The telephone consultation service Sachiko Sawagami works for receives dozens of COVID-19-related inquiries every day, many from those heaving under financial pressure.

Take the taxi driver who was walking a tightrope even before the outbreak, trapped in a cycle of debt to support his gambling habit. Like many workers in unsecure jobs, the pandemic was the final straw.

As customers vanished and income waned while the health crisis dragged on, he began missing payment deadlines and accumulating demand letters from banks.

By the time he called Sawagami in early September, the 48-year-old had left his work and had almost no cash with him. He suffered from insomnia and appetite loss, and, while he had managed to consolidate his personal loans, he had no means to return what he owed.

“I could see he wasn’t in a state to be looking for a job, he needed medical attention. So I accompanied him to apply for welfare that would take care of his health care fees,” says Sawagami, a social worker for Yorisoi Hotline, a government subsidized 24-hour helpline run by the Social Inclusion Support Center.

Based on a preliminary count, Sawagami’s organization handled 10,581 COVID-19-related consultations between April 1 last year and April 31 this year.

“One in five harbored suicidal thoughts, while 15.9% said they couldn’t find jobs,” Sawagami says. “It’s quite obvious that work-related hardships have become a major factor impacting people’s livelihood.”

Around the globe, virus-induced social distancing, travel restrictions and disruptions to trade and supply chains have affected workers across sectors, hitting those in the service and transport industries especially hard.

In Japan, a nation that once prided itself for being universally middle class — an egalitarian myth that’s long been debunked — the prolonged pandemic is widening the economic gap and hurting the most vulnerable: The swelling ranks of so-called nonregular workers, or those hired on a part-time or temporary basis who earn less and are easier targets for layoffs than regular company employees.

According to the labor ministry, the nation’s average job-to-applicant ratio for the fiscal year ended in March saw the largest decline in 46 years, with a fall of 0.45 points to 1.10 as employees paused hiring. The jobless rate for the same period released by the communications ministry stood at 2.9%, up 0.6% from fiscal 2019 and the first rise since 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed in fiscal 2020 grew by 360,000 to 1.98 million as more and more firms went belly-up. The sum total of business failures in Japan triggered by the pandemic came to 2,128 as of Tuesday, according to Tokyo Shoko Research, with bankruptcies in the hard-hit restaurant industry representing around 18% of the total, and the construction sector — which faced postponements and cancellations of projects — accounting for 10%.

“Coronavirus-related bankruptcies are expected to remain at high levels, especially for small businesses unable to groom a successor or lacking the energy to continue,” the report said.

There are, of course, various government and municipal aid programs available to assist employees and workers roiled by the pandemic. Restaurants and bars that comply with requests to shorten business hours, for example, are eligible for subsidies. However, critics question whether these benefits are reaching those in need.

Social worker Takanori Fujita | COURTESY OF TAKANORI FUJITA
Social worker Takanori Fujita | COURTESY OF TAKANORI FUJITA

“There have been many cases in which companies provide leave allowances for their regular employees using the employment adjustment subsidy program without offering the same benefits to nonregular workers,” says Takanori Fujita, a social worker and author of “Korona Hinkon” (“Corona Poverty”).

The number of consultations Fujita’s nonprofit receives have tripled amid the pandemic, he says. “Typically we get around 300 to 500 inquiries a year, but this year we’ve already counted 1,451 between January and July, many from women in their 40s and younger.”

Fujita recounts the story of one woman in her early 20s, a temporary office worker for a staffing agency in Tokyo. With the pandemic slowing down business, she was asked to take a leave of absence until things picked up. Last month, she was dismissed from her job, and is planning to apply for unemployment insurance, although her financial aid isn’t expected to last long.

“The government has relied on the mantra of self-reliance and individual accountability for too long. There are many in society who can’t get back on track on their own once they stray from their paths,” Fujita says. “I think it’s something politicians are finally realizing.”

Indeed, with a general election coming up, lawmakers have been addressing the issue of income disparity, laying out policies to mitigate the widening wealth gap.

Fumio Kishida, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s newly elected president and next prime minster, has said the nation needs to steer away from the neoliberal, free-market competition Japan has embraced since the early 2000s, and that “fruits of growth need to be distributed … otherwise divisions in society will deepen.”

In response to the economic strain resulting from the protracted recession the country experienced in the aftermath of the end of the asset price bubble in the early 1990s, the nation’s leaders — exemplified by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — pushed for reforms across the labor market.

These deregulations led to corporate cost-cutting and a growing pool of nonregular workers now accounting for more than a third of the workforce. Many have been among the first wave to be laid off amid the current crisis.

Kenji Hashimoto, a sociologist and professor at Waseda University, categorizes these nonregular employees as the “underclass” when analyzing Japan’s class divisions. He says COVID-19 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, weighing most heavily on these workers.

According to Hashimoto, postwar Japan’s period of high growth saw the workforce mainly composed of the capitalists (corporate managers), the “old middle class” (those self-employed, including farmers), the “new middle class” (white-collar workers) and the working class.

Kenji Hashimoto, a professor at Waseda University
Kenji Hashimoto, a professor at Waseda University | COURTESY OF KENJI HASHIMOTO

The so-called lost decades of economic stagnation that followed and the rise of nonregular jobs, however, necessitated a rethink of these divisions. He now separates the working class into “regular” workers — sales and office clerks and those in the service industry, for example — and the underclass, or low-paid nonregular temp and part-time workers.

During January and February this year, Hashimoto conducted surveys in Japan’s three major metropolitan areas represented by Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The results showed that while all classes experienced a fall in average annual household income in 2020 compared to the previous year, the drop was most pronounced among the old middle class and the underclass. (Hashimoto’s surveys excluded the estimated 8.26 million housewives working part time.)

Specifically, the traditional middle class saw average annual income plunge 15.8% from ¥8.05 million in 2019 to ¥6.78 million ($61,740) last year, while the underclass suffered a slide of 12% from ¥4.46 million to ¥3.93 million. In terms of the poverty rate —the metric referring to people whose household income is less than half of the median of the entire population — the underclass suffered the worst, with figures rising from 32.7% to 38%.

“Many self-employed ‘old middle class’ businesses — think of privately owned restaurants and shops, for example — are going bankrupt or are forced to close due to pandemic-induced curtailment of commercial activity. That has a knock-on effect on the ‘underclass’ since these are the businesses that often hire non regular workers,” Hashimoto says. “And those who lose their jobs during the pandemic are likely to be eventually sucked into nonregular employment. Unless something is done, such as significantly raising the minimum wage, I’m afraid the underclass will continue to expand.”

Gender is also a major factor, with women in nonregular jobs outnumbering men by more than two to one. According to the communications ministry, 2020 saw the number of nonregular workers fall by 750,000 year on year, the first drop in 11 years. Two-thirds were women, showing how they are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

“We’re receiving around 1½ to twice the number of consultations compared to an average year,” says Ren Onishi, director of the nonprofit Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living. “And what’s different is that many are women and those in their 20s and 30s, a demographic that wasn’t as visible before the pandemic.”

Onishi suspects many “working poor,” or those in low-income jobs living in households falling below the poverty line, could no longer support themselves as businesses — especially in the service sector highly dependent on part-time employees — were forced to let go of staff.

“We’ve talked to a female temp worker in her 20s who was kicked out of her company dormitory and took refuge in internet cafes. There are also more women suffering domestic violence amid stay-at-home requests,” Onishi says. According to a Cabinet Office survey, the number of domestic violence cases in Japan hit a record high of more than 130,000 in fiscal 2020.

The numbers of people attending Moyai’s weekly food drive have also ballooned, Onishi says. “We’ve been handing out food and other goods every Saturday near the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building since April last year. Initially there were around 100 people, but the other day there were around 350.”

Members of Sanyukai, a nonprofit helping the homeless in Sanya, Taito Ward, hand out supplies to homeless people living by the Sumida River on Sept. 22. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN
Members of Sanyukai, a nonprofit helping the homeless in Sanya, Taito Ward, hand out supplies to homeless people living by the Sumida River on Sept. 22. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN

With food insecurity on the rise, soup kitchens and food banks operated by volunteer groups have become important lifelines, especially for those without homes.

Around 200 people gathered in Tokyo’s Ueno Park on a recent afternoon to receive food supplies distributed by a Christian organization. Ministers gave a sermon before handing out rations to those who showed up, mostly middle-age and older men, many who appeared to be homeless.

A man in his 50s sporting a shabby baseball cap said the construction firm he was signed up with told him it no longer had work. Unable to stay at the company’s dormitory, he was spending nights at friends’ homes and, more frequently, on the streets.

“I can still work and don’t want to apply for welfare,” he says, while admitting that may become an option if he can’t find a job. According to the latest data from the health ministry, released Sept. 1, the number of those who applied for welfare in June reached 19,478, a 13.3% rise from the same month last year.

“I’m not hungry though, thanks to these takidashi,” he says, referring to soup kitchens. “If I do the rounds, I can get more than enough food to fill my belly.”

Organizations helping the homeless, however, say COVID-19 is making their work difficult.

Kazunori Yui, deputy director of Sanyukai, a nonprofit organization that provides food and medical care for the homeless living in the Sanya district in northeastern Tokyo, says the cafeteria the group had been operating to offer free lunches has been closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s getting hard for us to grasp the health and living conditions of the folks in our neighborhood since we have fewer opportunities to see one another in person,” Yui says.

Sanyukai’s office used to be crowded with local residents — many who live on the streets and are kindly referred to as ojisan (middle-aged men) — hanging around to receive the NPO’s services, to offer their assistance with the organization’s activities, and to chat with the cheery staff.

During a visit last week, however, staff and volunteers wore masks and kept their distance from each other. “We can’t risk having our members or those who we come in contact with get infected,” Yui says.

People gather at an open-air soup kitchen in Tokyo's Ueno Park. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN
People gather at an open-air soup kitchen in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN

Taito Ward, where Sanyukai is based, has prepared vaccines for the homeless. So far 89 have received the first jab, but many have yet to be inoculated.

“I believe people living on the streets have less access to information on the pandemic and are not as aware of the dangers of being infected,” says Satoru Goto, a staff member at Sanyukai who led a homeless outreach session on Sept. 22.

While distributing goods — seasoned steamed rice and vegetables, bananas, snacks and face masks — to those living by the Sumida River, Goto asked whether they had received a shot. None said they had, and some appeared confused by the question.

After receiving a boiled egg from a volunteer, a man who appeared to be in his 70s pointed at the sky.

“Look, we’re safe,” he says. “We’re living out here in the open. It’s well-ventilated.”

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