Kingo Tomioka is comfortable with change. When the pandemic arrived, he was forced to leave his day job as an attendant at a Tokyo karaoke bar. So the 38-year-old musician, who plays in the raucous post-punk band Blue Straight, found work at a convenience store — but that didn’t work out either. Swiftly, he moved on to running orders for delivery apps, which were then just taking off in Tokyo. 

The delivery industry boomed over the pandemic, nearly doubling in size from 2019 to 2021. Tomioka is still a delivery driver, motorbiking furiously for Uber Eats and local app Demae-can for up to 50 hours a week. He says that nets him a decent salary of 400,000 yen ($2,900) a month, if he “works hard.” 

“I’m glad I found this way of working. It’s great fun to drive freely through the city,” he told Rest of World. “It gives me freedom.”

The word “freedom” crops up when talking to Tokyo’s delivery drivers. Their full-time employment alternative, after all, is likely an all-consuming office job, involving long, draining hours and a demanding work culture; part-time at a bar or convenience store, they’d face fixed shifts and constant supervision. While the gig worker industry has come under fire around the world for years of shrinking wages and poor conditions, Japan’s experience, so far, is different; in stark contrast to global lawsuits, protests, and strike action, Japan’s workers, by and large, appear content with the rare flexibility their jobs provide.

A recent Japanese study, the first of its kind, surveyed roughly 14,000 delivery drivers from major companies across the country. While most of the workers were new entrants — around 60% have been working less than a year, and the vast majority worked 40 hours or less — 63% said they were “satisfied” with their work; 82% reported that they would like to stay in their jobs “for a while” or “forever.” Rest of World’s research on gig workers in 2021, covering 15 countries, typically showed much lower satisfaction numbers, along with multiple stress factors that pushed workers out of the gig economy.

Observers pointed out two reasons for the results in Japan: the comparative pressures of a traditional office job and the early stage of the gig economy there. Junko Goto, research coordinator at the Freelance Association Japan, which conducted the survey, says one of the reasons is that full-time workers in Japan can feel pressured to neglect their personal lives. 

“There is a culture of hesitation and difficulty in taking time off from work, due to the boss and others around them,” said Goto. “For example, they cannot take time off, even if they suddenly want to, due to illness of their children or to take care of their elderly parents. We believe that the freedom of the delivery worker’s work style was refreshing for those who were dissatisfied with such inconvenience.” From 2018, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed much-touted “work-style reforms” to promote better quality of life, but results varied from company to company, region to region.

The second reason is that many of the respondents to the survey were still inexperienced, worked short hours, and hadn’t yet felt the toll of long-term gig work. According to Rest of World data, over time, there tends to be a severe trade-off between earnings and job satisfaction:, the more that drivers and other gig workers labored to earn a decent wage, the more they tended toward burnout and unhappiness.

“Until food delivery services like Uber Eats appeared on the scene, Japanese people weren’t exposed to the platform work style.”

“In other words, until food delivery services like Uber Eats appeared on the scene, Japanese people weren’t exposed to the platform work style,” said Professor Yuichiro Mizumachi of the University of Tokyo, who specializes in labor law. “This is why problems have been slower to become apparent than in Europe or the U.S., and there have been no court cases.” Uber Japan did not respond to questions from Rest of World about this article.

Uber first entered Japan in 2013, but was hampered by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, which forbids individuals without a license to operate a cab business. Uber Eats launched in 2016 and, from there, began to build its footprint. 

The pandemic led to a surge in the delivery market, and the need for drivers swelled too. Uber Eats, one of the largest delivery services in Japan by market share, counts at least 100,000 delivery drivers and potentially double that, according to financial newspaper Nikkei. Uber Eats’ reach is rivaled by local player Demae-can, followed by other ventures like Menu and DoorDash-operated Wolt.

Professor Mizumachi pointed out that as the gig industry grows, tensions could rise, too. “The debate that is occurring in Europe and the U.S., over whether gig workers are workers or independent contractors and how to protect their minimum rights, is likely to begin in Japan.”

In other markets, gig workers gripe about the “always-on” schedule, recently dubbed the “servant economy.” Hordes of drivers must be ready to spring into action, rain, hail, or shine, to satisfy a customer’s needs at the command of an app — for ever-shrinking pay and few labor protections. And, as the market heats up in Japan, some drivers are beginning to feel the same pressures as their less-satisfied counterparts overseas. 

Odd Anderson/AFP/Getty Images

In October 2019, Japanese drivers formed the Uber Eats Union. Union leader Toshiaki Tsuchiya, 45, and a driver since 2018, said that he initially loved gig work; he left his office job after encountering “power harassment,” or workplace bullying, and preferred having an algorithm as a manager, he told Rest of World. “Because I could only work when I was feeling well, and because I was traumatized by my human boss, I felt more comfortable with an AI boss,” he said. 

But after reporting an injury on the job, he received a warning from the company: The accident was his responsibility and, if it happened again, he could be suspended permanently. “I didn’t hurt anyone, I didn’t break anything, and I even completed the delivery,” Tsuchiya said. “I couldn’t understand why I was being told this.”

Kingo Tomioka was blocked without explanation from the app last June, and is now a member of the Uber Eats Union, too. He still enjoys his job, he says, but understands its precarity. “It’s the company that creates and manages the AI. It’s too irresponsible not to explain the situation to me,” Tomioka told Rest of World, angry. “This is a serious matter of whether or not I will lose my job.”

“Because I was traumatized by my human boss, I felt more comfortable with an AI boss.”

In June 2019, Tsuchiya and about 20 other union members — a relatively small group, which has grown to number around 30 — filed a collective bargaining proposal with Uber Japan to advocate for reliable compensation and benefits in the case of injury. But the company refused to negotiate, saying — as it has, repeatedly, in other markets — that delivery crew members are not “workers” under Japan’s labor union law, but independent contractors who use a matching app provided by Uber Eats.

In March 2020, the union escalated things by petitioning the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Labor Relations Commission. Though they saw a small win that allowed drivers to file claims for injury – while still bearing the entire burden of insurance premiums – the dispute is ongoing.  Four hearings have been held so far, and a decision is expected in November.

But the advantage for Japan’s nascent movement, Tsuchiya said, is that it has global precedents to work off. Their aim is not to trigger court action to force recognition as employees; instead, they’d prefer to strike an agreement with Uber itself. The precedent here is in South Korea, where, in 2020, major platforms like Woowa Brothers and Delivery Hero Korea signed a memorandum of understanding with drivers that acknowledged the active, managing role the platform plays in their work.

“This is very exceptional and groundbreaking,” OH Hak-soo, a researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, told Rest of World. “It takes time to fight individual cases … it’s best if the matter can be resolved through discussions between the company and workers.”

On July 14th, a notice from Uber arrived in drivers’ inboxes. “We will change the business model,” it read, “from where participating merchants have been providing the delivery services to Users, to the business model where Uber will provide delivery services to Users.” When asked by Rest of World what the effect would be for them, drivers reacted with confusion. They still aren’t sure if that’s an acknowledgement by Uber Japan that it’s more than just an intermediary..

In the near future, drones and robots may be used for deliveries, and staff might no longer be needed, Tomioka told Rest of World. “However, that does not mean that the current delivery drivers’ rights should be disregarded.”

“I am not asking that we be given special rights,” he added, “but only that we be treated decently, as human beings with dignity.”