Updated June 5, 2024

What is power harassment and what you can do: A comprehensive guide


Matcha Verte

Japan Dev contributor

One unfortunate reality of some Japanese workplaces is abuses of power and workplace bullying, referred to as “power harassment” (パワハラ). But how is power harassment defined and what can you do if you run into it yourself? 

Bullying is something that you can run into on the job anywhere in the world. Some people let power go to their heads. But as a foreigner in Japan, you may not know what crosses the legal line or what to do if you encounter it. 

Here I’ll cover the legal definition of power harassment in Japan and some tips for handling it. I will not be covering other types of harassment.  

Keep in mind that these issues do not exist in every workplace. The companies posted on Japan Dev have all been hand-picked as the best fit for foreign workers. 

Still, knowledge is power! If you’re worried a coworker is crossing the line and affecting your work or the work of others, let this be your guide. And of course, don’t behave this way yourself, either!


1. What is power harassment? 

Power harassment is workplace bullying or “abuse of power.” Japanese law defines power harassment as fulfilling all the following requirements: 

Comments or actions that…

・Take advantage of a power imbalance in a relationship

・Surpass what is required or appropriate for the job

・Damage the working environment for employees

The six representative types of harassment and some examples:

1. Physical Violence: 

assault or injury

Punches or kicks

Throwing items

2. Psychological Agressions: 

threats, defamation, insults, abusive language

Comments denying personhood, including comments about sexuality or gender identity

Scolding for an unnecessarily long period of time

3. Workplace Isolation:

isolation, exclusion, shunning

A group of coworkers singling out and ignoring one employee  

4. Excessive Demands:

Clearly unnecessary requests, enforcement of impossible tasks, interfering with work duties

Setting unrealistic goals for entry-level employees without providing the proper training and then using failure as an excuse to reprimand them

5. Underemployment:

Illogical low-level demands that fall significantly under the ability or experience of the worker, or not giving tasks at all

Giving someone in a management position simple tasks that could be done by anyone to force them to quit

Not giving any work to a disliked coworker to irritate them

6. Violation of Privacy Overstepping private personal boundaries

Disclosing sensitive information about sexual orientation, gender identity, medical history, infertility treatments, etc, to others without permission

From this Japan Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) pamphlet 

2. What isn’t power harassment? 

It is just as important to know what isn’t power harassment.   

Reprimanding and criticism appropriate for the job

If you make a mistake or don’t fulfill your role, you will get chewed out. But as long as direction is appropriate for the situation and criticizes your work and not you as a person, it is not harassment. 

Orders or requests appropriate for managers and employees

During busy times, your manager may tell you to work overtime. This is to make sure that you finish your work and meet deadlines. This is normal. (But forcing someone to work weekends and vacations for no reason is harassment.)

Increased workload due to career advancement or covering for another coworker’s absence

Being assigned a difficult (but not impossible) task for training purposes or professional growth is reasonable. So is taking over extra tasks when another coworker quits or has to take time off to keep the office running smoothly. 

Remote work has brought new challenges to preventing harassment, as interactions are more hidden from view. 

If you work remotely and your boss requests that you turn on your camera, this is to check on your health. This is a part of their duties as your manager. Similarly, if the situation requires it, your manager can order you to come into the office. Neither is harassment.

But if someone repeatedly calls or sends you emails outside of working hours and berates you for not responding immediately, that exceeds the scope of appropriate work behavior.  

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) notes that the decision if something is power harassment must take into account the intent behind the behavior and circumstances. 

They suggest the handler of the claim pay attention to the mental and physical condition of the maker of the claim and how they reacted to the behavior to assess the situation objectively.

This is important. You want to make sure first that you aren’t overreacting. Are you just annoyed with criticism or are they really insulting your character? Is it a persisting problem or a one-time deal?

One rule of thumb is repetition. One off-handed comment isn’t harassment. But if the same insults happen again and again, and the behavior becomes a pattern, then it could be.  

3. Are there laws in Japan protecting employees from power harassment?

A May 2019 revision to a labor measure law defined power harassment legally for the first time. It also required large companies to follow MHLW guidelines by June 2020. By April 2022, small to middle-sized companies (50 employees and under) also had to follow suit.

These guidelines include mentioning examples and prevention measures in company regulations and employee training, establishing a contact point for reporting harassment, responding appropriately to claims, and protecting privacy.

The end of this article summarizes guidelines for employers. 

Unfortunately, companies that fail to follow the MHLW guidelines do not face any legal penalties. There is no law that actually bans power harassment. 

Companies could be liable for worker’s compensation if they actively tried to cover up power harassment, especially if it ended up affecting an employee’s health. 

However, criminal action depends on specific offenses, like defamation, insult, intimidation, assault, or injury. There is no punishment for “power harassment” under the law. The MHLW guidelines leave it to companies to define appropriate punishments. 

If you are curious, you can read the law here!


4. What can you do if you are being harassed? 

If you have reviewed your situation and it ticks all the boxes, what is your next move? 

1. Stay calm

Getting upset or fighting back will escalate the situation. The MHLW suggests speaking up and being clear about not wanting to be treated a certain way. I feel that this is more directed at Japanese workers, who often remain silent to keep the peace.   

For foreigners, I recommend keeping your cool and taking care of yourself. Harassment can be mentally and emotionally draining. Make sure you have a way to relax and disconnect and friends or family to support you off the clock. 

2. Take detailed notes 

You cannot record someone without their permission, so taking detailed notes is crucial. Make sure you write down the date and the general time if you can remember. Try to be as neutral as possible when writing down what was said. Stick to the facts.

If you have emails or other files, then gather those too. 

3. Approach coworkers privately

You might not be the only person being harassed. If there is someone else in the office going through a similar issue, then approach them about it in private. 

You might think that a coworker isn’t saying anything because they aren’t bothered or upset. But Japanese people often act this way to avoid confrontation. Your coworker might be going through a rough time too. 

If you decide to make a claim together, it will help your case. Even coworkers who are only witnesses can help out. 

4. Tell senpai or managers

If your senpai is harassing you, speak to your boss (privately). If it is your boss, speak to your senpai. They might be able to offer you advice about how to deal with the problem. If the issue can be resolved through discussion, it is best to handle it within your team. 

Don’t be too discouraged if they aren’t supportive and try to brush it off. If things don’t get better, you can take the next step.

5. Report it to the company 

If your company is complying with the government guidelines, there should be a contact to report the problem. If your company is under a larger company, then the contact may be there.  You can also take the issue directly to the human resources department.

6. Report it to a third party

If there is no specified report system and you don’t want to or can’t take it to human resources, you have other options.

Comprehensive Labor Consultation Corner

A multilingual consultation desk with over 370 locations all over Japan run by the MHLW. You can call or go to a location without an appointment. The scope of their services cover all work-related issues, and it's free.

・Japan Legal Support Center

Their Multilingual Information Service puts you in contact with legal professionals on the phone with an interpreter. Make sure to read their FAQ first. 

・JINKEN 110 A human rights counseling service run by the Ministry of Justice available in ten languages. You can also submit your details online if you are too nervous to call. They will get back to you by email or phone.

Kokoro no mimi (Japanese only)

Also run by the MHLW. This service is more focused on mental health. There is a lot of information and tools for not only workers, but families and managers. There is even an option to consult via the messaging service LINE.

An English-language option for mental health resources in Japan is TELL.

5. What happens after you report power harassment? 

I’ll speak a little from my personal experience in this section, but this is just one example. While there was a special contact to report harassment, the claim was made directly to human resources as a group. 

After the claim was made, there was an investigation (ヒアリング “hearing”). Since the company was large, there was a sangyoui 産業医者 “occupational physician” who interviewed everyone.

I joined as a witness for my coworker. But during the interviews, I realized I had experienced similar treatment. What surprised me the most was being asked, “What do you want to be done?”

The question threw me off. I thought it was up to the company to review the situation and decide what to do. At the time, I wanted them to do something. I said they should punish the offender.

After the interviews and fact-checking with the harasser themselves, it went up the ranks and to a committee. The situation was recognized as power harassment and a punishment was decided. 

There were four or five levels of punishment at that particular company. The most serious, in my understanding, was being fired. But that was an extreme case.  

The person was stripped of their manager position, put on unpaid leave for a few months, and had to attend counseling and anger management courses. I think it was a mid-level punishment on the scale.

I am honestly not sure what kind of support was given to the victim. The person was sent to another part of the company that was also geographically far away. I didn’t want to ask more at the time. 

I moved to another department afterward for an unrelated reason. The case was confidential. No one else knew and I couldn’t mention it to other employees. (Protecting everyone’s privacy is part of the guidelines.)

I was upset about it at first. My ex-manager didn’t face any public backlash because no one outside the case knew. Still, it was the best outcome at the time. The company took it seriously. They got the help they needed and my other coworkers’ working environment improved. 

Another time, I reported the issue myself. There was a hearing with me and my boss (not the person I reported). They asked what I wanted to do, and I decided to let it go. I just wanted the company to be aware of the situation, but I didn’t want it to affect my job. 

It is common practice to separate the victim from the harasser by transferring one side or both. I wanted to continue with the type of work I was doing. I felt that I would be the one transferred if I went through with the claims. This is an unfortunate reality.

But never forget: Your well-being comes first. If the situation isn’t improving, you don’t have to stay. It isn’t the end of the world. There are always other options and you can find a better fit somewhere else.


6. Conclusion

Harassment is an unfortunate reality in corporate Japan. But keep in mind that like most places around the world, it is often about personalities clashing and not a reflection of your worth.

The best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the legal definition of harassment in the office, the measures your company is taking to prevent and handle cases, and possible roads to take if you want to report it. 

Looking to avoid any possibility of a bad working environment entirely? The hand-picked job listings at Japan Dev have been thoroughly vetted to ensure they offer a positive working environment for foreign professionals.


Matcha Verte

Matcha is a production coordinator who has worked in the Japanese mass media and entertainment industry for over ten years. She has experienced office life in a variety of Japanese companies, from tech startups to traditional major national corporations. Nicknamed a “gaijin yuruchara,” she hopes to bring both insight and humor to readers with the ups and downs of her experiences as an American in corporate Japan.