Another year of living precariously in 21st-century Japan


Special To The Japan Times

Most people seem to agree: 2015 was a pretty gloomy year worldwide. And the same could be said for life on the archipelago.

As the Japanese media likes to repeat over and over, 問題は山積している (Mondai wa sanseki shiteiru, “We have a mountain of problems”), and among them is the issue of koyō (雇用, employment). In early November, we had a surprise announcement from the 厚労省 (Kōrōshō, short for Kōseirōdōshō, or Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) that a whopping 40 percent of Japan’s workforce is 非正規雇用 (hiseiki koyō, in nonregular employment), meaning they are working on fixed- term, temporary or part-time contracts. In other words, nearly half the people stomping the streets in the morning are at risk of losing their jobs at any given time.

Especially vulnerable to this wind are women. As much as our 首相 (shushō, prime minister) likes to spout slogans like 女性の活用 (josei no katsuyō, “deploying women”) and 女性が輝ける社会 (josei ga kagayakeru shakai, “a society where women can shine”), it’s just not happening, おじさん (ojisan, “uncle” or just “older man”). Not only are women often the first in line to get fired when things go awry in the workplace, but the majority of companies like to pretend that when a woman becomes a mother, she would actually prefer to quit work and stay home forever and ever.

Financial independence? Nah, who wants that? Not surprisingly, シングル マザー (shinguru mazā, single mother) households comprise the poorest segment of Japanese society. Even sadder, 1 in 6 children across the nation is living in 貧困 (hinkon, poverty). What’s more, ダブルワーク (daburu wāku — “double work,” meaning holding down more than one job at a time) has become a familiar concept among single women in nonregular employment — the rationale being that if they lose one job, they’ll have another to fall back on.

On the other hand, grueling double work schedules often lead to 鬱 (utsu, depression) and 病気 (byōki, sickness). Last year, a 31-year-old woman in Osaka was found dead in her apartment from starvation. According to online rumors, the woman was holding down two part-time jobs but was laid off from both when she became ill. When her cash ran out, she stopped buying food.

Many women working as 派遣 (haken, temps) by day morph into 風俗 (fūzoku, sex industry) workers by night, and they are now moving to form a trade union to demand better rights. At first glance, sex workers make good money, but many face arbitrary firing, suspension of payment and endless 金銭のいざこざ (kinsen no izakoza, money troubles and haggling) with the business owners. Things are worse for independent prostitutes with no organizational backup. Some たちんぼ (tachinbo, street prostitutes) in downtown Tokyo are over 60 or even 70, catering to the needs of elderly men who are notoriously ケチ (kechi, stingy) and often refuse to pay up.

Once the Japanese lived with the illusion that we were a 平等社会 (byōdō shakai, equal society) and everyone more or less had a similar quality of life, with ごはん (go-han, rice) and 味噌汁 (misoshiru, miso soup) on the table, and where kids all march to school in their identical uniforms. Not any longer — the 格差社会 (kakusashakai, unequal society) is the norm, and it’s impossible to ignore facts such as these: Some kids can’t go to school because their parents were too poor to register their names at their local municipal office at the time of birth; many women lose their jobs at the drop of a hat; and married mothers are forced to flee homes dominated by violent or abusive husbands.

Is it better for working men? The short answer is “yes,” but although Japan has traditionally favored its menfolk, it’s not easy for them anymore either. Many work in fear of リストラ (risutora, restructuring, i.e., layoffs), and not being able make their 住宅ローン (jūtaku rōn, mortgage payments). When that happens, they often have no choice but to hit the streets and hole up in 漫画喫茶 (manga kissa, 24-hour Internet cafes with private booths and showers), or 漫喫 (mankitsu) for short, which tend to be full of users wearing suits and ties.

Among younger workers, the chief source of anxiety is that the company they’re working for could turn out to be a ブラック企業 (burakku kigyō, “black company”). In the West, “black” often has positive financial connotations — think “in the black” and “Black Friday” — but in Japan, black is most often an evil color. A black company makes life miserable for everyone, epitomized by the likes of Zensho (which runs the 24-hour beef bowl Sukiya chain) and Watami (that runs the famed pub/restaurant chain of the same name). Their evil doings were exposed on the Internet and both have been cautioned by the Kōrōshō to behave themselves.

Thankfully, there’s a bit of good news: Isetan and Mitsukoshi — the twin giants of the Japanese department store world — both shut their doors on Jan. 1 and 2, giving their employees two full days off on お正月 (o-Shōgatsu, New Year’s). Traditionally, the デパート (depāto, department stores) stop work on the night of the 31st, take one day off and go back to normal on the 2nd. But this move may signify a new trend, where department store staff can get another 24 hours to relax and spend time with loved ones. Which is what the holidays should be about, even on this work-centric archipelago.


    JAPAN will overcome all its economic troubles in 2016 . JAPAN can rise again as it has done earlier also.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      How? If you state something like “JAPAN WILL OVERCOME ALL ITS ECONOMIC TROUBLES IN 2016” you have to motivate it! HOW?

  • Kagerou

    It seems like some people know that things aren’t looking good and fewer people are doing something about it (like that politician that decided to take paternal leave) so I guess that is better than people acting like everything is okay and “It’ll work itself out” when its actually not.

    • Sacha Salvatore Morgese

      The sad truth is that people keep thinking that things are going to be okay because it’s always been like this. Unfortunately reality is calling and there’s not much time left to answer.

  • kyushuphil

    I love Kaori Shoji and have one request of her.

    Please, in addition to the good mix of Japanese and English languages here, also fit in some reference to writing by Miyuki Miyabe, Kirino Natsuo, Higashino Keigo, and any other writers in Japan whose works may well apply.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The bilingual column remains by far the best article in the JT. Really great column and Kaori Shoji does a good job here.

  • Titan000

    Career or motherhood. One cannot have both.