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Street view of an office building partially obscured by green trees

Many Japanese Scientists’ Jobs at Risk from Labor Law Loophole

Universities and institutes are preparing to terminate thousands of technically temporary researchers by next spring instead of granting them the permanent employment mandated by a 2013 labor law.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He typically works on the news desk and joined the team in 2021. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Jul 19, 2022

ABOVE: The RIKEN Center for Computational Science © SHUTTERSTOCK, SHOW999

Scientists nearing their 10-year work anniversaries at Japanese universities and institutes find themselves in a difficult position, as their employers are preparing to lay them off instead of offering them the permanent employment promised to them by a 2013 labor law, Science and Nature report.

Over the past 30 years, the Japanese government sought to bolster its scientific research programs, especially at government-funded institutes like RIKEN, but ran into roadblocks due to apprehension over adding a significant number of permanent employees to the federal payroll, Science reports. Instead, many scientists were hired with what’s called a fixed-term contract, which treated them as temporary, with lesser benefits and lower salaries than they’d earn under long-term employment.

A 2013 labor law guaranteed workers on fixed-term contracts the right to request permanent employment after five years on the job, according to Nature, although that was later extended to 10 years for many researchers. Now that the 10-year anniversary of that law is approaching next March, however, universities and institutes—RIKEN included—say they plan to lay off those fixed-term researchers instead, exploiting a loophole that will save them from having to offer full employment.

Data from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology suggests that 3,100 researchers on fixed-term contracts will have reached their 10-year thresholds by the end of March, reports Nature, although other estimates bring the number of at-risk researchers up to 4,500. RIKEN tells Science that it’s currently screening the 203 temporary researchers who will have worked there for 10 years by next March and determining who will be hired and who will be terminated. Many will fall into the latter group, both publications report. Also at risk are 42 team leaders whose projects would be disbanded, jeopardizing an additional 177 researchers’ jobs.

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“I worked ridiculous amounts of unpaid overtime but they gave nothing back,” one researcher already laid off by a Japanese university, who was granted anonymity by Nature, tells the publication. “This was a huge loss of trust.”

Another researcher at a Japanese university, who was asked by their employer to quit before their 10-year work anniversary in March, tells Nature that “I worked hard but I realize I will never get a permanent job in Japan. I feel disposable. This was a lost decade for my career.”

Some researchers’ jobs are threatened despite having worked at RIKEN for more than a decade, according to Science, because the agency started the clock with the passing of the 2013 legislation rather than the start of their employment—a move that Yasuyuki Kanai, executive chairman of RIKEN’s labor union, calls “illegal.”

Despite some universities’ and labor organizations’ attempts to secure scientists’ positions, many researchers feel pessimistic about their prospects, Nature reports. Job opportunities are scarce, researchers tell Science, and many of the positions that are available would put them at the start of another cycle of fixed-term contracts.

Meanwhile, RIKEN frames the layoffs as a chance to prevent stagnation in the workforce, saying in a statement to Nature that the organization wants “new generations of outstanding researchers to work on new and important projects, thereby enhancing the research and development capabilities of Japan’s academic community as a whole.”