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Japan’s population began to shrink in 2005 and society continued to grow older. That year, people aged 60 or older accounted for 21 percent of the population, making Japan one of the grayest countries in the world. Taking these factors into consideration, the 2006 welfare and labor white paper compiled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry focuses on the future shape of the economy, community and family.

It calls for reviewing conditions in the workplace, community and family so that a “circulation of mutual support” develops in these segments of society. The final goal is to enable people to gain a sense of security and accomplishment. Many problems must be solved to achieve that goal.

Perhaps priority should be placed on ensuring stable employment for both young and elderly people — including women who have quit work to bear and raise children — and making the nation’s social security system reliable and sustainable. The white paper points out that the unemployment rate — 4.4 percent in 2005 — is still high.

Average annual working hours dropped from a peak of 2,432 hours in 1960 to 1,829 hours in 2005, mainly due to an increase in the number of part-time workers. But the working hours of regular employees are still long. The percentage of people aged 35 to 39 who work more than 60 hours per week increased from 19.1 percent in 1994 to 24 percent in 2005.

The white paper also notes that an increasing number of young people are finding it difficult to get jobs they want. In 2005, among people aged 25 to 34, nonregular workers numbered 3.18 million against 9.89 million regular workers. The unemployed numbered 840,000. Nonregular employees, whose working conditions are a source of inequality and instability, make up about 30 percent of the total labor force.

The white paper also points out that the nature of the Japanese family is rapidly changing. The average family size has dwindled to 2.68 people. The number of elderly people living alone and the number of households composed only of elderly couples are increasing. The trend means that mutual aid in communities will become more important.

The population is rapidly graying. Starting in 2007, more than 2 million people a year will turn 60. People aged 60 or older will comprise more than 25 percent of the population in each prefecture by 2030, making improvement of the nursing care insurance system urgent.

Population movement is also changing Japanese society. More than 5 million people moved in 2005. The white paper says this phenomenon is weakening community bonds.

The white paper highlights the fact that many people — including 60 percent of those in their 20s and 30s — think that a society in which family members support each other is ideal. Another poll shows that 84.5 percent think that a society in which members of communities have close relationship is ideal. The white paper notes that 60 percent of the people want to make a positive contribution to society.

Given these factors, the white paper says proper efforts would make it possible to build a society in which people can achieve a sense of security and accomplishment. In such a society, people who want jobs could find them and be able to give full play to their abilities, and workplace regulations would be changed to ensure workers have enough time to help their families and communities.

The white paper says enterprises, workers and society as a whole must share the idea of “work-life balance” to enable people to devote themselves to child rearing and nursing care. Stating the need for enterprises to review the way they employ workers, the paper expresses its hope that management will make positive efforts in that direction.

Specifically, the white paper proposes shortening working hours, including overtime, dropping age restrictions in recruiting workers, equalizing wages between regular and nonregular workers, making it easier for people who have quit jobs to find second careers and introducing a new type of permanent employment in which working hours are shorter than normal full-time working hours, etc. Touching on the long working hours of regular workers and the growth in the number of nonregular workers, the paper says that increasing the number of people who are “too busy” or “unstable in employment both at present and in the future” would sap the vitality of society.

To achieve the ideals expressed in the white paper, the government must first review the labor policies it pursued in deregulation politics under the Koizumi administration. Enterprises, labor unions and workers will have to make their own strong efforts.

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