How a Japanese “black company” broke me in 4 months

Ah, Japan, the wondrous land of anime, kawaii culture, heavenly landscapes and karoshi (literally: dying from overwork).

We all have read the articles describing the toxic work culture that’s a bit too commonplace in Japan, but just how true and prevalent is it?

Well, as someone who had their mental health and sense of self practically destroyed in a mere 4 months, I believe I have enough reason to declare that holy hell this shit is real, it’s everywhere and the situation is just as dire as it sounds.

I arrived in Japan at the naive age of 19,

spent a year in a Japanese language school and 2 years in a specialized training college majoring in graphic design. I graduated with honors in the spring of 2017 and entered the workforce in March weeks before my graduation ceremony took place.

My school had an insanely good reputation and an employment rate of over 90% which apparently was so rare an accomplishment that they would never pass up a chance to remind us of this magical metric we had to contribute to. As the 2nd and last year began, so did the job-hunting centered classes reminding you every single week of how you should be working on your portfolio, writing your resumes and applying to as many jobs as possible, because the school could not afford for its employment rate to drop. No pressure, though.

Our wonderful teachers did an outstanding job hammering in the fact that fresh design school graduates are practically worthless in the workforce and therefore actively pushed us towards applying for black companies.

A “black company” is an organization with overwhelmingly low company morale that exudes toxicity, works their employees to the bone, uses shame tactics to enforce submission, and in the end, treats them like single-use disposables.

“No high-profile agency would want or has a need for a useless newbie that can barely use InDesign,” our teachers would wisely proclaim.

And so, my fellow classmates and I were made to believe that suffering in a black company is the only way to approach the design industry as we’re inherently worthless. Not to mention the fact that the agencies are losing money hiring us, therefore we have to feel grateful and apologetic for even being offered the job in the first place.

It’s pretty interesting considering how right around that time, Dentsu, a well known and respected advertisement giant, was on a trial and under worldwide scrutiny due to the fact that an employee had committed suicide after being tragically overworked.

The case was being reported all over the media for months and thus our teachers finally addressed it, but not exactly in the way that I was hoping for. We were told that the design industry is a battlefield, only those with the nerves of steel would succeed. But in the unlikely case you were feeling, you know… sad, you should talk to someone instead of committing suicide, because how dare you cause everybody around you such trouble!

They and quite a number of people on the internet were actively putting the blame onto the poor employee for not simply quitting if it had been that bad.

People coming together to protect their beloved national heritage — the culture of karoshi. How beautifully tragic.

I was very diligent about not working for a black firm.

The majority of design agencies whose work I admired were known to be black, but no matter how much I loved the work they produced, I decided that it was in my best interest to not sell my soul to the Japanese corporate devil. I was aware that my mental health would not hold at a place like that. Luckily, most of them were pretty honest in their job postings, openly writing about the work hours so helping me in my quest to stay as far away from them as possible.

At the end of 2016, I had 3 job offers in a country where a majority of postings had the words “no foreigners” written in fine print, making that 3 job offers more than the majority of my Japanese classmates. I was proud, I was elated, but not satisfied, never satisfied.

You see, I am an obsessive perfectionist, the kind that the book “Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control” by Jeannette De Wyze talks about, the kind that is afraid of commitment and making any important decisions due to the fear that there’s something or someone better out there that we haven’t found yet, making all of our choices feel like the wrong ones right from the get-go.

And so, I was not satisfied, I kept on looking.

Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

An art student in their early twenties, I had a thing for booze and music, obviously. Not too far from my school was a music bar where all the alternative cool kids that everyone admired as a teen hung out. Oh, I loved that place, I adored it, all of the bartenders knew my name, my favorite bands, my drink of choice, and even my relationship and job hunting status. I felt like I belonged, I felt welcome, I felt at ease.

It so happened to be that the company managing the bar was an entertainment giant running 2 music bars in different locations, publishing 2 music news’ magazines every month, ran 2 music news’ media websites, held their own DJ events (where they literally just played music from YouTube while pretending to DJ but like whatever) and even owned an alternative fashion store (that carried brands like Killstar and Mishka NYC which were hard to come by in Japan).

And it also so happened to be that they were currently on the hunt for new designers eager to jump right to work.

The job posting appeared pretty normal,

work hours being slightly longer than usual, from 10 am to 8 pm, but with the words “flexible hours” beneath, so I optimistically assumed the existence of choice. The salary promised more than most companies tend to offer baby designers and on top of that, you would get a 50% discount at their bars, what a bargain!

One seemingly regular night, I mentioned to the bar manager (let’s name him “Border-transit”) that I had sent in my resume and he was kind enough to put in a good word for me.

At around 1 am the next day I received an email asking to come in for an interview.

Red flag number one.

During the interviews, I made sure to ask numerous times about the work hours. A bright smile told me that I maybe sometimes would have to work late due to the printing deadlines for their magazines. That appeared to be perfectly reasonable and made sense, the word sometimes bringing me reassurance. Okay, this isn’t a black company, I came to believe.

And hoorah, I got the job!

I was asked to start as soon as possible, even though in Japan new graduates officially start their life as productive members of society at the beginning of April. I started on the 7th of March.

And so, all excited and giddy I come in and was introduced to my direct higher-up, the lead designer (let’s name him “Shelf-ricefield”) and he talks me through the day, ending in, and I quote:

“Okay so for the time being you are to work from 10 am to 9 pm.”

“9 pm? You mean like 19:00?” I look at him dumbfounded.

“No. 9 pm,” Shelf-ricefield smirks.

Red flag number two.

Remember the absolute variety and amount of the things this company did? All the bars, events, websites, and magazines?

Their “design team” consisted of 3 people.

Shelf-ricefield, who worked on the magazine layout (that practically had a constant template and barely ever deviated from it) all-day-everyday and practically did nothing else.

A nice woman who quit a month after I came into the picture as she had been waiting for someone to replace her for over a year. I became her permission to finally escape.

And one other new hire who joined a few weeks before me and worked on video editing rather than design 85% of the time.

Yes, before me and the other new hire, there were only 2 designers, Shelf-ricefield and the nice woman.

Red flag number three.

One of the reasons why a number of corporations do not welcome foreigners

is due to the fact that the work visa application has to be done by the company, not the employee. It’s a tedious process but definitely not an undoable one, especially if you hire a lawyer to guide you. Any decent company knows that it is their responsibility, as they were the ones to decide to hire a foreigner instead of a Japanese national.

It is not on us, we’re not supposed to feel bad for the employer for having to go through the process. Oh, and being blackmailed for the fact is not an acceptable thing to have to go through, either.

If only I saw things this way 2 years ago.

I was told by the general manager that the visa application cost the company over 200,000 yen (~$1,900) which was more than I earned in a month working there. I later found out that going through a lawyer usually costs only around 60,000 yen (~$550), therefore either

a) their lawyer swindled them,

b) they had to create so many documents from scratch and correct so much paperwork due to how unprofessional they had been, that the bills racked up or

c) they simply lied to me.

Your guess is as good as mine.

I remember asking them numerous times for an official employment contract as I wanted to have an actual document in my actual hands.

Thankfully, I had to sign a contract to submit for the visa application, but they didn’t even try to hide the fact that they had lied on paper regarding the work hours and salary, so to satisfy the application requirements. Suffice to say that I never saw my copy of the contract ever again after having signed it.

On top of that, they had also lied on the job posting regarding… absolutely everything.

No health insurance, no pension payments, or any other kind of insurance for that matter, you had to apply for all of it personally and pay for it out of your own pocket and with how little I was earning, that was a pretty high hurdle to beat. With barely enough money to survive upon covering the basics such as rent, utilities, internet, and phone bills.

I have no words to describe what it felt like working there.

The best I can come up with is… hell? Torture? Something along those lines.

Every single day we would work with the background music of the boss yelling at Border-transit regarding how everything he did was shit, how stupid he was, how incompetent he was. The poor man was sleeping 3 hours a night, but he never complained. He looked genuinely happy working the bar, but sometimes you could see his expression change for a split second into something intensely sad and raw. But then he’d immediately go back to his usual cheery self as if nothing had ever happened.

When I look back now, I feel as though he was already too far gone at that point, the bar and the company had become his whole life, numbing him to the pain of others and even that of his own.

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

When the nice woman designer quit, all hell broke loose.

All of a sudden I was working over 15 hours a day, sprinting in order to make my last train, arriving home at 2 am, grabbing a bite for the first time in 13 hours, rolling around in bed until 4 am, waking up at 7 am and then repeat, repeat, repeat…

The nights I didn’t make it to my train I would get wasted at the bar complaining to Border-transit non-stop, his cheery self being the only thing that kept me going. Then I would inevitably get a taxi at 4 am and turn up for work the next morning both drunk and hungover, which Shelf-ricefield found incredibly amusing.

Shelf-ricefield practically lived at the office, nobody knew what so absolutely important he was working on, but it was a miracle when he went home.

Needless to say, his constant uchiwa fanning was an assault on everyone’s nostrils.

But Shelf-ricefield also loved verbally abusing me.

He didn’t do it to the other new hire, only me.

Considering the sheer amount of work we had to do every single day, he sure had the time to pick at every little detail, every out of place pixel, every shade of color and every possible font. Nothing I created ever made his cut.

You could see just how giddy he’d get whenever he found a reason to yell out my name making me jump, turning to face his smirk and the godforsaken uchiwa fan.

“What the fuck do you think this is?”


“The bar event date is a Sunday.”


“The event is supposed to be on Saturday.”

“I used the information I was given.”

“You didn’t even bother to check whether the date was right? Do you even think? Do you even fucking care about your work?”

Somehow such errors were all my fault, somehow spelling errors in artist interviews were my fault, somehow a band’s merchandise not arriving on time for a twitter competition was my fault. Everything was my fault.

But Golden Week was steadily approaching, a time when a number of national holidays line up giving people plenty of time to rest and get a refresher from work.

The day before the start of Golden Week, Shelf-ricefield listed the things I had to do the following day, my protests turning the air sour.

So I came in, worked for 10 hours and was preparing to leave as I had made plans weeks ago.

“Sure you go off drinking when the rest of us are still working.” Shelf-ricefield wasn’t smiling.

I left barely holding in my tears. But I left nonetheless.

I was gradually falling apart.

The toxicity of the environment, the constant alcohol dependence, the tension so thick you could practically touch it when the boss was in a bad mood, the outrageous work hours, the lack of sleep and proper nutrition, I could feel myself slipping.

With the deterioration of my mental health, came the deterioration of my physical health.

For the first time, I decided to take a sick day.

“What the fuck, you come in right this instant” my phone lit up.

“Lol if you’re so sick, you better bring in a doctor’s notice tomorrow.”

And so I did, and so he scoffed and ranted about how much he and the other new hire had to do when I was off having an undeserved break.

I felt so guilty I came into work on the weekend and logged 10+ hours of unpaid labor.

One night when I reached for my bag ready to run to my last train, Shelf-ricefield yelled out to me to return to my seat.

Trembling I turned around, dropped back in my chair and endured the worst hour of my life.

The office had become deserted by that point, with only the general manager observing the scene in silence.

I was told that I do not think when I work, that everything I make is mediocre, uninspired, amateur, worthless.

That if I continue this way I am going to stay a failure.

That I myself am just as meaningless as my designs.

He kept drilling the fact that I didn’t think, that I only did what I was told, what a pathetic excuse of a designer.

Such a designer is nothing but garbage, dust, completely worthless.

Why are you even trying? Are you even trying? Do you even care? He pressed while I was sobbing in my chair.

I tried to argue back that I do think, that I do try, that I do care.

But did he?

Hugging my backpack and with tears running down my face I watched the world turn to haze in a taxi backseat.

I am worthless… My work is amateur and mediocre.

… Why do I even try?

… Am I even trying?

… Should I even try?

… Should I even be alive?

That night broke me.

I would cry at my desk, everyone around me pretending not to notice the tears streaming down my face.

I felt sicker and sicker every day, practically alive on energy drinks and alcohol.

During this whole time I was still on very good terms with Border-transit, I would cry at the bar after work asking him if he’ll stay a friend even if I quit?

He always laughed reassuring me that there was no question about it, of course, friendship is stronger than work, silly.

I told the general manager that I wanted to quit, he invited Shelf-ricefield and the three of us had a talk.

I was told that first of all, I can’t quit because they paid for my visa. Second of all, even if I did quit, I wouldn’t be able to get another job with such a bad track record. Not only that, that I wouldn’t even be able to renew my visa in the future.

What a pile of straight-up bullshit. And yet I believed every single word. I was worthless after all, right?

Instead of any substantial change, I was turned into a part-timer with a shift ending at 9 pm.

What they failed to mention though, was that all that meant was that I’m not going to get paid for any work done after 9 pm.

And it most definitely did not mean that I was in any way actually allowed to leave at that hour, who else was going to do all the work that has been piling up along with all the new responsibilities that for some reason all fell onto me?

I asked to quit a number of times after that talk.

Shelf-ricefield asked me if I was like, mentally unstable, or something? I answered that yes, my mental state has gone downhill during my time there, but even then I was not allowed to quit as I was supposed to know what I was getting myself into when I accepted the job.

I recited what they had told me during the interview, they refuted my words with “you didn’t understand our Japanese then, because we explicitly said that everybody works long hours all the time.”

Is this what you call gaslighting? When you are being manipulated into believing that your reality is distorted, that you are remembering things wrong or imagining things that had never happened?

On Tanabata, the 7th of July

which also happened to be a Friday, I stayed until midnight clocking in my usual unpaid overtime, making sure that the magazines were ready to print before the ever-looming deadline.

That was also the last day I showed up for work.

A sleepless weekend spent weeping, fighting one panic attack after another, contemplating either this unceremonious way of quitting or well, suicide.

I was desperate, I was broken.

Sadly, it had to get worse before it got better.

It always does.

Monday morning my phone lit up.

“What in the actual fuck are you doing? I saw you quit the group chat. If you come in right this instant we’ll forgive you and laugh it off.”

With trembling hands and sobs echoing throughout the room I typed in my final answer.

“I don’t want you to laugh it off, I just want to quit, please.”

“You do realize that if you don’t show up today you’re not gonna get paid, right? Lol.”

My chest went numb. Today was payday. 5 weeks’ worth of pay, gone. No savings, rent due in a few weeks.

A fresh round of panic-attacks almost suffocates me while I bury my nails in my thighs ridden with self-harm scars.

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

The next few weeks were probably the worst time of my life.

I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, all I did was rock back and forth hugging my knees weeping my soul out or pace the room feeling numb and empty.

I wrote to Border-transit after all of this, he did promise to stay friends no matter what, so I asked if he would chase me out if I was to come to the bar.

“Who the fuck do you think you are? You call my event graphics meaningless and yet you have the fucking guts to contact me? Do you even realize in what state the company is now because of you? Fuck you, you piece of shit and may I never hear from you again. Fuck off.”

His message broke apart the freshly wounded heart that I had hurriedly taped back together, I was kicked back into the hole I was desperately trying to crawl out of.

On the last day I showed up for work, I went on a rant on twitter about how I get shit over some graphics that are so meaningless that even the bar managers themselves don’t care enough to double-check the information before passing it on to the designer.

Even though I did make every single graphic on time, made every single tiny adjustment I was asked for, in the end, I’m treated like a heathen for calling the graphics themselves meaningless?

Not to mention the constant barrage of messages telling me that I was worthless, yet the moment I disappear, the company is in disarray?

You mean to tell me that the company is in a horrible state because a new graduate who worked there for 4 measly months, quit?

Sounds more like a you-problem, if I’m being honest.

It took me months, numerous trips to the labor bureau

and the support of people around me until I was able to look at this whole situation in a more objective way.

I submitted every email exchange I could get my hands on, pages upon pages of personal conversation recounted to the lawyers at the labor bureau. Unfortunately, I was informed that I would lose the case if was to take it to court due to insufficient evidence, so I gave up. In no way was I in a mental state stable enough for a difficult fight in court.

When I invoiced the company for the last 5 weeks’ pay and 4 months’ worth of overtime, I received a message from Shelf-ricefield.

“Wow you sure have the guts to do something like this, I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

They refused to pay the full amount of my invoice thus triggering a call from the labor bureau and getting blacklisted in the government system in case another employee reached out to file a claim.

I still received less than half of what I had invoiced due to the lack of evidence, but hey, at least I never heard from Shelf-ricefield again.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

So, what’s the moral?

Know your worth, know your contracts, know your rights, know your law.

Don’t let anyone blackmail you into submission, trust your gut and look out for attempts at gaslighting.

Tell those around you what you’re going through as you might be too far gone to realize just how fucked the situation you’re in actually is.

Don’t let others undermine you, don’t take shit from anyone.

And especially my fellow creators out there, don’t ever let anyone destroy your creative spirit like this.

I know that whoever ends up reading this to the very end will have found numerous instances where I should have taken a different course of action, where my inexperience and naivety lead me to faulty judgments. But don’t worry, I am well aware of just how badly I fucked up as I still live with this trauma every darn day.

More than 2 years down the line, I still flinch whenever my name is called out from behind me, I still have a hard time trusting higher-ups and people’s promises.

I’m still struggling to rediscover the passion and curiosity I had for design before it got torn to shreds.

Why am I talking about this more than 2 years later anyway?

You see, for the past few months, I have been feeling immensely creatively blocked which has become quite a hindrance to my work.

Looking for help, I picked up Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.”

The tasks for Week 1 were to write out your monsters and one particular horror story from your past. I chose the night I was reduced to dust, the night that officially broke me.

Another task asked us to imagine what our lives and professions were to be in alternative lives and to live it out for the week. I chose to be a writer and thus this post was born.(Is anyone surprised that I’m not a writer in this life, pfft?)

These exercises helped me realize just how much my self-condescending talk consisted of the exact phrases Shelf-ricefield used on me.

More than 2 years later I finally realized just how deeply ingrained his words were and just how much I had internalized it.

Looking back on it and reading the stories I had submitted to the labor bureau, I started sobbing like a child. It’s been more than 2 years, I’m in a completely different and a far better place in my life, why am I crying?

The wounds haven’t healed yet it seems, the abuse and toxicity I endured for a mere 4 months still holding me tight casting influence on how I act, react and treat myself to this very day.

But I am doing better and I am moving forward.

I needed to do this in order to give myself some peace of mind.

I do not wish such an experience on anyone.

4 months was all it took to drive me closer to suicide than I am comfortable admitting.

4 months was all it took to reduce my creative confidence to absolute nothing and inflict me with wounds deeper than I had first realized.

So please, know your worth, don’t let people treat you however they please. Nobody deserves such abuse and suffering.

Except for Shelf-ricefield.

Fuck you Shelf-ricefield, and do yourself and others a favor, go take a shower.

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