Part-timers reshaping Japan’s work ethic

When are you going to get a real job and settle down?


Yoshinori Ogawa, 27, is a bassist in the rock band Dusty Rose. He considers himself a professional musician, but like many other would-be musicians or thespians, he has not yet reached the point where he can support himself on his music alone.

To make a living, Ogawa works part-time at a nearby laundry. Collecting and delivering laundry, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., five days a week, he earns nearly 200,000 yen a month.

Part-time jobs offer freedom to the young and footloose.

Though he does not get any of the benefits permanent employees can claim from the company, such as health insurance and paid holidays, Ogawa says he has never wanted to take this career path. “Permanent employees have more responsibility,” he says, “which would make it more difficult for me to take time off for my musical activities, such as recording and concerts.”

Ogawa doesn’t have a hard time making ends meet. Since he is still living with his parents, his room and board at home are basically free, and he is covered under his father’s health insurance as a family member.

Although he graduated from a technology school seven years ago, Ogawa had decided to attempt a career in music and didn’t look for a permanent job as most of his classmates did.

His parents used to grumble about his unwillingness to find a “proper job,” and Ogawa himself was worried about the future for the first couple of years, but he says he is more confident these days since his income from music has been increasing “little by little.”

Free ‘n’ easy

Whether or not Ogawa likes it, however, Japanese society would probably categorize him as a “freeter,” a term coined from the words “free” and “arbeiter” (the German word Arbeit is used in Japanese [arubaito] to mean a part-time job, and Arbeiter to refer to part-timers). “Freeters” are young people — neither students nor housewives — who have no fully contracted company job and support themselves by working part-time or taking temporary jobs.

According to a white paper recently released by the Ministry of Labor, the number of freeters aged 15-34 has significantly increased in recent years. It topped 1.5 million for the first time in 1997. This is 500,000 more than in 1992, and triple the figure for 1982.

More than 60 percent of freeters work in the service industry, in places such as convenience stores or fast-food restaurants. Their average income is 100,000 yen-130,000 yen a month, and about 80 percent live with their parents.

The Japan Institute of Labor divides freeters into three types: “dream-chasers,” who work on a casual basis while pursuing a career in fields such as art and entertainment, or while studying to acquire special skills; “wait-and-see types,” who leave school or a company job without having any particular plan, and have not yet decided what they want to do; and “no-choice types,” who did in fact want a regular company job but for whatever reason were not able to get one.

According to Reiko Kosugi, a senior researcher at JIL, the number of people taking the “no-choice” category has been rising recently, especially among high-school graduates and dropouts.

When the term “freeter” first became popular in the late ’80s, Japanese business was booming. Despite plenty of job opportunities, many young people refused to take the traditional route (i.e., become a “company slave”) and became freeters. However, over the past five years, Kosugi says, the choice is more due to the bad economy and the lack of job opportunities. “Our feeling is that half the high-school graduate freeters would have chosen a different course in life if the economy were better.”

Gamble while you can

Akihiko Sakamoto (not his real name), a 28-year-old with a master’s degree, thinks of himself as a mixture of all the types. When he was a student at International Christian University, a famous private college in Tokyo, Sakamoto was interested in working in mass media or publishing after graduation. When he failed to get in the companies of his choice, he decided to go to graduate school and study sociology.

Just before finishing his master’s, Sakamoto tried looking for a job again. A small importing company offered him a position, but eventually he turned it down. He confesses that his job-hunting effort was mainly for his parents’s sake, since he was still living with them.

“I felt sorry for my parents,” he says. “I know they feel embarrassed when their friends and neighbors hear I don’t have a regular job. They are liberal people, but they do care about how others see them.”

Today he supports himself with part-time or short-term jobs. Some are related to filmmaking, a field he’s been interested in since graduate school, but others have nothing to do with movies — such as security at a music concert or one-day fill-ins as a sales clerk.

“I can manage as long as my parents are healthy and have their own income,” Sakamoto says, but he figures he’ll have to get a permanent job by age 30. “I’m getting tired of looking for a job whenever I run out of money. I have also noticed that people over 30 get fewer part-time job offers.”

Despite being free from certain social responsibilities, not a few freeters are anxious about the future. Yujin Sato, 27, confesses his current life is “a gamble” and he gets scared when he thinks about how it will turn out.

Sato is the art director of the Daily Owl Theater, a small theatrical company he formed with friends. Unable to make a living from the theater, he works at a convenience store 7 a.m.-6 p.m. four days a week, earning about 130,000 yen a month. Like Ogawa, he does not pay his own health insurance premiums, and is not part of a pension plan.

He says he really feels depressed when he receives wedding invitations and baby announcements from his old friends, or when he hears of their high salaries and promotions.

Sato knows how difficult it is to succeed in show business. He has seen many older people who persist in their dreams, leading unstable lives without regular jobs or even families.

“I don’t want to be like those people,” he says. “If I can’t make it by 30, I will give up. Thirty is the age limit, I think, for starting a new career.”

Just passing through

Being a freeter can be a positive step if it is for a short period of time, “for trial and error,” says JIL’s Kosugi. “It’s worthwhile if they can find out what they really want to do and make efforts to achieve their goals, making use of the free time. But it isn’t easy.”

According to a survey by Recruit Research Co., 64.7 percent of freeters do want to have a regular job in the future, but only 25 percent are actually doing anything to secure a permanent position.

Kosugi warns that the longer you spend as a freeter, the harder it gets to find a permanent job because freeters are usually assigned only simple, unskilled, low-paid work and they have scant opportunities to learn useful skills or gain specialized knowledge, no matter how long they are on the job.

The Catch 22, Kosugi says, is that companies are looking for permanent workers with special abilities, but it’s difficult for a person to develop good job skills independently.

“Traditionally, companies trained their own employees in the technical skills they needed,” she says, “but from now on we’ll need some way for workers to gain skills outside the company system.”