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Japan's new burgeoning class: The working poor

Monday, October 27, 2008

TOKYO -- In one of the world's wealthiest nations, Junpei Murasawa is a poor man.

He skips meals to make ends meet. A bachelor, he lives in a tiny apartment in Tokyo, sharing a kitchen, toilet and shower with nine neighbors. He doesn't have health insurance because he can't afford the premiums.

The 29-year-old laborer is one of a burgeoning class in Japan -- the working poor. The number of Japanese earning less than $19,610 a year surged 40 percent from 2002 to 2006, the latest data available, the government says. They now number more than 10 million.

In a country that boasts the world's longest-living population, where young women with Louis Vuitton bags crowd the sidewalks, Murasawa's is a voice of hopelessness and despair -- a voice increasingly heard in Japan.

"Every day I live in deep anxiety," said the soft-spoken temporary worker, currently making $882 a month by bagging purchases at a home improvement center. "When I think about my future, I get sleepless at night."

The plight of such workers is likely to worsen as the current global financial crisis ripples through the Japanese economy. At the bottom of the economic food chain, Murasawa and his cohorts will be the first to suffer.

The growth of the working poor -- not seen in such numbers since Japan surged to wealth in the 1980s -- has been a shock to a country that once prided itself on being a bastion of economic equality.

"It is unprecedented to see such a widening income gap in Japan," said Yoshio Sasajima, economist at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. "Our society is definitely becoming a class society."

The seeds of changes now wrenching Japanese society were planted in the burst of the so-called "bubble economy" in the early 1990s.

As the Tokyo stock market tumbled, evaporating vast stores of wealth, corporations restructured by laying off workers. In the 2000s, that was followed by a round of free market reforms that widened the disparity between haves and have-nots.

A key to the growth of the working poor has been the explosion in temporary employment agencies, which allow corporations to take on labor without having to pay benefits -- and then unload workers at will.

As part of market reforms, the government made it easier in 2004 for manufacturers to hire such laborers, whose number has since increased 40 percent, hitting 1.33 million in 2007. About 40 percent of temps are aged 25 to 34.

"Instead of hiring costly, full-time employees, companies are bringing in cheaper, part-time workers as part of their cost-cutting efforts," said Yasuyuki Iida, an economist at Komazawa University in Tokyo.

Another factor feeding the trend is the emergence of so-called "freeters" -- 20- and 30-somethings who have opted for low-paying jobs in services such as convenience stores rather than chasing the material benefits of corporate work.

The spike in the number of the working poor is already taking a toll on Japanese society.

More people are putting off marriage because of tight finances, exacerbating a declining fertility rate. Part-time workers unable to afford rent sleep in 24-hour Internet cafes to escape the streets. Some have stopped going to the doctor because they can't afford it.

Murasawa is typical of the new class.

He rarely eats breakfast or lunch, and says his usual dinner is a bowl of instant noodles that he picks up -- with the rest of his diet of cheap fast foods -- at the local $1 shop.

Rent for his 64 square-foot, one room apartment in Tokyo costs $343 a month.

Despite his poverty, Murasawa doesn't qualify for government welfare payments -- he makes too much. Japan doles out help only to single people living in Tokyo who make less than $833 a month.

Murasawa grew up poor in rural Yamaguchi prefecture, 480 miles west of Tokyo, where his parents ran a small vegetable shop. After graduating from high school, he didn't have enough money to go to university, so he began working at the store.

Bored with that life, Murasawa came to Tokyo two years ago in hope of landing a well-paying job. What he found instead was subsistence on a series of short-term labor contracts.

"Sometimes I ask myself what I'm living for," Murasawa said. To make ends meet, he's given up dining out, drinking, smoking, going to the movies or buying CDs, clothes and magazines.

"I've stopped being hopeful for the future. I've already given up getting married because I have no money to do so. Getting married is like a fairytale to me. It is utterly unrealistic," he said.

That hopelessness is spreading to pop culture.

The surprise runaway best-selling book of the year, for instance, is a Marxist novel written in 1929. "The Crab Factory Ship," by communist Takiji Kobayashi, chronicles hellish labor conditions of ship workers under a sadistic captain. The author was tortured to death by police in a Tokyo prison at age 29 in 1933.

The book has sold more than 500,000 copies since the beginning of the year, after the book's publisher, Shinchosha, linked the plight of the crab ship workers to that of the working poor in modern Japan in its advertising campaigns.

"The book must have struck a chord with the young working poor who feel that their lives are not getting any better no matter how hard they work," said Tsutomu Sasaki, a senior manager of Shinchosha. He estimated 30 percent of the book's readers are men in their 20s.

Not everybody who drops into poverty stays there.

For 10 months in 2006, Sanae Yamaguchi lived off a series of low-paying, short-term labor contracts.

"I was so miserable during that period because I always had to worry about money," the 26-year-old said.

After graduating college, she got a full-time job as an accountant at a wholesaler of electronic products in 2005 in Osaka, western Japan. But 10 months later, she was let go. Like Murasawa, Yamaguchi came to Tokyo in early 2006 in search of a better job.

But she was only able to find temporary jobs, mostly as a clerk, living in a tiny apartment where she shared a kitchen, toilet and shower with 20 neighbors in the outskirts of Tokyo.

She earned around $980 a month, and paid $441 for rent. Yamaguchi said she had to give up on having a TV set to save on electricity.

To her, the temporary employment route was a poverty trap.

"If you are a temp worker, you're always getting laid off, which means you don't acquire any professional skills," she said.

Yamaguchi finally emerged from her troubles in early 2007, landing a solid full-time job as an accountant at a medical company in Tokyo. She refused to divulge her current salary, but said she can now dine out with her friends, buy clothes and cosmetics and live in her own apartment with a shower, toilet and kitchen.

But that old insecurity has stayed with her.

"Even though I have a good job now, I'm always worried that I could slip back to poverty anytime," Yamaguchi said. "There is no job security in Japan anymore."


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