Commentary / Japan

Japan, look in the mirror called Germany

An inconspicuous but professional article on Germany scared me last week. Written by Oliver Nachtwey, a University of Basel sociology professor, it was published on Dec. 8 in the opinion section of The New York Times International Edition and titled “Post-Merkel is irrelevant. Germany is broken.”

When I started reading the article, I first thought it was about the German society. By the time I finished the first half, however, I began to realize that it was not only about Berlin or Stuttgart but also about the rest of Europe and, probably, about Japan as well. The following are the reasons why I reached such a conclusion.

Highlights from Nachtwey’s article include the following:

Germany’s new political crisis stems from an economic system that has resulted in stagnant wages and insecure jobs. Though pay remains stable or even rose for skilled workers in the export-oriented manufacturing sector pay, less-skilled and low-wage workers suffered.

This was made possible by decentralizing collective bargaining in the 1990s, which greatly weakened the power of unions.

Postwar Germany had a comprehensive welfare state and robust labor unions, ensuring that citizens from the lower strata could achieve a decent living standard. Incomes declined for nearly 20 years beginning in 1993. Germany not only grew more unequal, but the standard of living for the lower strata stagnated or even fell. The result was the erosion of the German social model in recent decades. Nearly one-third of all workers have insecure or short-term jobs.

A low-wage sector emerged employing millions of workers who can barely afford basic necessities and often need two jobs to get by.

In a nutshell, as Nachtwey concludes, “The German middle class is shrinking and no longer functions as a cohesive bloc. Though the upper-middle class still enjoys a high level of security, the lower middle contends with a very real risk of downward mobility.” This is, in my view, exactly what’s happening in Japan now.

Less than three decades ago, we witnessed the burst of Japan’s economic bubble. Some pundits claim that with the burst of the bubble, our illusion that “we all belong to the middle class” also disappeared. The latest opinion polls, however, show that more than 90 percent of Japanese still believe they belong to the middle class. Why?

Kenji Hashimoto, a sociology professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, has the answer. He asserts that Japan is “already a class society” that can be divided into five classes, i.e., “the capitalist class, the old middle class, the new middle class, the full-time working class and the new ‘underclass’ who are underpaid, part-time workers.”

According to Hashimoto, over the past quarter of a century, there has been a structural change in Japan’s class society. While the capitalist class, the old middle class of independent business people, and the class of full-time workers decreased, the size of underclass who only make less than ¥2 million a year, has almost doubled.

Here many in Japan seem to retain an illusion that they are living in a European-style welfare state with full employment and powerful labor unions, so that even workers from lower strata can achieve a decent living standard. This is why more than 90 percent of them still consider themselves as the middle class. But this is no longer true.

As in the case of Germany, Japan’s labor unions have been weakened, wages stagnant, and jobs no longer secure. Japan’s middle class is shrinking and now the working class is divided into that of full-time workers and the underclass of part-time workers who can barely afford basic necessities. This is the new reality.

What is more worrisome is the recent massive influx of foreign workers into Japan. And the number could multiply after the enactment of the legislation to overhaul the immigration control law. In the next five years, up to 340,000 new foreign workers are expected to join the already 1.3 million strong foreign labor force in this country.

As in Germany, a sudden hike in the number of de facto immigrants could also accelerate the rise of xenophobia in Japan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s poor handling of the refugee crisis of 2017 has alienated many ordinary Germans, especially those in the lower income strata, because they are the people who must compete with foreign workers.

Truth is already stranger than fiction in Japan. The total population of the southern Gunma town of Oizumi is approximately 40,000, but about 15 percent of the residents are non-Japanese, including 4,209 Brazilians.

As Nachtwey wrote, “the erosion of Germany’s postwar settlement — a strong welfare state, full-time employment, the opportunity to move up in the world — has created a populace open to messages and movements previously banished to the fringes.” If so, it’s about time for us to find a way to avoid repeating what happened to Germany.

The reality, however, is way ahead of us. In Tokyo, there are 42,000 foreigners living in Shinjuku Ward alone. They represent 12 percent of the ward’s entire population. The foreign resident ratio is almost 40 percent when it comes to downtown Okubo, a northern Shinjuku area, where almost 500 Nepalese now reside.

Most noteworthy is the public apartment complex called Shibazono Danchi in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. Approximately half of the population in the complex is already non-Japanese. No wonder that in November 2015, the Shibazono district became the first Japanese local community where foreign residents outnumbered Japanese locals.

Make no mistake. I am not stating this out of fear of those foreigners. On the contrary, they are welcome in Japan and deserve to be integrated into the local community. If we fail to help them do so, we will most likely fail in our immigration policy in the decades to come.

Germany is a mirror of our future, whether you like it or not. Japan has been and will continue to be a multiracial nation. We must act now to address this issue seriously. Otherwise, I may have to write a piece in the near future with the title “Post-Abe is irrelevant. Japan is broken.”

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.