On a recent Saturday, some 80 delegates from the National Union of General Workers, Tokyo South, trudged through cold rain to gather at a conference hall near Mount Fuji for their annual meeting. Greetings were kept brief and to the point. After all, with the sour economy putting such pressure on unions, everybody had a lot on their minds.

It soon became clear just how much. Reporting on working conditions at their companies, one speaker after another shared stories of forced retirements, unreachable production quotas and hours of unpaid overtime. One word that popped up a lot was "kaiko" -- a blunt Japanese word for firing that contrasts with the more delicate expression preferred by managements: "jinin sakugen (staff reduction)."

But as grim as the testimonials may have been (and despite an unpleasantly strong earthquake in the afternoon), the mood among Tokyo South members was nonetheless one of cautious optimism.