Sadly, it can allow questionable individuals to exploit freely.

Moving away from labor matters for a moment towards CPD, it was noticeable that student feedback was often hidden or shared selectively in all my jobs.

This makes it very difficult for someone like me who does research and was an active member of the Japanese Association for Learning and Teaching to develop their own understanding of the service they deliver.

Unfortunately, I have not received any continuous professional development in any of the positions here.

I never received an official review.

Indeed, the value of a teacher seemed to ebb and flow in our center in Hiroshima depending on whether we made students happy, and whether there was any negative feedback.

I never observed any clear performance targets.

Sadly, I did not really ever understand my line managers or director of studies. In Hiroshima, the Director/school owner would change her mood day-by-day and sometimes many times in the day.

I remember having a meeting with her pointing out that the holidays we received in the summer were less than those stipulated in the contract as she had included our regular weekends.

I was told that I didn’t ask in the initial interview.

When I responded explaining that I had never known a company to include weekends as holidays included in the contract, she said she didn’t care.

And added that our schedules had to line up with a Japanese energy company we taught at.

I realized that once again I was being lied to which is why I tried to raise awareness among staff.

One other time, I remember walking in to find that I hadn’t been given the correct information about a student only I had taught for a long time, and the material was also incorrect which left me hanging.

I explained to my director that I thought it was unprofessional.

She had a meeting with me and told me in a very condescending way that I must “be an adult” and “shouldn’t get angry”.

When I said she did, she said that was fine because “bosses sometimes get angry”.

That was the most explicit example of power harassment I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing.

Other members of staff in Hiroshima were also harassed.

For example, they were refused a copy of their contract but expected to sign up for an additional year.

Others were unpaid for sick days because they were too sick to go to the doctors for more than one day.

I recall one member fired ten minutes before he had classes back to back.

I am very surprised that management like this has continued for so long, but I truly believe that there are many companies in this industry in Japan, and they survive because of the silence of staff.

This was certainly the case at the international high school where I worked with around fifteen foreign teachers.

The key point is this:

We are not without rights, though some employers would have us feel and think so; and although I am very disappointed by what I have seen, I am convinced that work, the workplace and the workforce can be improved for people if they understand the pivotal role that unions play, and actively learn and share facts about the industry they work in.

Negotiations were limited but sometimes worked!

Thanks to the positive feedback I received in Hiroshima, I had some negotiation capital with the Director.

I was able to secure balancing days for Tuesday to Saturday staff that always lost public holidays because they tend to fall on Mondays.

I also managed to convince in a sadly indirect way that nenkin at the very least is important which led to limited, but some contributions.

Not ideal, but something!

Other activities were ignored by the Director.

Teachers at the aforementioned school in Hiroshima have to bike across busy streets with no insurance with unrealistic commuting gaps between classes.

It is dangerous and since the Director and admin staff had bad biking accidents, completely irrational.

Health and safety wasn’t something taken seriously, and I recall one teacher being encouraged to cycle in the rain.

I didn’t even know there was a fire escape in our main office until over a year of working there.

Bottom line: both employers and employees need to get real!

There are many problems where it comes to getting the right staff at the right time, and I can genuinely sympathize with some of the challenges employers face.

I understand that the visa process means that it takes time to secure teachers and there are dangers of staff dropping out.

However, that is not a reason to treat temporary staff like pieces of meat.

Furthermore, there are basic checks that my employers didn’t do that I find genuinely perplexing.

The immigration service doesn’t check an applicant’s criminal background, and that potentially puts vulnerable people at danger.

This is totally unacceptable and should be considered within a company’s duty of care.

Alas, like health and safety it doesn’t even seem a mere afterthought.

In terms of basic awareness of rights, I still meet people who have worked in Japan for ten years or more who are unaware that they should and can be enrolled on a permanent contract after five years of employment.

One person who fell into this category and complained about it simply said he didn’t bother with the union when it comes to this subject as it was “toothless”.

However, so many examples can be seen where the union has protected staff and safeguarded them from exploitation.

This assumption that working together is not important or effective must keep being challenged.

Like Thatcherism in the UK, there is a nasty individualism that encourages greed; however, it simply takes away labor rights by failing to encourage collaboration.

I have no doubt that with the right information, many people will wake up and realize that they are more secure in Japan than they think – but only if they work together!

Individualism doesn’t work.

I made mistakes, too.

I have made a fair share of mistakes such as changing jobs and not being aware that I had to alert immigration.

My employer didn’t let me know and in my ignorance, I didn’t think it was necessary.

I also more generally didn’t find out the facts about city tax or social security before coming to Japan, and once I was here, I didn’t really talk about those issues for the first year or two.

However, my biggest mistake was not joining the General Union earlier.

Without a movement like this, the black companies that I have worked for  (and larger organizations, too) can exploit staff that, thanks to high staff turnover, are unaware of their situation.

The losers include all staff, solid relationship,s and overall education standards as the baseline of expectations becomes “MAKE [X] HAPPY”.

Why join a union?

If you care about the work you do for an employer, then here is why!

The General Union and standards of service are closely intertwined even if they are focused on different objectives.

An exploited workforce that isn’t treated right will never be housed in a positive workplace and the work will become worse and worse.

Quite frankly, a union is only as powerful as the people who join it – and together working lives for all will improve.

I know that sounds condescending to those who are already in the union.

However, this is intended for potential members too who are wondering, what they should do to protect themselves and improve working conditions.

The key point is that the institutions exist to achieve those aims, but they need to be strengthened and built on by people communicating more.

I wish the General Union and future workers here and those who come to Japan the best.

It is now time for me to return to Europe.

Stay motivated.


“Please do not talk to students about holiday.
They don’t get many…”

My first boss in Gifu (who I now realize was curtailing my right to personal days)