Taking Bereavement Leave As a Foreign Worker in Japan
What type of leave can you take when you get ‘that call,’ but you’re overseas?
If your loved one dies and you are working full time in Japan, you have the right to annual leave called kibiki kyuka, or condolence leave.
If you plan on staying for the long term in Japan, sadly, there’s a chance that you will have to say your last goodbyes to a loved one living overseas at some point. That’s when it will be really important to know how and when you can take bereavement leave that may or may not be included in your annual leave in Japan.
When you factor in time difference, distance, daily life struggles of being in a foreign country and the death of a loved one, the physical and mental toll can be all too unbearable. At times like that, you might struggle to think of what your next steps may be. If you are facing aging parents or family that are in ill health, it will be far better for your own peace of mind and sense of security if you find out where you stand in terms of bereavement leave sooner rather than when you get that call.
Your right to bereavement leave in Japan
According to Japan’s labor laws, employers must provide kibiki kyuka (忌引休暇) or “condolence leave” to full-time employees. If you are not working full time, as in you’re on a short-term contract, working part-time, as a dispatch, or essentially not a seishain (正社員, full time employee), technically your company does not have to provide you with any leave at all.
But if you’re a full-time employee of a company based in Japan, you will be granted a certain number of days for bereavement leave based on your relationship to the deceased.
For a spouse, child, or parent, you are typically granted up to five days leave. For a grandparent, sibling, or grandchild, three days. And for any other third-degree relative (for example, an aunt, uncle, cousins, etc), you may have up to two days. For anyone not related to you (such as a family friend or even a pet), your company is not required to give you any leave whatsoever. In this case, you can use your paid or non-paid vacation to take a day or two off.
What to do when the leave is not enough
Five, three, or two days, however, is not enough time at all to head overseas, nevermind start the grieving process. To add to that, if your relative passes away during a particularly busy time in your industry, you might not get anywhere near the maximum, which can bring you to a worst-case scenario. For example, one of my acquaintances in Japan told me of a situation with their coworker who is an accountant. The coworker’s wife died suddenly, and it was the week before income taxes were due. He was given two days to take care of everything and was told he could have more time off later — “if he still needed it.”
Naturally, the number of days employees are given is also based on the idea that the person who passed away is based in Japan. This is where things become murkier for foreign workers. Two days might be the entire duration of your flight overseas.
What workers in Japan have said about bereavement leave
So how can you get overseas, spend time with family, attend a funeral and come back in anything less than a week off?
I spoke to staff working for various locations of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (on the condition of complete anonymity), and employees of the HR departments of IT, eikaiwa, finance, creative media, food services, travel, and pharmaceuticals companies. All of the companies I talked with have foreign employees, but some are solely Japan-based, while others are international to Europe and North America.
The answer I received is simple. You will need to take a leave of absence from work, either short or long term, depending on the situation abroad. This might mean taking all of your vacation time in a lump sum and potentially having to work through standard holidays in the future.
If you are aware that a family member abroad is in poor health, then you should inform your company immediately…
A bit of a side note, but here is another thing to keep in mind. If you look at the breakdown of your paycheck from your company, you will notice that regular payments toward your income tax, residence/ward tax, and sometimes other payments are deducted each month. Having to take a leave of absence from work for bereavement leave might mean that your company pays these taxes (which must be paid monthly or else it can lead to complications with your annual taxes) while you are technically not working. In this case, from the next month that you are working, you will have to pay these deductions back from your salary, which can put an additional strain on your finances.
Prepare your company if a loved one falls ill
This probably all sounds very scary, and like I’m telling you not to take any leave, no matter what the circumstances. That’s not the case, and not at all what any of the people I spoke with had to say, either.
It might sound callous, but one of the Tokyo-based civil servants I spoke with told me that if you are aware that a family member abroad is in poor health, then you should inform your company immediately that there is a chance that you may have to go abroad.
“I can’t speak for all companies, but the more time you give them to prepare for something like this, the better your chances are of them being genuinely compassionate in your time of need,” the civil worker said.
Another word of advice from a different civil servant I talked to said that if you are afraid your company may not support your taking leave, to visit your local labor office first to make sure of what your rights are.
“Get some documentation ready about what is happening and what they are obligated to do for you,” according to a different anonymous worker. “If they know you’re informed, they can’t afford to screw you over.”
Taking emergency leave is horrible, but being afraid of losing your job can treble the effect of grief on the body.
Most companies will have some sort of contingency plan for emergencies such as bereavement leave, but it really does seem to depend on your industry. For eikaiwa teachers, it can be as simple as taking an unpaid leave, or for smaller schools, it may require you to quit and be rehired after returning to Japan. If you are working in the JET Programme or as an in-school teacher, you will likely be asked to come back in the next term (if you take long-term leave), although that may adversely affect your visa status, among other things in your life.
Keep lines of communication open with your company
In the case of a sudden or unexpected loss, tell your company (especially a trusted superior) what has happened, what you need to do, and how long you expect to be gone. You might not be able to get the kind of leave you are hoping for, and there could still be complications to deal with when you come back to Japan, but again, properly informing your work and communicating openly with them about your needs will get you a lot further than you think.
All of the individuals I spoke with confirmed that point and one creative media HR staff really put it best:
“Taking emergency leave is horrible, but being afraid of losing your job can treble the effect of grief on the body,” they said. “Be as open and as honest as you can be with your company and they will bend over backwards to make it less of a burden on you.”
A special thank you very to the HR department employees, civil servants, and labor board staff who wished to remain anonymous but assisted greatly with this article.
Have you taken bereavement leave in Japan? Let us know about your experience below in the comments. Anything to add?