electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 1 in 2009
First published in ejcjs on 25 February 2009

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Working on the Margins

Japan's Precariat and Working Poor


Julia Obinger

PhD Candidate
LMU Munich University

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Despite the unemployment rate in Japan having risen in recent years to around 4 per cent, it remains by international comparison rather normal, or even low. At the same time, however, the number of working poor, whose income is lower than the unofficial poverty line of around JPY2 million per annum, has been rising alarmingly (McNeill 2008). After the 2006 publication of the Basic Survey on the Employment Structure (shūgyō kōzō kihon chōsa) by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, it became clear that the salaries of workers in private businesses have been declining continuously from 1998, and in 2006 the median annual salary stood at JPY4.35 million. In addition, the number of workers who earned less than the above mentioned poverty line reached more than 10 million in 2006, which is an increase of 30 per cent over the last decade (Nakamoto 2008, Kohlbacher and Hommerich 2007: 18, Hoffmann 2008a).

This recent rise is largely based on the increasing rate of non-regular employment, which is generally seen as the result of restructuring within Japanese companies in order to cut costs and face the challenges of globalization. An estimated one third of the total workforce in Japan is engaged in non-regular or non-permanent occupations, namely as freeters, day laborers, part-timers, dispatch workers, and others (Kohlbacher and Hommerich 2007: 17). Of those nearly 16 million Japanese in irregular employment, nearly 80 per cent, earn less than JPY200,000 per month (Amamiya 2007: 47). Therefore, this paper argues that the emergence of a sizeable class of working poor, or 'precariat', in Japan is by no means a marginal phenomenon.

In this paper I will explore the terms 'precariat' and 'working poor' in the Japanese context and show several aspects of working and living situations which can be labeled as 'precarious'. Additionally, I will give an overview on the background and future implications of rising precariousness amongst workers in Japan, as it not only has effects on the individual concerned, but also on Japanese society as a whole.

What does 'Precariat' mean?

Precariat is a neologism that combines the meaning of the adjective precarious and the noun proletariat, which was and is used to describe lower working classes. The term precariat was originally coined by French sociologists in the 1980s, who used it to define unprotected temporary or seasonal workers as a new social class (Gross 2006; Chollet 2006).

The meaning of the term shifts depending on the social, geographical and temporal context in which it is being used. Thus, précariat in France mainly denominates unpaid or underpaid interns, who are usually recent graduates being exploited as cheap workers. They received public attention especially after their labeling as génération précaire by the French media. In Italy, however, the term precariato describes casual workers or jobbers, with very little income and who experience precariousness as a 'normal state of affairs' (Grimm and Ronneberger 2007). In contrast, Prekariat in Germany does not only include workers and temporary jobless workers, but also those who are jobless in a situation beyond hope, the so-called 'written-off precariat' or 'left behind precariat' (abgehängtes Prekariat) (FES 2006: 2).

In the Japanese sociological and media discourse on poverty, precariat or プレカリアート is a relatively new term. As many of the current Japanese problems concerning poverty and social inequality coincide with recent European developments, the corresponding social scientific terms are imported to the Japanese public discourse via foreign sociological research and journalistic publications. The term precariat was possibly first used in Japan by author and activist Amamiya Karin (2007).[1] Often, precariat is used in the same sentence with the term working poor [ワーキングプア], an issue which has also been widely discussed recently, especially after the broadcast of a documentary on NHK on the issue in 2006 (NHK 2007, Amamiya 2007).[2]

However, it is important to note that there is a slight definitional difference between precariat and working poor, as the latter describes only those who maintain employment but due to low income levels remain poor. Although the majority does work in unstable employment, working poor are not necessarily employed in non-permanent jobs, as some examples of working poor social workers, nurses or service staff show.

In contrast, precariat are not only those who work under precarious conditions, since there are also those who live under precarious conditions without being engaged in paid work. In addition, a large part of the Japanese 'salaryman' workforce could also be considered as working under precarious conditions, although they are not necessarily poor in a material sense. By this I mean mainly the intricate system of evaluation that takes into account performance and potential, attitude and character, and the constant stress that many Japanese employees face associated with long-term competition among colleagues. In addition, under the way larger companies hire their employees, which Hamm (1992: 67) calls 'kintractship', a form of 'adoption' by the employer, the pressure on regular employees to succeed is immense. Little annual leave, long working hours, massive amounts of 'service-overtime', and death from overwork (karōshi) are just a few challenges that make some regular Japanese male employees' working lives seem precarious (Mouer and Kawanishi 2005: 14-18; 62; 86).

In this paper I will focus on the groups of workers who both work and live under precarious conditions. In this sense, precariat and working poor will be treated as roughly synonymous, and those who are jobless will be excluded in this exploration.

There are several dimensions which determine the status of precariousness in work. These are the employee's level of income on the one hand and his or her possibility to exert control over working conditions, wages and pace of work on the other hand. Moreover, the degree to which the worker is protected by a regulatory and legislative framework, whether an employment allows the worker to integrate into meaningful social networks as well as the quality of the tasks performed are considered when determining precariousness (Brinkmann et al 2006: 18). Precarious work therefore means poorly paid non-standard employment, which is highly insecure, unprotected and offers no benefits. As the income earned makes it hard to sustain a living with no means to accumulate savings, the precariat are always on the brink of further social decline, and precarious work often triggers precarious living conditions (Dieckmann 2005).

In contrast to the only recently popularized discussions on precarious employment, the topic of precariat is not new to Japan. In fact, day laborers or part-time working single mothers, as well as marginal groups like sex workers or illegal immigrants who seem to be totally excluded from the recent discourse on working poor in Japan, have existed for a long time and lead working poor lives. What can be identified as a new phenomenon are the highly educated working poor (kōgakureki wākingu pua). They experience an immense disparity between their expected high social status attained through education and their actual precarious working conditions (Kosugi 2008: 6-7). Especially this shift in groups affected by precariousness has spurred the national and international public discourse on working poor.

Still, there are no formalized definitions on the relatively new term of working poor, which translates into Japanese as kinrōhinkon [勤労貧困], so I will focus in this essay on the groups of day laborers, homeless, dispatch workers and freeters that can be considered working full-time and still be living under below average conditions.

It should be noted, that the precariat is not necessarily a homogenous pool of people, as even within those groups who lead a lifestyle labeled as precarious, stratification is noticeable when comparing, for example, the situation of young freelance workers with that of elderly homeless. In addition, material poverty means something different to everyone, and the tolerance level varies from person to person: for some, precariousness might mean 'not having enough money to eat regularly', for others, it might mean 'not having enough pocket money to socialize with friends'. Therefore evaluating the degree of precariousness from an external point of view is often a difficult task, and the outcomes are highly subjective.

Although I do not support the notion that happiness is implicitly connected to a high material status (and vice versa), I believe that the social consequences of poverty should not be neglected in this exploration. Generally speaking, those who do not reach, or who withdraw from attaining the material status of the dominating class in any society are discriminated against, as their way of life significantly differs from the mainstream. In Japan poverty additionally means living with the stigma of personal failure, as equality of opportunity in terms of upward mobility through individual effort is an integral part of the normative ideology of the socio-economic process in Japan. Poverty therefore is generally seen as 'the legitimate consequence of a fault in individual moral behaviour' (Vij 2007: 105).

In recent years the concept of a 'homogenous middle class society' is being contested in the sociological discourse on Japan,[3] and the valuation of alternative lifestyles has been changing: 'Increasingly, other Japanese resist or cannot meet established norms for membership in "mainstream society". They are dissatisfied with the status quo and refuse to conform to the cultural categories of employee, husband, wife, Japanese citizen, etc' (Stevens 1997: 16, Schad-Seifert 2007). Nevertheless, the discrimination against those at the very bottom of society still prevails, and the situation of the precariat is aggravated as they not only suffer from material deficits but also discrimination and even social exclusion. Group membership (e.g. to a company) still is in Japan possibly more than in many other societies crucial to attaining what might be termed a 'normal' identity. As a consequence, if an individual cannot establish membership he or she may suffer from personal and social deprivation, as 'poverty connotes not simply the lack of material goods, but rather the absence of the possibility for recognition of self that comes from being incorporated' (Hegel, cited in Vij 2007: 145).

Structural Reasons for the Rise of the Precariat and its Consequences

Globalization, Recession and Structural Change

Already during the 1970s, after the oil-shocks an increasing casualization of labor could be observed in Japan's growing service sector, as more and more women participated in the labor force as flexible part-timers (Tachibanaki 2005: 121). The recent increase in casualization however, which now also affects male full-time workers, is often seen as a consequence of structural changes in the Japanese economy after the burst of the bubble economy and the Heisei recession[4] and the process of globalization (Japan Housing Council 2004: 15, 116). This includes for example a continuing process of outsourcing by larger companies, putting many smaller and medium-sized sub-contractors in jeopardy. Notably, since 1991, the number of businesses declined continuously; between 1996 and 2001 by as much as 5.5 per cent. In order to survive and to compete on an international level, businesses have reduced cost by employing a 'more complex or sophisticated mix of employees who are more differentiated and specialized than in the past and have shorter turnaround time' (Mouer and Kawanishi 2005: 106). As a consequence, a large number of employees were laid off and regular jobs were converted into inexpensive temporary ones. Although between 1991 and 2001 the number of mostly male regular employees shrank by 1.4 per cent, the number of female workers in the service industry rose by 1.6 per cent during the same period (Okamoto 2004a: 8).

Thus, the competition for the best and most secure jobs has intensified and those with lower qualifications find it harder and harder to sustain their position in the labor market. Although education now no longer is a guarantee for secure employment,[5] still only those with the highest educational background have a chance of competing for the most highly esteemed jobs with the best prospects, salaries, benefits, pension schemes and security in the larger companies. Other workers and high school graduates who do not count as members of the elite have to accept less favorable conditions, according to their 'market value' (Tachibanaki 2005: 67). As a consequence, many high school graduates who previously could expect to find full-time jobs now have to settle with becoming temporary or irregular employees. Other aspects of this structural exclusion from certain jobs in the labor market will be discussed in detail in regard to day laborers and freeters.

Social Security and Welfare

In addition, significant problems within the Japanese social security system can be identified as underlying reasons for rising precariousness. The foundation of the current social security system was laid in 1979, when Prime Minister Ohira revoked previous, western-style, welfare policies by presenting the concept of the so-called 'Japanese welfare society' (Nihongata fukushi shakai). Its fundamental idea was the reduction of costs by returning to the more traditional informal Japanese family-centred welfare (zaitaku fukushi) and neighbourhood council (jichikai)[6] systems where every citizen is responsible for caring for themselves, their family and neighbours. According to the concept, public aid was only to be made available if self-help and family support were not sufficient (Fürstenberg 2003).

However, from today's point of view, in an increasingly urbanized society like Japan, where the shift from a traditional family life to an ever-individualized and fragmented lifestyle weakens family support systems, a social security system that strongly relies on family ties and neighbourhood support cannot counter social problems by zaitaku fukushi alone (Fürstenberg 2003).

In contrast to many European countries, the social welfare concept in Japan is built on the ideology that a possibility for reliance on the state would create weak individuals and likewise, making the Japanese rely on themselves would strengthen their personalities (Vij 2007: 139). This means as a consequence that those who are, and even if only theoretically, able to support themselves through work, are excluded from public support.

But even for those who are eligible, access to public support is limited by high bureaucratic hurdles and challenging obligations. At the same time, there is reluctance to ask for aid, since the stigma of 'asking for help from the state is immense and 'the community tends to regard public assistance as a dependence on charity at the public expense' (Vij 2007: 184; Guzewicz 2000: 117; Aoki 2003: 372). It is estimated that, while only one fourth of all eligible Japanese actually receive public support, Japan invests less than 1 per cent of national income on welfare (Vij 2007: 179). Still, the rate of households receiving welfare payments rose by 70 per cent during the last decade to 1.07 million households in 2006 (Hoffmann 2008a).

Who are the Precariat?

The Homeless

Those possibly living under the most precarious conditions in Japan are the homeless, whose typical and mostly illegal shelters made from blue plastic sheets can be found in parks, under highway bridges, and in train stations in nearly every Japanese city. Those who are homeless are not only deprived of economic security, they often lack emotional stability and physical well-being, too. Furthermore, they experience a total absence of privacy (Somerville 1992: 530). Homelessness, therefore, does not only mean lacking shelter or a place to live; it also involves the absence of normal patterns of social relations.

What has disturbed many scholars is that the number of homeless people in Japanese urban areas has been rising disproportionately for the past 15 years and Japanese welfare organizations estimate that the number of people living on the streets has increased fivefold within the past few years alone. According to the most recent survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW 2008) are about 16,000 rough sleepers living in Japan. However, by the nature of their conditions, it is hard to 'count' the homeless, and the numbers cited vary significantly according to different sources. In addition, when comparing homelessness statistics on an international level, one must not overlook differences in definitions. While unstable housing, such as living in a cheap hotel room or staying with friends, does count as being homeless in the USA, this is not the case in Japan (Aoki 2003: 361). Due to the narrow definition applied in Japan the size of the problem is, statistically speaking, diminished. Therefore, when including those living in temporary shelters, transitory housing, internet cafés, hostels, and other insecure housings, the number of homeless in Japan might exceed 35,000 people.[7]

Homelessness is not a new issue for Japan, but rising numbers[8] and the higher visibility of homeless people has led to a significant increase in coverage by both national and international media, with the most recent reports focusing on the new phenomenon of 'internet café refugees', who are young people who can't afford renting an apartment on their low-wage jobs and spend their sleeping time in internet café cubicles (Schäfer 2007; Yomiuri 2007). Still, the majority of today's homeless are older single males, as the average age of those surveyed by the Ministry of Health and Labor is 57.5 years (MHLW 2007: 11).

Roughly 90 per cent of all Japanese homeless people live in the metropolitan areas of Ōsaka, Tōkyō, Nagoya, Kawasaki, and Yokohama. This is not only because 80 per cent of all Japanese citizens live in urban areas, but in general, homelessness is seen as '[…] particularly an urban phenomenon. Homelessness is especially urban because the cities are the endpoint of industrial and urban decline' (Conrad and Saaler 2001: 25; Timmer, Eitzen and Talley 1994: 4). According to a survey by Okamoto, most of the homeless population finished only compulsory school and only one third have ever been married. Furthermore, the number of ethnic minorities, Burakumin, and foreigners (especially Koreans) is thought to be disproportionately represented among the homeless in Japan. A majority (28 per cent) among the homeless who were surveyed in 2007 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had lived between two to five years on the streets, 25 per cent had already been homeless for five to ten years, and 13 per cent had already spent up to twenty years on the streets (Okamoto 2000: 4, MHLW 2007: 111).

Being homeless, day-to-day survival is not an easy task and the majority of homeless persons spend most of their time searching for a chance to make money or finding enough food to survive. In many areas, the homeless can receive food handouts from volunteer groups or the Japanese food bank 'Second Harvest Japan' on a regular basis. Whereas the latter provides food donations from shops and restaurants, the former usually buys food using cash donations. Some homeless people even built an individual network for receiving leftover food from fast-food restaurants or convenience stores (Murata 2006: 42, 69) 'You'd be amazed how much perfectly good food and drink the restaurants dump every night. We'd get to know the staff at each place when we made our nightly rounds. Some were pretty decent. They'd have a can of leftovers waiting for us. Others – well, you find a rotten apple in every barrel.' (Shimizu, a then 70- year old homeless, cited in Fowler 1996: 122).

However, not all homeless people can or want to depend on donations and handouts. Most provide for themselves, working several hours a day to earn money using quite surprising and creative strategies. According to a survey in Ōsaka, about 80 per cent of all homeless were able to earn at least a little income. Most did so by collecting recyclable material like aluminium cans, plastic bottles, or cardboard, which they resold to wholesale recycling-companies. Around 35 per cent of homeless people doing so were able to earn between JPY10,000 and 30,000 a month, and 19 per cent earned up to JPY50,000. Some homeless people sell objects they find on the streets in a kind of mini-flea market, while others specialize in collecting used manga books and magazines to resell. Yet, this kind of work is physically extremely exhausting, the competition for material is immense, and the income earned is barely enough to secure daily nutrition (Kōdama 2004: 7; Okamoto 2004b, Hayashi-Mähner 2004: 116, Fukuhara 2000).

In theory, one might think that the homeless could work their way out of homelessness by doing these jobs. However, it is quite clear that this kind of activity only provides for meagre day-to-day survival, and for most homeless, not even a single night in a doya (flop house) or business hotel is affordable, not to mention saving up for 'key money' and expenses needed to rent a regular apartment. In addition, these 'jobs' are by nature dead-end without any chance of upward mobility. According to Marr, the longer people live on the streets and pursue irregular jobs, the more their autonomy is endangered, as their chances of finding regular work decline rapidly (Marr 1997: 241).

Day Laborers

About one third of all Japanese rough sleepers has no experience of long-term homelessness, unstable housing, or insecure jobs and therefore is generally called 'new homeless'. They are mostly poor single senior citizens, but also well-qualified middle-class workers who have recently lost their jobs can be found amongst them (Guzewicz 2000: 75 and Kōdama 2004: 20). Still, most of today's homeless began their life on the streets after the recession hit Japan in the mid 1990s and are therefore labeled as 'old homeless'. Having worked as day laborers (hiyatoi rōdōsha)[9] in the construction industries, many have a history of insecure jobs and insecure housing (Okamoto et al 2004: 4). What makes the lives of the day laborers precarious is especially the fact that their lifestyle is highly insecure and dependent on external influences.

Defined by the Kokumin kenkō hoken-hō as 'those who do not work in the same job for more than one month, and whose job is temporary in nature', day laborers usually had no problems finding daily or weekly employment during the boom times of economic growth after the Second World War (Hayashi-Mähner 2004: 50–51). Most were employed in public works projects which enabled them to lead the relatively free lifestyle that made being a day laborer in the construction industry quite an attractive occupation for some (Marr 2000: iv). During that time more than 15,000 day laborers worked in Tōkyō alone. Day laborers fulfilled an important role in the economic system of Japan, as they are the quintessential 'reserve army' which can easily be hired and fired according to business needs without endangering the functioning of the system as a whole (Steven 1983: 179).

Also, the day labor market served as an intermediary occupation for student drop outs or temporarily unemployed (De Bary 1997: 80). With the burst of the bubble economy many workers in different industries lost their jobs. Many of those found employment by the day in the construction industry, as the government tried to 'spend the economy out of recession' with massive investments in public building projects (Aoki 2003: 367). When this spending declined by the end of the 1990s and the general economy did not recover, many of the smaller construction firms went bankrupt. In 1997 alone, 5,000 companies had to close down their businesses. This meant that the construction industry could no longer absorb the jobless from other industries and even specialized construction workers were gradually excluded from the day laborer market (Kōdama 2004: 20). The labor market in Sanya and the other yoseba has now shrunk dramatically, and more workers compete for fewer jobs, while older workers lose out against younger and fitter competitors. These are symptoms of a process that is called 'deyosebisation' or decline of the yoseba (Marr 1999: 60).

Although the number of hiyatoi rōdōsha has declined sharply in recent years, there is still a market for construction workers existing in the yoseba. There, the jobs are being offered in the early morning, and the day laborers decide which job to take (Aoki 2003: 361). Most day laborers are employed by sub-sub-contractors of large construction companies, who delegate the responsibility for hiring workers. The 'brokers' of these jobs are the so-called tehaishi that guarantee a certain amount of workers to the contractors and in turn receive a premium off the workers' wages. Benefits or bonuses do not exist within this system. The work done by these day laborers is generally described as 'Three K' (san-k) kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous) und kitsui (demanding) (Marr 1997: 237). There is also a strong connection between the Yakuza criminal syndicates and the yoseba.

Many day laborers lived and live in the yoseba or doya-gai [10] of Sanya (Tōkyō), Kotobuki (Yokohama) and Kamagasaki (Ōsaka), where they mostly live without family ties in cheap flop houses that are paid by the day. As they have found there surroundings suited to their needs, many have since never returned to their home prefectures. Although many had experienced temporary homelessness even before the recession, their situation worsened thereafter dramatically. As they live and work at the very bottom of the labor hierarchy and depend on finding jobs on a day to day basis, day laborers are especially vulnerable to the ups and downs of the labor market. If they cannot work, they immediately lose their shelter and they may then slip from temporary to permanent homelessness (Ezawa 2002: 280; Iwata 2005: 65). Although there is a special system of jobless insurance for day laborers (shiro techō), it only functions when day laborers work on a regular basis (Aoki 2003: 368; Fowler 1996: 33).

Most day laborers who seek regular permanent employment are structurally excluded from these occupations. Many are too old and or unsuited because of a lack of skills. Others cannot find an employer, as they have no permanent address (Marr 2000: 22). With no chances on the regular employment market and a constant decline in the supply of construction jobs, more and more former day laborers end up becoming homeless as they have no chance to sustain their living by working. In 1999 nearly half (46.1 per cent) of all day laborers questioned in a survey lived on the streets and of those who were not homeless, 78.1 per cent only had a temporary and insecure place to sleep, like cheap doya rooms (Marr 2000: v). Therefore, day laborers with a history of unstable housing today compromise a large part of all homeless living in Japanese cities (Aoki 2003: 362).


An increasingly numerous new type of temporary worker are the so-called dispatch workers or temporary staff (hakenshain), who are 'brokered' by dispatching companies. They have either fixed term contracts or are employed by the day and are sent to companies needing unskilled labor on a temporary basis (Rebick 2005: 60). In 2008, more than 3.2 million workers are outsourced via one of the more than 70,000 temporary staffing companies. From 2005 to 2006 alone, the number of dispatched workers rose by 26 percent. (Matsumoto 2008)

This form of employment is especially problematic for those workers who relocated to the metropolises from rural prefectures expecting to find well-paid jobs in service industries, following job offers advertising monthly salaries of up to JPY300,000. However, these salaries are actually out of reach for most, as housing, transportation and other service fees are directly deducted by the dispatching company. As regular apartments are generally unaffordable for them, and those haken-workers who live in company quarters immediately become homeless upon losing their job, a small but rising number of young dispatch workers live a quasi-homeless life as so-called Net Café Refugees or Mac Refugees. Despite these precarious living conditions, most do not want or cannot return to their home prefectures, as they lack travel funds or opportunities to support themselves (Amamiya 2007: 15-19; 31).

This vicious cycle of employment, unemployment and precarious living conditions begins for haken-workers in a similar manner to the homeless and day laborers, because many are forced to generate their income on a daily basis. Besides their daily expenses, there is usually nothing left over to save up for renting an apartment, which would be the prerequisite for attaining a regular job; without an address, a regular job is out of reach. But even if a haken-worker does have a permanent address, looking for a better paid or regular job is problematic. Depending on their daily wage, many cannot even afford to visit the Hello Work employment centres to get information on other job opportunities, as this would mean the loss of that day's income (Amamiya 2007: 28; 63-64). On the other hand there are other hurdles in the way of attaining a regular job. While 70 per cent of insecure workers would prefer stable and secure employment, more than 65 per cent of all companies in Japan decline candidates for regular occupations with a background of insecure employment. Therefore, once engaged in insecure employment and precarious living conditions, most have no other choice than to perpetuate their circumstances by taking up one insecure job after another (Amamiya 2007: 43-44; 61).


Another category of working poor or precariat who have recently received substantial attention in the media is the so-called freeters.

Usually, both freeters and NEETs (not in education, employment or training) are named as a similar phenomena in the Japanese context, as 'both are deviations from the basic school-to-work transition model in Japanese society, in which students start working as full-time tenured employees upon graduation and are trained by the companies to become full-fledged workers' (Kosugi 2005: 6). The mayor difference is, though, that NEETs do not engage in paid work. Therefore, this sub-section will focus on freeters.

The expression freeter was coined in 1987 by a recruitment magazine as a combination of the words 'free' and the German term 'Arbeiter', meaning 'worker'. The first scientific research on the problem of freeters was conducted in 1991 by the Ministry of Labor, in which freeters were defined as young people aged 15-34 years, working in temporary or part-time occupations or looking for one of these jobs. In contrast, housewives, those in education (e.g. students) or married women, who often are engaged in similar types and conditions of employment, cannot be termed freeters (Hommerich 2007: 484). This definition has received criticism, as it does not take into account those who are older than 34 years or married. This is problematic, as the freeter-population faces ageing. In 2004 more than half of the freeters were older than 25 years, compared to the beginning of the 1980s, when only teenagers and those younger than 25 years old worked as freeters (Kohlbacher and Hommerich: 2007: 16).

Since the beginning of the 1980s the number of freeters climbed from 500,000 to more than 2 million in 2005. Although a minor decrease has been observed amid slight improvements in the employment situation, still around 20 per cent of all Japanese young people aged between 15 and 34 work as freeters (JILPT 2006: 11).

With average hourly pay between JPY800 and 1,000, depending on the region and the tasks performed, average annual income for freeters is around JPY1,060,000 (Amamiya 2007: 47). The gap between a regular workers' income and that of a freeter is high, increasing as the workers age, as freeters do not receive seniority-related raises. It goes without saying that freeters neither enjoy benefits nor paid holidays, and only about half of them have regular health insurance or contribute to pension funds (Kohlbacher and Hommerich 2007: 17). Most freeters cannot afford to rent an apartment in metropolitan areas, which roughly start JPY70,000 per month for even the smallest accommodation, and they must remain dependent on their parents into adulthood, a situation which they naturally cannot continue indefinitely (Amamiya 2007: 24).

What is problematic about this situation is not only that freeters presently face a comparatively precarious situation, but that their future is by no means secured since, the longer that they remain in such circumstances the more unlikely that they can switch to a regular occupation. Moreover, while the number of available job openings has declined since the 1990s, companies have become more selective when choosing their candidates (Kosugi 2005: 6). Although most companies will employ good candidates who have worked up to one year as a freeter, those who have a longer history in irregular employment or even extensive experiences abroad after graduation usually have little chance of securing regular employment (Kosugi 2008: 210). This shows one of the most striking differences between the Japanese freeters and the European generation internship or géneration précaire: while internships are usually not paid, they do help improving the individual's 'value' on the job market, as companies usually appreciate the experiences gained and the effort made by the intern. In some cases, an internship serves as a trial phase, after which the intern receives regular employment in that company. In contrast, the Japanese freeter jobs are hardly ever aimed towards future employment, while their chances on the regular labor market decline over time. At the same time, most job opportunities for regular employees are reserved for fresh graduates or those with several years of relevant work experience. The freeters' experience is mostly ignored or underestimated in that respect (Kosugi 2005: 6).

This is also due to the fact that many companies judge freeters as aimless, unmotivated, lazy and hard to integrate into company routines (Amamiya 2007: 138). As Genda (2005: 53) puts it, the term freeter has come to symbolize those 'who will not (or cannot) hold a steady job 'or 'who soon quit'. The freeters' public image has been transformed since the 1980s, when they were perceived as a free, young and individualistic group that prefers the insecure lifestyle over prefabricated careers as a 'salaryman'. Although there has been a rising awareness of income inequality and social stratification in recent years, still many Japanese believe that the freeters who don't manage to escape their situation simply do not try hard enough or simply do not want to use their chance for upward mobility (Kohlbacher and Hommerich 2007: 16). This image is reinforced by the mass media focusing on the so-called 'model minority', and showing singular cases of those who have 'made it' (Amamiya 2007: 37).

This account shows that the outlook for many is rather bleak. But why, then, do so many young people engage in this type of work? In general, freeters are categorized according to their differing motivations (Kosugi 2008: 11).

One group sees no alternative to working as a freeter, and would rather find permanent employment (Mouer and Kawanishi 2005: 124). Due to education deficits, a general lack of job opportunities, or the fact that their qualifications are not in demand, most members of this group have little chance of finding regular employment. The latter reason especially affects a rising number of very highly educated Japanese, who cannot find regular employment, and around 10 per cent of freeters are university graduates. Mizuki (2007) describes how many MA or PhD graduates, especially in the fields of humanities, are neither welcomed nor needed on the labor market, nor within universities as teaching or research staff. While his description is quite subjective, I believe that he has a point when saying that especially companies show little interest in those with very high education, as they might disturb the 'homogeneity' of the existing staff (see also: Kosugi 2008: 210, Genda 2005: 35).

In contrast, young people who are less educated and have little access to information on employment perspectives are most likely to become freeters. As the unemployment rate of younger people has been rising, many turn to jobbing as a means to survive. '[…] the truth is that the vast majority probably became freeters without any clear intention of doing so; in the final analysis, even they don't know why they ended up as such. Rather than young people choosing to become freeters as the result of a clear and conscious individual decision, the choice has been made for them – without their even realizing what is happening – by the socio-economic system' (Genda 2005: 52). Naturally, they judge working as a freeter mainly as negative, as they feel pushed into precarious employment that gives them little chance for improvement or escape (Hommerich 2007: 486, 488).

Another group of freeters mainly uses its time jobbing in order to define future educational or occupational paths. Moreover, many of the so-called rōninsei, students who study for university entrance examinations after having failed on one or more occasions already, belong to this group if they work as freeters (Kosugi 2008: 11; Hommerich 2007: 485). Since they more often than not see their situation as transitional, many even view their jobbing as a positive and useful experience in helping them to find out their 'yaritai-koto', or what they wish to do in their lives (Kosugi 2008: 39; Mouer and Kawanishi 2005: 124).

Similarly, there are freeters who work simply to secure their daily living, while they are saving or studying to fulfil a dream. This could either be training for a special handicraft, becoming an artist or travelling abroad. These freeters are called the 'dreamer-type', and up to 28 per cent belong to this group (Mouer and Kawanishi 2005: 124). These dreamers deliberately choose not to follow traditional occupational and lifestyle patterns, and although their lifestyle is as precarious as those of the other types, they mostly judge their situation less negatively than their fellow freeters. They see their job solely as a means to achieving their goal, and therefore accept their circumstances and do not generally seek regular employment (Hommerich 2007: 485. 488).

As a consequence, the freeter's self-image varies according to which group he or she belongs to, as 'freeter means different things to different people' (Kosugi 2008: 1). According to the categorization mentioned above, roughly 60 per cent of freeters do not view their current situation as wholly negative. However, one should keep in mind that freeters are not really a homogenous group, and that many freeters might well change their status and assess their own situations differently over time, especially the longer that they experience the downsides of life as a freeter (Kosugi 2008: 45).

Whether the current situation of the freeter is a severe social problem is disputed among scholars. On the one hand, Kosugi sees the short-term freeter in a role as 'new' consumers shaping today's 'pop culture', and depicts them simply as a new generation with different goals in life. She therefore concludes: '[…] [I] believe it is wrong to portray the furitaa as a social problem' (Kosugi 2008: 200-201). There is indeed a growing group of younger people who have lost interest in job-related achievements, as occupational success becomes less important, and the willingness to make sacrifices for that goal wanes. Takagi (2007: 24) and Mouer and Kawanishi (2005: 125) give evidence for this development, as more and more young Japanese fathers want to partake in their childrens' upbringing, or working at NPOs and NGOs becomes more attractive. In fact, this might also change the image and general acceptance of the freeters and others who do not fit into the middle class and mainstream lifestyle patterns (Hara 2007: 16).

On the other hand, as the number of older freeters in the age range of 25-35 years is rising steadily, this means that a generational problem is to be expected as their opportunities for achieving stability and security in their work and lives is severely restricted. 'Behind the rise in youth unemployment, however, is a factor that has the potential to become a serious social problem in the years ahead. By that I mean the steady decline in opportunities for young people to develop and cultivate their skills through work' (Genda 2005: 16).

Future Implications

With an economic situation and labor market that makes it difficult for many to find a steady and attractive occupation, and a social security system that does not provide for those who are working poor, the stratum of the precariat will continue to increase in size and number. This will have consequences that will affect not only each individual, but Japanese society as a whole, as upward mobility, job security and the chances for accumulating savings are low for most working poor. Further implications for their futures include reduced chances for marriage and parenthood, higher incidences of dependency on welfare when older, fewer opportunities to acquire their own housing, and lowered expectations for future consumption.

In 2005, 23.8 per cent of all Japanese households reported that they had no savings at all (Vij 2007: 164). As a consequence, they will possibly remain poor in the future, as they are caught in the so-called poverty trap, where being poor triggers higher costs in other areas of life (Amamiya 2008: 62). For example, attaining a regular bank loan is nearly impossible without having property or other securities (Symonds 1998). In contrast, private 'loan-sharks' offer consumer loans without much paperwork at much higher rates of interest than conventional banks offer their salaried customers. Companies such as Akomu (Acom) or Aifuru (Aiful) offer consumer loans from JPY10,000, with interest rates currently reaching up to 18 per cent per annum.[11]

In addition, hostel owners or landlords who rent out housing without asking for 'key money' can demand premium rents from those who have no other choice (Amamiya 2007: 57). Amamiya (2007: 69) calls these practices systematized hinkon bijinesu, or exploiting the working poor who get caught in one trap after another. Those who are poor now will possibly remain poor in the future, and this will presumably not be conducive to solving Japan's long-term problems connected to the ageing of society, the low birthrate, an impending labor shortage or reduced contributions to the pension system.

In fact, not only the working poor themselves feel the consequences of their precarious conditions, as the reproduction of poverty is becoming an ever increasing problem in Japan (Tachibanaki 2005: 51). Although the high rates of high school graduation[12] point to a much equalized access to education independent of parental background, the Japanese education system cannot at all be described as classless. It is common knowledge that large companies that offer jobs with the presumably best conditions prefer graduates of prestigious universities. The chances of entering one of these universities are enhanced by investing in private lessons in preparation for the entrance examinations. Hoffmann (2008b) cites a study by the insurance company AIU, whereby soaring education costs give the children of wealthy families an overwhelming advantage over children in poorer families. The cost of educating a child in the private school system is estimated at around JPY44.24 million from kindergarten to university, and JPY13.45 million in the public system for the same education (Hoffmann: 2008b). Therefore, attaining a certain degree of occupational security through higher education is dependent on several hurdles, many of which are financial (Tachibanaki 2005: 14; Hamm 1992: 25).

Moreover, the social consciousness and social status of parents is critical in determining a child's motivation to attain (occupational) status through putting effort into studying (Tachibanaki 2005: 75). Genda concludes that 'the growing intergenerational effect on the acquisition of both traditional and more recent forms of knowledge has the potential of widening not only present disparities but future ones as well' (Genda 2005: 96).

Concluding Remarks

To be sure, the precariat is not compromised of one homogenous group of people. From day laborers to homeless and young freeters to dispatch workers, many strata of Japanese society feel that they can hardly sustain a living on their low incomes. Besides, many of those who do have a secure form of employment still suffer from harsh working conditions, so that these groups, too, can be denoted as precariat.

The analysis of current deficits both in the area of social security as well as employment practices shows that many of those who have experienced precarious living and working conditions and who are seeking to ameliorate their situation, find it harder and harder to be able do so. As Genda (2005: 96) states:

Since the mid-1980s Japan's elite society, which had for the most part been open, has been transformed into one that is closed to all but a few. This means the collapse of any prospect of entering the middle class and the emergence of a new class-based society in which individual effort no longer matters. Japan is on its way to becoming a society in which the elite have lost a sense of noblesse oblige, and the rest have no hope and no incentive to work hard.

There are currently changes underway, not only concerning the general outlook on life among the younger generations, but also the image of freeters and other marginal groups is changing over time. Increasing media coverage, both nationally and internationally, reflects this awareness, as more and more books, articles and weblogs and videos are being published concerning working poor and precariat in Japan. In addition, several projects representing the freeter, haken-workers and day laborers, aim at fighting for more recognition and changes to the law. It is, however, questionable whether this gradually rising awareness among the Japanese will lead to a fundamental change in attitudes an even more importantly, to a change in recruitment and social security policies. Only if the structural obstacles are eliminated, can the Japanese precariat hope for a real and long term improvement in their situations.


[1] Lately, the term precariat is associated with the Japanese May Day movement and freeter unions, as the mass media has used it to describe young activists, mostly precarious workers themselves, who demand better working conditions. (Ueno 2007). See also: Mayday for Freedom and Survival Committee (2007).

[2] The first episode of the NHK special 'ワーキングプア' (working poor) was first broadcast in the summer of 2006. In the meantime, two sequels have been aired and two books have been published (see list of references). The reports focus on portraying the lives of several Japanese citizens backed by interviews with scholars like Masami Iwata. All episodes are available on YouTube and Google Video.

[3] See for example: Chiavacchi (2008), Yamada (2004) and Miura (2005), Schad-Seifert (2007).

[4] For a detailed description of the causes of the recession refer for example to Hamada (2003).

[5] Acording to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, job offers for nearly 800 students graduating in spring 2009 have been retracted in 2008. (Kyodo News 2008).

[6] Jichikai (自治会) can be translated as 'neighbourhood council' where membership is semi-compulsory and each household in the neighbourhood must pay a fee. These neighbourhood associations can be understood as a form of grass-roots organization that also assumes some administrative tasks (see Kreitz 1989: 46).

[7] Source: Informal interview conducted by author with Prof. Toshio Mizuuchi, Ōsaka City University on December 20th 2008 in Tōkyō, notes by author.

[8] The numbers of rough sleepers have indeed declined from 2003 (ca. 25,000) to 2008 (ca. 16,000). (MHLW 2008) However, this does not mean that roughly 9,000 persons have moved to stable housing and 'normal' lives. In fact, most of them simply moved to further insecure housing like shelters and other institutions, including hospitals, and the number of those moving into regular apartments is small. (Source: interview with Prof. Toshio Mizuuchi, see footnote no. 7).

[9] Extensive information on the history, lifestyle, and work situation of day-laborers is provided by Gill (2001), Marr (2000), Fowler (1996), Hayashi-Mähner (2004).

[10] Doya is the anagram for yado (宿) and doya-gai (どや街), and denotes a city quarter in which mainly simple and cheap flop houses can be found. For a more detailed description of the life in the doya-gai, refer to Hayashi-Mähner 2004: 45; Fowler 1996: 44 – 47.

[11] For information on business practices and interest rates see the homepages of two of the most prominent corporations in the Loan/Credit Card/Loan Guarantee Business: Acom Co., Ltd. and Aiful Corporation.

[12] OECD (2007): Education at a glance 2007.

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About the author

Julia Obinger, MA in Japanese Studies, Chinese Studies and Law at LMU Munich University in 2007, MA thesis on homelessness in Japan. Since 2008 PhD candidate at LMU and Young Special Researcher at Ōsaka City University. Research interests: precarity, urban working poor, changing consumption preferences and alternative lifestyles.

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Copyright: Julia Obinger
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