The Internet TESL Journal

TEFL Labour Issues in Japan

Brett Reynolds
patch [at]


"So what enables . . . a wise military leadership to overcome others and achieve exraordinary accomplishments is foreknowledge." - Sun Tzu

For more than the last ten years, Japan has been known as a place where native speakers of English could show up and get good paying teaching jobs with very little by way of qualifications. The bursting of the 'bubble' economy in the late 80's has put a new face on this, primarily, because it has been much harder for the schools to enroll students. Hundreds of small schools and even a number of large chain schools have gone under since then, and those that survived have had to become much leaner and meaner.

Despite the drop off in the number of people coming to Japan to look for language teaching jobs, there is still a regular flow of new faces who have very little or no idea of what to expect. But it is not only the recent arrivals who are ignorant of the language, their rights and responsibilities, the labour conditions and the law. In many cases, people who have been teaching for years in Japan have only a similarly vague notion of their entitlements and what recourse is available to them if their rights are violated. Even the language schools themselves, especially the smaller ones, have little or no idea about the laws.

I recently went through a battle with my employer over the question of paid annual leave (PAL), during which I was ignored, misinformed, dismissed, and eventually reinstated. In the end, the employer admitted the right of some teachers to PAL as stipulated in Article 39 of the labour standards law of Japan. I learned a great deal from the experience and I would like to share my story with other teachers.


". . . those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are the best of all." - Sun Tzu

I first brought up the matter over a year ago. At that time I was flatly told that the school's policy did not provide for PAL. Since I was not aware of the law then, I stated my belief that PAL should be available and went on with my job. I brought the matter up at appropriate times in the course of the year but the story I got from management always changed to fit the circumstances. It gradually became clear that management did not know the laws either.

I realized how important it is to have concrete information about the existing laws and their provisions, but I was at a loss about how to find a copy of those laws, let alone in English. Finally, through the JALTCALL e-mail list, I learned from Thom Simmons that you can get an English copy of the labour laws of Japan by contacting the Institute of Labour Administration (Romu Gyosei Kenkyuusho). Although the laws are open to interpretation by the courts, reading them will give you a fair understanding of the basics. I found them surprisingly readable and was able to get a good idea of the relevant sections in just one evening.

Keeping Cool

The received wisdom for getting along in Japanese companies is not to rock the boat. Books have been written on the topic and I am hardly an expert but in my opinion, if you follow this advice, you are unlikely to run into any major problems. You will also be unlikely to achieve much that is worthwhile. Language schools are looking for new ideas to survive in these though times. As a result, someone who is making useful and effective proposals has a fair chance to be seen as an asset. But rocking the boat in effective ways, at the right time, and for the right purpose is something that takes thought, patience and a bit of practice. Although I made many appropriate suggestions, comments and criticisms, at one point during the year I got quite angry at the lack of response and wrote a very sarcastic note which put me on a bad footing.

This showed me very clearly where my imprudence would lead me and that, if I was going to bring up labour issues, I would have to avoid giving the management any excuse to ignore me. A timely e-mail message arrived from Etsuo Kobayashi on the topic of tatemae (official stance, as opposed to real stance) citing an example of a family discussing a trip to Disneyland.

They even criticize your manner of speech, to direct the discussion into a different way, to make the point vague, especially when the other side are making a point. 'Sh**! Last time you said you would take me to Disney Land tomorrow. You never take me there. F***!' 'You have to watch your mouth. You have to know that it is something we need to discuss before talking about Disney Land.'

Another message from Milan Davidovic encouraged me to keep my cool and suggested reading the Taoist classic, The Art Of War by Sun Tzu, a book that is often viewed as the authority on conflict and one which proved very helpful.

Being Aggressive

"In battle, confrontation is done, directly, victory is gained by surprise." - Sun Tzu

My dismissal (ostensibly for other reasons which had never been discussed with me) came when I told the school I had a copy of the law, presented them with a list of perceived violations and said that I was going to discuss this with the other teachers. At this point I knew that I was acting in an inflammatory way but I was very careful not to do anything that would be improper such as discuss the situation with students. I feel confident that this tactic, though aggressive, was necessary.

Having been dismissed, I made a point of contacting all the other teachers and support staff in my school and letting them know what was going on. I also put the word out through the internet and by any other means that I could. I contacted the media, the National Union of General Workers, Tokyo South and The Labour Standards Office in the ward where the school is based. Then I let the school know what I was up to.

Coming Together

The adage about strength in numbers proved to be true. Although a few teachers felt uncomfortable at the prospect of conflict with the school, I was buoyed by the number that backed me and made favourable comments in informal discussions with management. Some even helped to organize a meeting and sat with me in discussions there. There is no doubt that their contribution was vital to the outcome of this affair. Milan Davidovic made another particularly apt comment about forming a union.

...starting the union before starting the battle would have been an easier way to go about things. However, because the pattern of forming a union has already been established as a way of preparing to confront an administration over their policies or practices, this could be interpreted by any given administration as a 'troop mobilization' of sorts.

How then to organize unthreateningly? One possibility is looking temporarily away from building solidarity among teachers for the purpose of dealing with questionable administrative policies and practices, and instead focusing on building solidarity for the purpose of improving teaching. As has been pointed out many times in the literature, teaching is an isolated activity;

The Meeting

". . . a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle;" - Sun Tzu

In the final meeting with management, I believe a number of things were critical in my success. First, I apologized for any errors I had made in the way I went about this and said that I had made every effort to act in a fair, honest and appropriate fashion. Furthermore, I said that I had no interest in hurting the school. Second, I let them do most of the talking, saying little myself. I also had good records of everything I had done which I produced as needed to support my position. And finally, the meeting was almost entirely conducted in Japanese. This obviously depends on the level of your Japanese but I believe that it raised my standing in their eyes.


Primarily I would suggest that all foreign teachers in Japan should endeavour to form alliances with other teachers, both in their school and outside, primarily to discuss teaching issues but also as a contingency against labour problems. Second, I would encourage everyone to get a copy of "The Labour Laws of Japan". If you are going to approach management with labour complaints, you should prepare for the chance that you will be attacked and possibly dismissed.

Stay cool, study The Art of War, study your Japanese, follow appropriate channels and keep a diary of every meeting and copies of all correspondence. Tell everybody you can think of and cross your fingers. In meetings, a well-worded tatemae apology will work wonders. There are times when being a foreigner and applying aggressive Western approaches can work to your advantage but there is also a time to sit back and listen inscrutably.

As the market gets tighter, these disputes will likely be occuring with more and more frequency, but if you are reasonable in your demands and well prepared, you have a fair chance of winning.


You can get a copy of the Labour Laws of Japan 1990 from the Institute of Labour Administration. (Romu Gyosei Kenkyuusho). The whole book is 8,000 yen but they will send you a copy of the relevant sections for about 1,300 yen. Their address is:

c/o Rosei Bldg. No. 4-2, 1-chome, Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo Fax (03) 3584-1698

Mr. Takasu Hideki, Secretary General, National Union of General Workers, Tokyo South. Matsumoto Building 5F, 3-21-7 Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo-to 105. Phone (03) 3434-0669

Thom Simmons, Nihon University; KTUF, JALT National N-SIG Representative 2-28-10-303 Morigaoka, Isogoku, Yokohama 235 Fax (045) 845-8242, e-mail malang [at]

The local Ward office will be able to tell you how to contact the appropriate Labour Standards Office.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 5, May 1996