Unpaid Internships in Japan - A Scam!

Will Work For FreeA few days ago (at the time of writing), James from ALTInsider came across an unpaid "Internship in Japan: Assistant English Teacher (Instructor)" position being offered by GoAbroad.com (the placement company) on behalf of Little Star Co, Ltd (the host company).

Being the curious type, this lead James to ask the General Union the kind of question that we're (unfortunately) all too used to dealing with:

"So, this is illegal... right?"

Here's what the placement looked like:

 Little Star Co, Ltd, is looking for enthusiastic, energetic individuals interested in exploring a new culture in Asia.

The school offers internship positions throughout the year.

Interested applicants are advised to send in their résumé with a photo of themselves.

Apply now and enjoy an exciting cultural experience.

Program Highlights
• Get a guaranteed internship placement.
• Have an exciting cultural experience.
• Take part in a Japanese language program.
• Benefit from the career coaching, insurance and fully furnished accommodation included in the program.
• Get the chance to land a full-time position upon completion of the program.

Program Duration
3-6 Months, 1-2 Years, 7-12 Months, 9-12 Weeks, Multiple Year

Cost in USD per week
Contact Provider for Cost Details

Program Includes:
* provide you an accommodation and transportation cost from the place of work, and other incidental work-related costs

Salary & Compensation
This is "un-paid during internship" program 


To answer James's question, unpaid internships of this nature are illegal for three reasons:

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1: THEY INVOLVE LABOR

In Japan, work is work, and work must be paid for.

This is set out in Article 11 of the Labor Standards Act:

Article 11
In this Act, wage means the wage, salary, allowance, bonus and every other payment to the worker from the employer as remuneration for labor, regardless of the name by which such payment may be called.


The definition of "work" in Japan is fairly unambiguous: something as simple as lifting a pencil can be determined as "work" if you're doing it on behalf of someone else; writing notes is work; chatting with students is work; walking to and from different classes is work.

Therefore, if someone wants to offer a legal unpaid internship, they have to be VERY careful about what activities they allow the intern in question to be involved with while taking part in the internship program.

The Tomohiko Akiyama Legal Office in Saitama explains it as follows:

 In the case she does internship at your company, her activity in your company is considered as "internship", not "labor".

Legally speaking, her activity is for the purpose of "study" and it is not for "labor".

So, your company can not ask her [for] practical business.

If she engages in practical business, [an] employee needs to accompany her and instruct her.

She can not engage in dealing with customers.

Even if she makes some documents or materials, your company cannot use it for your business.

If your company uses it for business, her activity is regarded as "labor".

[The n]ecessary process is different on whether your company pays salary for her or not. 

- How To Hire An Intern In Japan From Overseas
- Tomohiko Akiyama Legal Office


In short, unless the internship is a strictly "watch and learn" experience, anything the intern does will need to be paid for.

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2: THEY DON'T PROVIDE REMUNERATION FOR LABOR

While this and the first reason are generally two sides of the same coin, it's important to note that "doing work when you're not supposed to" and "not being paid for work that you've done" are still two different issues.

Again, looking at back at Article 11 of the Labor Standards Act, the law requires "remuneration for labor, regardless of the name by which such payment may be called".

In this specific case, it shouldn't be controversial to state that an "Assistant English Teacher" position is going to involve labor (and lots of it) - labor that, by law, needs to be paid for.

Now, some might say that although the position is unpaid, the host company does include compensation, and perhaps that compensation should be accepted in lieu of financial remuneration.

Setting aside the fact that things such as "transportation allowance" and "meal refunds" are not at all equal to an actual salary, compensation in lieu of financial remuneration is also illegal.

To illustrate this point, back in 2016, both the operators of a hostel in Hokkaido and some of their guests were arrested over suspected immigration law violations after it was discovered that they were allowing guests to stay at the hostel for free as compensation for doing domestic work at the hostel.

 According to Hokkaido police, the three people from Tokyo-based Manryo Inc., which operates the Khaosan Sapporo Family Hostel, allegedly canceled a ¥2,000 accommodation fee per stay for at least two female tourists, from China and Malaysia.

In return, the women worked three hours a day doing bed-making and cleaning.


The two female guests were arrested during a police raid on Tuesday.

They told the police that they had acknowledged the deal was illegal but that it was OK as no exchange of cash was involved, investigators said. 


- Arrests At Hokkaido Hostel After Customers Found Working As Maids
- Japan Times


Even in the unlikely even that a host company was providing accommodation for the intern, this compensation is not an acceptable replacement for actual financial remuneration.

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3: THEY DON'T PROVIDE THE CORRECT VISA FOR LABOR (OR ANY VISA AT ALL)

An obvious red flag in regards to the legality of an internship (paid or otherwise) is that few (if any) placement companies mention what kind of visa an intern will need to take part in the program - nor the steps and/or qualifications that will be required to apply for such a visa.

There's a convenient lie behind this curious omission - one that interninjapan.com shamelessly runs with:

Q. How does the visa work?
A. Because the internships are unpaid you can enter with a tourist visa. This [is] seen as a voluntary activity.

Q. What kind of visa do I need?
A. If your internship is unpaid, you are allowed to work with a tourist visa. This is seen, by the Japanese government, as volunteer work.


The claim that someone doesn't need a visa because they're "volunteering" as part of a "tourism" experience is quite an incredible way to convince someone to willingly work for free.

The additional claim that this "volunteering" is seen as being a legitimate way to circumvent both labor law and immigration law is also quite remarkable.

Now, it's true that the government will generally permit some forms of "designated activites" that can be performed as a temporary vistor to the country - business trips and international conferences being a good example of a "tourist" who is generally performing work on behalf of an international company while in Japan.

However, there is a distinct difference between a "business trip" that a foreign company is paying for and actually physically living and working in Japan (while not paying taxes).

The problem, of course, is that if someone has paid several hundreds of thousands of yen to a placement company to work for free while in Japan on a short-term stay visa, it's unlikely that they're going to go to an immigration office and complain about it.

If someone were to do that, not only would they be throwing away the hundreds of thousands of yen that they'd already paid to a placement company, it would be like walking into an immigration office with a big "DEPORT ME" sign above their head.

Likewise, it's unlikely that the companies that are raking in such cash are going to have a change of heart and confess that they've been very bad and need to be punished.

This ignorance of the law combined with this "mutually assured destruction" is what allows people to be exploited by companies that want to exploit them.

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SERIOUSLY THOUGH, IT'S A HUGE SCAM

There's also the point to be made that these unpaid internships are not free.

In most cases, the intern is expected to pay the placement company a "service fee" in order to be placed at a host company.

According to ICC World (another placement company), in addition to an application fee of ¥54,000, an intern might expect to pay anywhere between ¥270,000 for a 3-to-4 week internship and ¥540,000 for a 21-to-24 week internship.

Yes, you read that correctly:

An intern might be expected to pay almost ¥600,000 to a placement company as a "service fee" so that they can go and work for a company for free for six months.

As we also previous stated, while "perks" such as "transportation allowance" and "meal refunds" might be offered, it's unlikely that accommodation will be provided to the intern for free - for example, interninjapan.com states that accommodation is available "from $600".

For a 24 week internship, that's ¥600,000 in non-refundable placement fees plus ¥384,000 in accommodation fees before you start adding any other utility bills or costs of living - all for the "chance" (not guarantee!) of landing a job at the end of it.

Not a bad racket if you want to make some easy money.

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HOW DO THEY GET AWAY WITH IT?

If unpaid internships of the "work for free" kind of such illegal scams, how do the companies manage to get away with it?

As we mentioned, there is a form of "mutual self destruction" that prevents anyone from fully cracking down on these issues.

The exploited intern (with more money than sense) is unlikely to complain about the situation because they've already invested anywhere between ¥300,000 and ¥600,000 in non-refundable fees in order to take part in an "internship program" with a slim chance of getting a full-time job at the end of it.

Complaining about the situation is likely to take that chance from "slim" to "none".

This assumes that an intern will even be aware of Japanese law to begin with - after all, many will be convinced that, because they are "volunteering", the law doesn't apply to them.

As for the placement company, by maintaining their stance as a middle-man between the intern and the actual host company, they're able to skirt legal responsibility because they're not directly involved in any illegalities per se.

We also have to consider what protections these unpaid intern have during their stay in Japan.

If the host company decides to cut ties with the "intern" or otherwise ends the "internship program" early, what recourse does the intern (who is, for all intents and purposes, just a tourist) have?

As we've noted, any attempt to complain about the situation will likely see the intern losing all of their money and being deported.

You'll notice that in all of these considerations, the only real loser is the intern.

If you know someone who has enough money to be able to hand over ¥600,000 to a placement company AND pay upwards of ¥60,000 per month for accommodation AND survive in Japan for six months without any form of income, let them know that they'd be better off doing ANYTHING with that money other than paying one company for the chance to work for free for another company.

They might even consider donating some money to a worthy cause instead!


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