Teaching In Japan: If You’re Not In a Union, You’re Throwing Money Away


Many individuals who choose to come to Japan do so for only a short period of time. Many believe joining a union isn’t of any use to them, and they may not even be aware they can join. However, one of the first actions an assistant language teacher or eikaiwa teacher (yes, even a JET Programme teacher!) should do is join a union.

I’ll put this out there immediately, I am a member of a union, and indeed I am an executive of a union, but I’m not trying to “sell” anyone on joining my union (although it would be awesome if you did!). Instead, if I desire to persuade readers of anything (especially current or potential teachers coming to Japan), it is that unions are the best way to help others and help others help you in case of common employment problems in Japan.

Now, let’s be clear. Unions are not insurance schemes. Unions are not a service that you pay dues for to call on in case your situation goes south. Your case officer or your union officers are not the Union. This is a common misunderstanding of what unions are and what unions do. Unions are groups of workers that work to improve the conditions of all workers. That means EVERYONE. YOU ARE THE UNION. 

So let’s get the standard transactional stuff out of the way here (you no doubt started reading this because of the click-bait headline, which was the point). Yes, if you successfully organise your workplace, then OF COURSE, you will have the numbers and the power to successfully negotiate for better working conditions, salaries, and benefits. Of course, we want that to happen. However, it doesn’t happen quickly, and it relies on the general state of unionisation. YES, IN GENERAL. This means, even if you are purely driven by your own interest, the best way to help yourself is by helping others organise. But I hope that’s not your only interest.

“But, Kat,” I hear you say, “I only think I’m going to be here for a year or two, what can really do?”

A lot. You can do an awful lot. By joining a union and convincing your coworkers that it is in our collective interest to join a union, you shift the power towards workers as a whole. In our current system of “free” (I would use a different word) “markets,” if there are enough competitors for your position who are non-organised and thus believe they are forced to “accept” lower compensation, then you may not be offered a position or you may be unfairly terminated. Of course, we can, and we will, fight this. However, it’s much better if in order to meet labor requirements, employers are generally confronted by a highly unionised work force. It means you’re very hard to replace, as you will not replaced by another union member, because other union members have your back. This is called SOLIDARITY.

You yourself as an individual may not be that interested in bettering working conditions for yourself if you plan to be a temporary worker in Japan. I understand that. However, you probably consider yourself a decent person, I hope, who cares about the plights of others. If so, then know that your lack of union status, and your willingness to take lower compensation due to your transience, harms everyone else across your workplace, your industry, and labor as a whole. Your presence in the union may be a small one and a temporary one, but by taking a slot and making it a union slot, you make it better for all other workers.

And of course, if during your stay, something does go wrong, then you are already part of the union. You will already have experience with collective bargaining and collective action. You will already know how to and how not to respond to management. You will already have a support structure. Although the union I am in offers a great deal of help to any worker that comes to us, often times, it can be too late to make as much of a difference as we wish to do. The worst time to join a union is after you already have a problem. The best time to join a union is when your working conditions are relatively good, and that gives you the power to help others fight their battles. As, of course, they would for you.

If you have heard stories about how the JET Programme used to pay very high rates and offer more perks or benefits, and that teaching English twenty or thirty years ago was compensated at a much higher rate, that was true. And that’s been true of many industry sectors in Japan. It’s also true of other direct hire positions and eikaiwa positions. This is precisely because of “casualisation of work.” Particulary due to continued fractionalism by way of dispatch companies, usually engaged in “fake outsourcing.” Depending on how they do so, these companies are often in violation of the literal letter of the law. Certainly they violate the spirit of the law when it comes to the goal of turning temporary workers into fully employed regular workers.

This has been allowed to happen because increased competition amongst companies and management has led to a continued devaluing of labor. This also has significantly dropped the quality of the work force, which harms coworkers and students. Organised labor, specifically through unions, creates a counter balance to by forcing companies, boards of education, and schools to compete for labor in a way that produces fair, reasonable, and living compensation.

So if you think you’re just lucky to even have a job, but wouldn’t it be nice to have had the older levels of compensation, know you’ve only been offered that level of compensation because the workers have been successfully divided. With organised labor, you can be part of the fix, so that not only will your own levels of compensation rise, if you intend to stay, but you will also ensure for others in the future that the compensation they are forced to “accept” is not even lower than yours.

Please consider joining a union in Japan, such as Tokyo General Union and fight for all workers–including yourself.



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