By Suverndrini Kakuchi
October 31, 2011
Inspired by the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in the United States, thousands of Japanese youth and workers, dissatisfied with growing unemployment and harsh working conditions in the world’s third largest economy, have taken to the streets to demand stable jobs and government reforms. Two weeks ago, a demonstration in Tokyo, billed by organisers as the largest protest in recent years, drew a crowd nearly 5,000-strong.
Labourers and students from all across Japan converged on the capital with raised fists and chants of protest as rap bands played songs about the anxiety and hopelessness in which much of the country is mired.
The current official unemployment rate is five per cent of the total population but among youth the number has risen to almost nine per cent.
In fact, more than 45 per cent of workers aged 15-24 hold irregular jobs and just 56 per cent of new college graduates receive job offers, representing the worst situation for youth in the country since World War II.
Ichie Kumagai, 28, a daycare worker who travelled more than 359 kilometres from Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, to speak at the rally in Tokyo, said, “I am angry, frustrated and worried about the future.
“Young people like myself face a hopeless situation today because officials and society do not care about us,” she told the indignant crowd.
Intense lobbying by millions of daycare workers earlier this year managed to raise the minimum wage to nine dollars per hour, up 50 cents from 2010.
More than 30,000 signatures have been collected in Saita town in Osaka alone, in a petition to stop planned regulations that will permit such changes as increasing the number of children to a maximum of 30 per daycare worker and hiring part-time workers instead of offering regular jobs.
Kumagai said that her salary has remained static over six years of hard work while her job has only gotten more demanding.
She works at least 12 hours a day without overtime pay each week. She added that saving money has become crucial to protect against an unstable future.
Meanwhile Japan’s huge fiscal deficit stemming from its two decade economic recession, coupled with an ageing population, has ushered in new regulations aimed at reducing public welfare spending.
“The government justifies such moves because public funds are dwindling. We do not agree with that reasoning,” Kumagai said.
Inspired by the US
Japanese protestors are inspired by the rhetoric in the US against bailing out banks and big businesses, as well as against austerity measures that are widely believed to shrink the middle class by slashing public spending and creating widespread, cyclical unemployment.
“We are influenced by the protests in the US but we want to develop our own way of gaining a stable future,” Makoto Kawazoe, a representative of the Kanto Youth Union, a leading labour rights organisation in Japan, said.
Indeed, the Tokyo protests that plan to start again in November, involve a whole spectrum of activists and organisations from anti-nuclear activists and youth lobbying for clean energy to veteran labour unions such as the National Federation of Labour Unions (NFLU), which have been at the forefront of the struggle for domestic workers’ rights.
According to Kawazoe, Japanese society must take the responsibility of creating stability for youth by accepting the fact that youth employment is crucial to Japan’s economic prowess on the world stage.
“People view unemployed youth as irresponsible or lazy and do not support their needs. This attitude must be changed,” he added.
The NFLU has identified several issues that need to be addressed in order to guarantee some degree of stability for youth entering the job market.
The government should offer financial support to youth undergoing skills training or apprenticeships until they find work; end the current practice of expecting third year university students to start job hunting before they have completed their studies; and enact regulations to ensure that companies offer stable employment terms, it says.
While these demands are widespread, they are by no means universal throughout Japan.
Daiji Kawaguchi, professor of economics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, explained that while he is sympathetic to the ongoing youth protests, the call for reforms must also focus on active solutions.
“A burning question facing the Japanese job market is how to make it more international. Youth must develop skills to face an increasingly globalised market and engage with the debate about accepting more foreign labour,” he said.
“With the focus simply on expanding the safety net, the youth-led movement is weak,” he added.
Economists point to the dramatic changes under way in the business world, such as Japanese manufacturing relocating to cheaper sites abroad and more local companies engaged in cost-cutting measures to meet stiff competition from rising Asian tigers such as South Korea in the global marketplace.
Gross National Happiness researcher Masao Fukunaga added that the Japanese youth dream of a stable future is based on the memory of an older Japan, in which the economy was expanding and the lifetime-employment system was still in place.
“But that era is ending in Japan,” Fukunaga said. “The future is difficult and I hope youth who are taking to the streets to call for support will also tackle this emerging reality,” he said.