When Mamoru Kawasaki, 45, was forced to leave a well-known information technology company in March, he had heavy housing debts and a family of five to support, but also enough savings to live on for the time being.
Yoshio Matsushima, 55, managed to repay his debts with retirement allowances when he lost his job at the end of February, enabling him to own outright a house on the outskirts of Tokyo.
In the case of Nobuhiro Koike, who is 37 and single, more than a decade of job hopping in the IT industry has eroded his earning capacity. He is managing to survive thanks to support from his parents, who have allowed him to live with them.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s move to step up pressure on banks to dispose of bad loans carries the risk of a further rise in the already high unemployment rate, and critics warn that people’s tolerance could reach its limit in the not-too-distant future.
The jobless rate eased to 5.3 percent in November after matching in October the record high of 5.5 percent first seen in December 2001. The government expects the rate to average 5.6 percent in fiscal 2003, up from an estimated 5.4 percent for the current fiscal year.
It is also feared that the government’s attempt to ease its worker-protective regulations to increase labor mobility and reform the economy’s high-cost structure will worsen the unemployment problem. A bill to this end is to be submitted to the Diet during the next session, which is scheduled to start Jan. 20.
In part to challenge the government’s policy, Yuto Nakamori is calling on fellow workers to follow in his footsteps and resist employers’ attempts to slash their workforce.
Nakamori, who is 38 and supports a family of four, waged a successful 500-day battle against his company to remain employed when it tapped him to leave 3 1/2 years ago.
Though able to sustain their livelihoods for now, Kawasaki, Matsushima and Koike continue to fear for the future or a decline in the quality of their lives.
Kawasaki said he soon learned that his family needed to adjust its high rate of spending as he saw his savings, which stood at around 7 million yen at the beginning of 2002, begin to tumble by 500,000 yen a month, despite receiving unemployment benefits. At that rate, his family would have depleted its resources in about a year.
“It was frightening,” he said.
Kawasaki managed to find a job in November, taking a managerial post at an IT venture, even though it meant having to accept a salary of 9.5 million yen, 40 percent lower than what he had been making.
He is still concerned about his future, as he sees no reason for the economy to prosper in the foreseeable future.
“My dream was to retire by 60, earlier if possible, and live quietly growing vegetables for my family and reading books,” he said. “But even that looks a distant dream now.”
Even so, Kawasaki’s situation is better than that faced by many other people who have lost their jobs.
Living on unemployment benefits, Matsushima has failed to find a new job. It is a prospect that is growing increasingly difficult, particularly for middle-aged men who have been the breadwinners in most households.
“It’s wrong to say there aren’t any jobs, if you don’t expect much. But there are hardly any managerial jobs,” said Kiyotsugu Shitara, secretary general of the Tokyo Managers Union. He has helped advise thousands of senior workers struggling under lay-off pressure.
For middle-aged men to be rehired, they often have to accept a 40 percent to 50 percent cut in annual pay to between 4 million yen and 5 million yen, short-term employment and tough physical and mental tasks, Shitara said.
Even under these severe conditions, job offers are beginning to disappear for workers in their 40s and 50s, he added.
Shitara acknowledged that most people still have room to maintain their living standards thanks to reserves from the economic bubble heyday, enabling them to put off facing a real crisis.
Matsushima has rejected jobs that pay less than 8 million yen — the amount he earned before he left a land development company, but unrealistic in today’s job market — because he has savings sufficient to maintain his family’s lifestyle for one or two more years.
“I have no plan to work for 4 million yen or so. It’s my pride,” he said. He is considering other options to traditional employment, including setting up his own business.
Young people meanwhile tend to reject regular employment, opting instead to hop from one part-time job to another. They are able to do this owing to the wealth retained by their parents and grandparents, Shitara said.
But Shitara cautioned that the gap is widening between these floating workers and others managing to remain pegged to Japan’s traditional long-term, guaranteed employment system.
“Once forced out of work, workers tend to go downhill, unable to secure stable jobs, and they go hopping at the risk of pay cuts that often come to be the case,” he said.
The gap may widen further and reach a “dangerous level” for society if the government continues to fail in its economic policies to allay people’s concerns for the future, Shitara said.
Nakamori said his battle with his employer resulted in his salary being capped at its current level of 6 million yen, but also in giving him a grace period to seek other opportunities while still earning an income.
In contrast, Koike set up a one-man IT business following his latest layoff in August. Unfortunately, he is running in the red and has built up 2 million yen in debts with consumer credit companies.
Koike said he would reconsider his career and seek a tougher job if his personal debts continue to grow and reach 3 million yen.
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