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Occupy Wall Street resonates within Japan

by Mark Schreiber

While Japan’s vernacular media has regularly reported on the Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept the United States over the past several months, coverage regarding the movement and its aims has been somewhat bland.

There have been exceptions, however. Weekly magazine Aera (Nov. 14) devoted five pages to the OWS movement, taking pains to point out that a majority of demonstrators appear to be Caucasian, with many of them unemployed white-collar workers.

Aera’s article also served as a reminder to Japanese to count their blessings over the nation’s universal health coverage. In the U.S. even large employers such as Wal-Mart have dropped coverage for employees who work fewer than 24 hours per week, and the premiums for private health programs are increasingly beyond the budget of many workers.

The consequences, as cited a survey by the state of Massachusetts, can be dire: inability to meet medical costs was reportedly the key factor in over half the state’s personal bankruptcies.

In a sidebar in the same issue of Aera, journalist Mika Tsutsumi, who traveled around the U.S. in September and October, observes, “Initially I also thought it strange that the movement wasn’t making any demands. But I was told by one demonstrator, ‘We won’t be satisfied by receiving a few crumbs. Our protests are in accord with developments that are occurring worldwide.’

“Look at the huge amounts of money it takes to get elected president of the United States,” remarks Tsutsumi, who describes the U.S. as a “capitalist dictatorship.” “The only ones who can relied upon as a source of these funds are billionaires and investors from the financial sector … creating a system by which the capitalists who make up the 1 percenters get to determine what becomes of the U.S. and the world.”

Author Karin Amamiya gives her views on the OWS movement in the monthly media magazine Tsukuru (December) and finds many similarities between Japan and the U.S. As opposed to a U.S. poverty rate of 15.1 percent, Japan’s is over 16 percent. The number of welfare recipients in Japan has shot past 2 million, and percentage of those in the work force holding nonregular jobs is at its highest level ever — 38.7 percent.

Last Thursday, a five-page article in Shukan Bunshun (Dec. 8) gave one of the gloomiest indications yet that the prolonged recession has had a pronounced effect on the incomes of Japan’s wage earners.

According to business consultant Masao Kitami, during 1997-2007, total wages declined by ¥20 trillion. “When people say Japan is becoming a society with a widening income gap,” he writes, “I tell them, we’ve descended into a ‘low-wage society.’ “

Based on surveys of major corporations belonging to Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), Kitami provides the latest data showing significant drops in wages between 2007-2010. The declines in the greater Tokyo region — where workers typically receive the highest remuneration in Japan — have been particularly steep. For males in their 50s, for example, the mean annual compensation dropped from ¥5.58 million in 2007 to ¥4.81 million in 2010. After withholdings, monthly take-home pay by younger salaried workers may be less than ¥200,000.

Kitami warns that once the annual incomes of males in their 50s living in Japan’s three main urban areas plummets below ¥5 million, the current social welfare model, based on a nuclear family composed of husband, wife and two children, is in danger of collapse.

While Japan’s salaried middle class is being squeezed, the media has been devoting quite a bit of coverage to the distribution of wealth, particularly those in the highest income brackets.

Shukan Diamond (Oct. 8) cites a report from Merrill Lynch that says with the exception of a one-year drop following the “Lehman Shock” in 2008, the number of individuals belonging to the fuyū-sō (wealthy segment) has continued to climb steadily since 2001, and is now 1.74 million people.

Sunday Mainichi (Nov. 6) takes a look at Japan’s own 1 percenters, who in the past had generally been defined as those with an annual income of over ¥30 million and personal assets (apart from real-estate holdings) of ¥100 million or more.

Business consultant Taro Kobayashi disputes this view, however, arguing that due to Japan’s heavier taxation the “truly rich” number no more than 26,386 people, i.e., just 0.02 percent of the total population.

“Based on statistics from the National Tax Agency and others,” Kobayashi says, “the personal assets of this group come to about ¥50 trillion — 3 percent of the total assets.”

Doshisha University economics professor Toshiaki Tachibanaki tells the magazine that although in an ideal world everyone could begin life with the same opportunities, in reality, a parent’s occupation or income levels determines a child’s education and career. As a result, the opportunities for upward mobility decline and the economic classes become increasingly stratified. The article somewhat cynically concludes that to ensure a cozy and secure livelihood, nothing beats a career in Japan’s bureaucracy.