Popular ramen chain Ichiran charged with breaking Japanese labour laws by overworking foreign students

Ichiran was founded in 1993 and now has about 70 outlets throughout Japan.
Ichiran was founded in 1993 and now has about 70 outlets throughout Japan. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO - Ichiran, the popular ramen chain that draws long snaking queues of tourists and locals alike, was on Tuesday (March 6) charged with violating labour laws with company president Manabu Yoshitomi, 53, named in the case.

At least 10 foreign students were allegedly made to work above their legal ceiling of 28 hours a week between September and November last year at two 24-hour Ichiran stores in Osaka's main entertainment district of Dotonbori, Osaka prefectural police said.

The students are from Vietnam and China, and are aged between 20 and 27. The Asahi Shimbun reported that in at least one case, a student worked up to 39 hours a week and drew 210,000 yen (S$2,600) a month.

The newspaper quoted one store manager as saying: "A lot of manpower is required to maintain service standards round-the-clock."

Another admitted to the difficulty of managing a headcount of about 500 part-time workers, and confirming the circumstances behind each worker's employment.

Seven people aged between 32 and 53 - including Mr Yoshitomi and an unnamed 39-year-old female who is in human resources - have been cited in the case.

Mr Yoshitomi also stands accused of not having notified the Japanese government's employment service centre, known as Hello Work, of having hired these students as mandated by law. When a business operator hires a foreigner, companies are required to notify the labour authorities of the status of their residence and length of stay.

Domestic news agencies cited sources as saying that the company will confess to both charges.

The in-depth probe into the two Ichiran stores in Osaka started in November last year, when the company was raided after a Vietnamese woman was arrested for working illegally.

The woman came to Japan on a visa as an international student at a vocational school. But she was expelled in March last year - which meant she would also have lost her rights to be employed as an international student.

 

Even so, Ichiran had continued to hire the woman, despite her not having the necessary permits to continue working part-time. The company said at the time that it was unaware that the woman had been expelled from school.

Ichiran, which is headquartered in Fukuoka, has gained immense popularity among visitors from Singapore and around the world for its brand of tonkotsu pork-based broth and thin Hakata-style ramen.

Its unique selling point is its concept of partitioned seats in-store - dubbed the private "flavour-concentration booths" - that promote solo dining.

The chain was founded in 1993 and now has about 70 outlets throughout Japan. There are four overseas outlets - two in Hong Kong and one each in Taiwan and New York.

As of last November, about 1,200 foreigners were among the 6,300 part-time employees working in the Japan stores, public broadcaster NHK has reported.