Joblessness hits record 4.9%

The nation’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to a postwar record high of 4.9 percent in February, up from 4.7 percent in January, the Management and Coordination Agency said Friday.

The previous peak was 4.8 percent, first set in March 1999 and remaining there for four months.

The numbers dealt a double blow to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s election year hopes as the rate for men also reached a postwar high of 5.1 percent. The previous ceiling for men was 5 percent, also set last April and lasting four months.

An agency official said a major factor pushing up both rates was the fact that 1.15 million people lost their jobs due to bankruptcies and corporate restructuring. About 73 percent of the figure, or 840,000, were men.

The record high unemployment rate for men was reflected in the jobless rate for household heads, which rose to 3.6 percent, matching the record set last May, the official said.

The February rate for women, meanwhile, stood at 4.5 percent, unchanged from January, due to a brighter part-time employment picture.

The Labor Ministry said in a separate report Friday that the ratio of job offers to job seekers in February stood at a seasonally adjusted 52 to 100, unchanged from January.

The ratio has steadily improved since May, though at a moderate rate.

However, the ministry said job-hunting continued to prove difficult.

The jobless rate for men increased in all age brackets, climbing 0.7 percentage point to 4.9 percent among those aged 55 to 59 and rising 0.4 percentage point to 7.1 percent for those 55 to 64 years of age.

The jobless rate for women declined in three age brackets: 15-24, 25-34 and 45-54. For women between 45 and 54 it stood at 3 percent.

“The employment situation continued to be serious in February,” the agency official said. “We will be watching the rate carefully for the next several months because the number of the unemployed tends to increase in March and April every year.”

The agency said the number of jobholders totaled 63.11 million in February, down 0.4 percent from a year earlier. The number of male jobholders fell 0.7 percent from a year earlier for the fifth straight monthly dip, while that of female jobholders rose 0.1 percent.

The number of people employed by companies in the nonfarm sector totaled 52.41 million, down 0.2 percent. Of those, 46.06 million were full-time jobs, down 0.3 percent for the 26th consecutive month of decline. There were 5.13 million part-time jobs, up 0.2 percent and continuing a string of increases that began in September 1996.

The number of employees fell 1.5 percent at small firms with between one and 29 employees for the fifth straight monthly slide. It declined 1.4 percent at companies with 30 to 499 employees for the ninth consecutive fall.

But it increased 3 percent at firms with 500 or more employees for the fifth consecutive monthly increase.

By industry, the number of jobholders declined in the manufacturing sector by 2.7 percent to 13 million, and in the service industry by 0.6 percent to 16.65 million. Increases were seen in the transport and telecommunications sector, by 2.2 percent to 4.14 million, and in the wholesale, retail and restaurant sector, by 0.6 percent to 14.70 million.

Situation to get worse

Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa on Friday put a positive spin on the bulging unemployment figures.

“The rate may rise further in the next month or two,” he told a news conference. “But it is unlikely to affect the overall economic outlook.”

Miyazawa made the remark in reference to the announcement of a record high unemployment rate of 4.9 percent in February, which was made earlier in the day.

He said the jobless rate may worsen around April or May because new school graduates who have failed to secure employment by then will be considered unemployed.

The finance minister also said the number of unemployed is also likely to grow as a result of intensifying corporate restructuring.