Japan: Precarious times

Friday, 7 March 2014 - 8:00am IST Updated: Friday, 7 March 2014 - 12:45am IST | Agency: DNA
Loneliness and unemployment are two of the many problems the country is afflicted with

The Japanese company Pasona has an office building in the heart of Tokyo’s business district. A haven of green, where fruit and vegetables are hydroponically cultivated in office and conference rooms, and the workers eat what they cultivate and grow. Pasona is, however, not just about smart environmental awareness. Since 1976 it has grown as the biggest supplier of temporary workers. In 2013 Pasona supplied over 1,200 million contract workers. Lifetime employment has gone. It is now the world of the precariat.

Today Japanese business, like the rest of the globe, relies on temporary workers. Pasona’s website says this promises a ‘society where people are free to exercise their talents through an egalitarian relationship between the workplace and the individual’.

In fact, it can be argued that it represents precisely the opposite situation. In the pursuit of flexible labour relations the system of labour security that built modern Japan has been totally undermined and people are divided into a small salariat, those who are valued by the company, and the larger and growing group of the precariat, those in temporary employment who can be fired anytime. The precariat has lost both an occupational identity, as well as support from the State and the enterprise.

The period of growth in Japan was marked by a shared belief that Japan was a middle class society, with very low-income differences between CEOs and workers. The enterprise was central and growth a shared objective that benefited all. If you studied and worked hard you could succeed.

This ideal collapsed with the economic downturn and globalisation, as companies themselves became commodities to be bought and sold. Shareholders became more important than workers. The dismantling began with a 1999 law that overturned the ban on temporary labour contracts and allowed private employment agencies, and then in 2004 extended this to the manufacturing sector.

Koizumi Junichiro, Prime Minister (2001-06) launched structural reforms to privatize the economy. The slogan was  ‘Seikashugi’ or being ‘result oriented’. Labour relations that had been built on collective bargaining between employer and employed now were fundamentally altered in this new triangular relationship.

In the name of flexibility, temporary workers (haken) grew exponentially. In 1980 there were 87,000, today more than 17 million or 37 per cent of the population. As Japan’s aging population put pressure on the welfare system the social safety net disappeared for many and they fell through the gaps. Wages and consumption fell, inequalities sharpened with ‘foreign trainees’ at the bottom of the heap. More became NEET — not in employment, education, or training. The ‘working poor’ were born.

The family has been in deep crisis. Fewer people are getting married or having children. Population growth has fallen below replacement levels. Japan’s population began declining in 2005 and by 2050 will fall by one-third.  Japan has become a country of the old, one–third of the population is over 65, and with the low birth rate and high life expectancy this will increase by one-fourth by 2050.

What does this mean for the people? The impact of these problems has become a source of serious concern. One example, amongst many, is that of Prof Emiko Ochiai, Kyoto University, who has led a team of researchers to study these issues and suggest policy alternatives. Social activists, such as Makoto Yuasa, are working at new ways to tackle the problems created in this rapacious economic atmosphere.

Makoto uses the word ‘tame’ or recourse, derived from Amartya Sen’s idea of capability. People need ‘recourse’, Makoto says, to money but also good relationships.  The ideology of ‘self-responsibility’ isolates the individual. This must change

Japan’s immigration policies are very restrictive, foreign workers are less than 1.7 per cent of the population. Manufacturing has moved out to China and other cheaper areas. It’s cheaper to import packed lunches from China than make them in Japan. Rural areas are de-populated and many municipalities face bankruptcy.  

Net cafés are shelters for the homeless. They provide a private booth with Internet access, and, at nominal costs, bathing facilities, food and reading material. Their denizens are the young homeless/jobless. Hiroaki Mizushima, a foreign correspondent, who had covered war zones around the world, returned to this new and shocking Japan. His sensitive documentary Net Café Refugees: The Drifting Poor (2007) explored their plight; Japan’s hope for the future had become people with no ‘prospects’.

These young people, as Mizushima says, had “eyes with solitariness” and were “abandoned by the government”. Mizushima called them ‘nanmin’ or ‘refugees’ in their own country. If the youth of Japan had fallen into such a desperate situation what, he asked, would become of the country? Net café nanmin captures the contemporary plight. Seventy seven per cent of temporary workers fall into the working poor category. Amongst OECD countries Japan has the highest rate of poverty; 15.3 per cent get less than half the mean income.

And unemployment is just one face of a wider social problem. One-third of the Japanese population lives alone. The young are seceding from society. Government statistics estimate that ‘Hikimori’ or people who do not step out of their house, for years sometimes, are mostly in the 17-27 age group and number nearly a million; 32, 000 elderly die alone.

The problems that afflict Japan are part of global capitalism: the increasingly precarious condition of people even as corporate entities such as Walmart or Foxconn flourish. This future is not working. The talk of alternative capitalism, a ‘Japanese model’ has been replaced by the tired appeal to ‘traditional’ values. A better alternative is to look at the ways civil society is attempting to respond to these challenges. Their attempts suggest possible strategies for our own common and imperilled future.

The author is professor of Modern Japanese History, Delhi University (Retd)


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