Rebuilding Human Bonds amidst Japan’s Disconnected Society PART III

Interlude: The Spread of Economic Discrimination and Social Disparity in Urban Japan

What we have seen from the social analysis of Rev. Hakamata and Rev. Nakajima is that despite the picture painted of a socialistic-capitalist utopia in post-war Japan with lifetime employment and companies that serve as extended families, the government and industry has built its prosperity on a vast pool of irregular labor, a system that was developed during Japan’s first industrial boom during the Meiji Period.[1] With the economic crises of the 1997 Asian currency meltdown and the 2008 Lehman Shock, this system of reliance on irregular labor has expanded and the “security” systems for employees dismantled. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reports that in 1984, nonregular employees accounted for only 15.3% of the Japanese workforce,[2] though one wonders how much irregular labor, such as those who worked in nuclear power plants, were accounted for in this data. This rose gradually over the years through the liberalization of labor laws to encourage nonregular contracts first by the Obuchi administration in 1999 and then more infamously by the structural reforms of the Koizumi administration in the 2000s. By 2009, in the aftermath of the Lehman Shock when 250,000 contract workers lost their jobs,[3] it stood at 33.7%. It has since risen further by the economic policies of the Abe administration and now stands at 38.3% in 2019.[4] During the critical period of the two economic crises (1995-2008), regular workers decreased by 3.8 million and non-regular increased by 7.6 million.[5]

The impact of these policies is not necessarily easy to see when looking at Japan’s basic poverty level, which only increased from 12% to 16% between 1985 and 2012. This is because many government surveys do not or are not able to calculate the living standards of these increasing groups of irregular laborers, some who have become unregistered homeless or wandering semi-homeless. However, other indicators point to a declining level of well-being amongst an increasing number of people. The term “social disparity” (shakai kakusa社会格差) has now become a regular topic in public discourse after it increased by eightfold from 2001 to 2008.[6] In 2012, more than 2 million Japanese were receiving welfare, the highest number since 1951 and twice that of 1999.[7] Child poverty has also become a recent subject of public discourse. For working single-parent households in Japan, it has stood in the mid 50% for the last two decades, the highest among OECD nations, compared with 32 percent in the U.S. It has been noted that children living with divorced or single mothers have an especially high rate of poverty.[8]

Women are yet another group who exist at the margins of power in Japan and who end up suffering from it. Despite the Abe administration’s catchy phrase of “womenomics” as part of the “Abenomics” policy, the 2020 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report stated, “Japan’s gender gap is by far the largest among all advanced economies and has widened over the past year [2018-2019]. The country ranks 121st out of 153 countries, down 1 percentage point and 11 positions from 2018. Japan has narrowed slightly its economic gender gap, but from a very low base (score of 59.8, 115th). Indeed, the gap in this area is the third-largest among advanced economies, after Italy (117th) and the Republic of Korea (127th). Only 15% of senior and leadership positions are held by women (131st), whose income is around half that of men (108th).” Japan’s overall ranking within Asia is 3rd to last, only ahead to two new nations to the index, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. In 2017, 55% of women were irregular employees. Among the young and educated, ages 25-34, during the period of 1990 to 2017, irregular labor for women increased from 28.2% to 38.9% while for men it increased from 4.3% to 15.3%–highlighting yet another group increasingly at the margins, the young.[9]

While the older, day laborer homeless living in cardboard boxes in parks and under bridges in urban Japan may be more visible, less visible are a growing number of young adults called “working poor”. Again, since the structural reforms implemented by the Koizumi Administration in 2001, the living conditions of young workers have become increasingly precarious, first with the change in their status to irregular contracts which leads to a much more frequent shift in jobs. No longer able live securely in company dormitories, they then may “migrate” from parents’ homes to friends’ apartments to increasingly unstable places like internet cafés,[10] spawning what might become a new generation of homeless and yet another group category of marginalized in the Disconnected Society known as “net café refugees” (ネットカフェ難民, netto kafe nanmin) or cyber-homeless (サイバーホームレス saiba homuresu).[11]

The Japanese government, under the de-facto single-party dictatorship of the LDP, has been playing a game of Russian roulette by resolutely pursuing the economic and social values described by Revs. Hakamata and Nakajima. It has relied heavily on the traditional extended family to provide social safety nets for its people while spending less on social welfare institutions than most European countries but having less private philanthropy than the United States.[12]However, the workaholic culture of shigoto and duty to the company eroded the family from the 1960-90s. Having shot itself in the foot once, the LDP and the government maimed its other leg by pivoting to embrace a more American style, neo-liberal capitalism. When companies started shedding employees and disregarding the “security” of their workers to pursue economic “efficiency”, however, there was no other social container left to catch them. This has become further exacerbated by the demographic gap in Japan with birth rates below the replacement threshold of 2.1 since 1974 and hovering around 1.4 since 1996, leaving the giant, aging baby boomer generation[13] with not enough young people to care for them. A crippled social safety net has since given birth to the Disconnected Society with all its sub categories of suffering and defining terms like karoshi, jisatsu, hikikomori, and koritsu-shi.

To execute such a radical structural shift, LDP leaders like Koizumi attempted to create a cultural shift by hailing the neoliberal economic values of self-determination (jiko ketei 自己決定) and self-responsibility (jiko sekinin 自己責任).[14]However, the problem has perhaps not so much been the emphasis on such values by themselves but the juxtaposition of them alongside the core Japanese values of harmony, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. For example, the combination of feelings towards needing to take personal charge for one’s advancement in a company with the sense of needing to sacrifice for oneself for the advancement of the company is another cause for the Japanese tendency towards overwork and karoshi. Further, the values of harmony (wa 和) and perseverance (ganbaru 頑張る) means a worker should keep up an appearance of vigor and well-being (genki 元気), even though the underlying ethic of the group is no longer one of cooperative mutual support but of competitive individual advancement. This creates intense stress and ultimately alienation, because there is no support coming from outside while from within there is withdrawal due to fear of being judged negatively. In such a situation, Japanese are still reluctant to reach out for help, because the tradition of intimate community was sensitive enough to personal distress to discourage the direct expression of it. Traditional, internalized Japanese social values thus increase alienation in an era where intimate communities have for the most part disintegrated, and structural barriers to intimacy are much stronger because community must be sought out rather than inherited. For the young, especially, a lack of confidence ensues, because they have not been brought up in intimate relationships and social networks where conflict takes place but is resolved internally—a culture that Rev. Hakamata is seeking to revive. Young Japanese generally do not know how to express themselves, and this leads to a high rate of social withdrawal (hikikomori). Meanwhile the elderly experience a sense of abandonment by younger generations no longer interested or willing to take the time to maintain social bonds.[15]

GO TO Part IV: From the Ghetto to the Pure Land: Jodo Priests Working for the Homeless in Tokyo


[1] Eisenstadt sees Japanese labor as actually consisting of three levels and not just two: 1) permanent, mostly male employees of large firms, 2) “relatively temporary” with weak social security and pension arrangements of large and small firms, mostly women and elderly, and 3) marginal laborers from yoseba. Eisenstadt, Japanese Civilization. p. 58, 60.

[2] The Issue and Situation of Irregular Employment. 「非正規雇用」の現状と課題  Japan Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. https://www.mhlw.go.jp/content/000618709.pdf

[3] Osawa, Machiko & Kingston, Jeff. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. In Japan: The Precarious Future. Eds. Frank Baldwin & Anne Allison (New York University Press, 2015), p. 59.

[4] The Issue and Situation of Irregular Employment.

[5] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 60

[6] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 62

[7] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 59

[8] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 62

[9] Change in Non-regular Workers According to Age 年齢階級別非正規雇用労働者の割合の推移 Gender Equality Bureau of the Japanese Cabinet Office. http://www.gender.go.jp/about_danjo/whitepaper/h30/zentai/html/zuhyo/zuhyo01-02-06.html

[10] Osaki, Tomohiro. “Japan’s low-earning adults find it hard to leave home, marry”. Japan Times. May 14, 2015.

[11] Since the outbreak of COVID 19 in March 2020, many internet cafés were shut down and such precarious young people faced increasingly difficult conditions with an uptick in young street homeless from May. Private correspondence with Rev. Akinori Takase. August 19, 2020.

[12] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 71. “Downtown Tokyo’s homeless fear removal ahead of Olympics”. Mainichi Japan. January 23, 2020.

[13] Japan has the highest proportion of elderly citizens of any country in the world with 33.0% of the population above the age of 60 in 2014. People aged 65 and older make up a quarter of the total population, estimated to reach a third by 2050.

[14] Osawa & Kingston. “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm”. p. 60.

[15] Watts, Jonathan S. and Okano, Masazumi. “Reconstructing Priestly Identity and Roles and the Development of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Contemporary Japan” in Handbook for Contemporary Japanese Religions. Edited by Inken Prohl and John K. Nelson (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012) pp. 357-58.

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