All indications are that Japan is reverting to prewar norms. I am not referring solely to the new nationalism, bolstered by Japan’s increasingly aggressive military stances, but rather to the notion of social equality — or inequality — that is being created for its citizens today.

When the growth bubble burst in the early 1990s, many firms began to abandon their policy of “permanent employment.” Middle-aged executives were offered early retirement; and, in an era of revolutionary technological change, many who took it found it difficult to secure meaningful employment afterward. Among those were people lumbered with huge mortgages, which in some cases exceeded the value of their properties. The suicide rate among this group rose significantly and still remains high.

Whereas in the 1980s school leavers were in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose stable jobs from eager employers, when the bubble burst the tables turned. Increasingly since then, the trend has been for employers to hire nonpermanent staff who could easily be laid off and rehired as business conditions warranted.

The result: a class of people called “the working poor.”

So, although official unemployment figures of between 4 and 5 percent may not look dire, in reality, millions are in work yet unable to make even modest ends meet.

NHK has estimated that more than 4 million households where the breadwinner is in employment are barely sustaining themselves around Japan’s officially defined poverty line. Additionally, one in three working people in Japan today are not in secure employment. Coupled with the cutbacks that the Koizumi years have, since 2001, brought to many areas of social welfare, this means one thing only: the creation in Japan of a semi-permanent underclass for the first time in over half a century.

Eerie similarities

If this is to be the legacy of the “lost decade” — a decade that is now pushing 20 — then Japanese society is heading for a precarious roller coaster ride, just as it experienced in the 1930s. And comparing that era with our own presents some eerie similarities.

Prewar Japan was a country of gross inequalities generated by the elite, for the elite. That elite included those with inherited wealth (primarily members of the former aristocracy), owners and chief executives of large businesses, and high-ranking military officers. Those privileged people garnered annual incomes well over 20 times those of the average worker. Urban poverty was bad enough, but the real sufferers in prewar Japan were the farmers, who were often burdened with enormous debts and large families to feed. Access to higher education was theoretically available to all, but practically to few.

As a blanket of patriotism covered the country like a pall, the sons of tenant farmers became easy prey to jingoistic patter. Nationalistic pride can always be counted on to blind people to their own misery, turning it into a vengeful anger against perceived enemies at home and abroad. It was the cynically manipulated social inequality fostered by the Japanese military-industrial complex of the prewar years that brought fascism to Japan and a brutal war to Asia and the Pacific.

After the war, the miraculous growth of the Japanese economy from the mid-1950s to the early ’70s attracted people to the cities and larger provincial towns, where they found work chiefly in industries such as steel, shipbuilding, automobiles, precision instruments and the like.

But here comes the crunch . . . and the lesson for us today.

After the war, the Japanese government under the conservative Liberal Democratic Party made the explicit decision not to adopt a system of far-reaching social welfare such as that brought into existence in, say, Scandinavia, France and Britain. Instead they encouraged people to save, and, as a matter of course, people went along with this. After all, how else could they afford to educate their children and ensure a comfortable old age?

As a result of this, industry was overjoyed to have at its disposal phenomenal funds for investment, at low interest, from the commercial banks and the government savings arm of the post office. In 1974, for example, the average Japanese family was putting away a quarter of their disposable income, compared to about 5 percent in the United States.

It all went like clockwork . . . for a time. For two decades from the mid-1950s the Japanese people felt as if they had a stake in the system: their lifestyle improved with each year and they shared what was then called a “middle-class consciousness.” In fact, by the mid-’70s, income discrepancy was at its lowest in history, with the highest-paid workers earning less, on average, than three times that of the lowest-paid. Permanent employment and guaranteed increases in wages tied to seniority made it possible for salaried workers to plan for the future.

Inbuilt insecurities

All appeared rosy until the blast from the bubble blew the rose-colored glasses off. The situation today for millions of working people is dark gray.

On August 8, the Asahi Shinbun reported on a recent survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. It found that more than 20 percent of working people in their twenties now earn less than 1.5 million yen a year. In 1992, just over 10 percent of such workers had nonpermanent status; now it’s 31.8 percent. According to the ministry, this is the main cause of the low birth rate. How can young people marry and start a family given the inbuilt insecurities their society has virtually institutionalized?

All in all, the Japanese model was fine while the sun shone: Subsidized farming and exports, a yen that was maintained at an artificially low value, individuals who put their wealth at the virtually free disposal of big business, a docile citizenry that accepted “reforms” railroaded through the Diet by a political party in power for two generations . . . it was an ideal in the eyes of developing nations and a bugbear to developed ones.

For all of outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s stated intention of turning Japan into a “fair-minded” society, the economic and social inequalities that existed in this country before the war are returning. Access to the best higher education is ever more becoming a privilege of the rich, not a right of everyone. Public tertiary education is on the road to becoming as costly as private. Job security, meanwhile, has been replaced by job insecurity.

And now that the militarists are once more dreaming of fashioning Japan into the armed powerhouse of Asia, will the young, disaffected and disillusioned again seek personal salvation in a jingoistic patriotism? If so, there will be millions more lost souls for the politicians to “honor” in the future at Yasukuni Shrine.

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