Since World War II, Japan’s economy has seen incredible growth with rising prosperity and wealth, providing jobs and security for many as well as offering a broad range of opportunities for foreigners. This economic uptrend, however, was followed by a harsh letdown and one of the worst financial crises in recent economic history. Fluctuations in an economy are cyclical and pose consequences for the various demographics in its society. The burst of the Japanese bubble economy experienced these cyclical problems on a highly inflated level. The day laborers, foreign guest workers, and emerging new homeless of Japan have since faced similar hardships as individuals seeking to fill spots in a dwindling job market. They face serious competition amongst each other, where changes in one demographic may strongly affect one another, and significant problems that illustrate some important underlying themes about Japanese attitudes toward employment in both a corporate and public sense.
As in any healthy economy, fluctuations are a normal occurrence. Competition in various markets creates new jobs and leaves behind old ones. What is often overlooked in the economics here is that with these jobs, many of the individuals working them are left behind as well. In his article, Guzewicz points out that society tends to emphasize economic success rather than failure. This has deep implications for the workers that are left behind, as they typically go unnoticed and under the radar. The day laborers, foreign guest workers, and new homeless come to represent this group in Japan, as they are competing for many of the same lower-level and part-time jobs. They are economically linked by their necessity for jobs to provide for themselves and their families. They are also linked by the inherent social struggle they face as the Japanese economy rebounds from its collapse. In such a tightly homogenous society as Japan is, group mentality and recognition create a strong social influence on those unable to work or meet their financial obligations.
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This economic link between the different working, or, trying-to-find-work groups, is clearly seen in the way by which the three demographics live in specific parts of the city; separate from the “respectable” Japanese. Fowler exemplifies this in his study of Sanya, a part of Tokyo that has historically been the geographic region occupied by the day laborers. These people have often left behind families and lives often because they are ashamed of job loss and they take on work in a day-to-day fashion. There are far fewer opportunities than workers. It is important to mention though, as is common with the newly homeless and foreign workers, that those in Sanya are greatly overlooked by “normal” Japanese society. The mentality in Japan, that respectable individuals hold steady jobs and prosperous families create social pressure and competition among the homeless, day laborers, and foreign guest workers for jobs.
Those who have fallen off track wish to get back on and those just starting to seek to establish stability. With the job market as competitive as it is, changes in these various social demographics imply a lot for the other ones. Guzewicz uses the example of the younger and stronger labor force that the foreign guest workers from Peru and Columbia provide, putting aging Japanese day workers and salarymen out of work. An aging population fosters an increased demand for these foreign guest workers for physical and manufacturing jobs. The increase in the foreign guest worker demographic also creates job pressure on current employees, as they take away Japanese jobs in factories. This is common in most modern economies as immigrants will usually work for lower wages, but what happened in Japan, as Roth describes it in his ethnography on working at Yusumi Motors, is that certain positions once filled by foreigners became associated with unacceptable work for well-standing Japanese employees.
This is one of the main reasons salarymen in Japan lost work and became newly homeless. Roth continues to describe how the Japanese workers began to feel out of place in their work environment. The guest workers created a lack of community that the Japanese feel so strongly about in the workplace. Skilled men are then pushed to the wayside by a growing foreign mentality that temporary work requires less commitment. Work becomes easier and the workers’ expectations from their employers decrease. Guest workers become relatively more affordable than Japanese employees who seek more long-term commitments from their firm. The above concept indicates that there has been somewhat of a shift in the long-standing notion of lifetime employment in Japan. Many of the higher-level jobs still require a certain level of long-term commitment from both employee and employer. A good example of this that Roth highlights at Yusumi Motors are how Yusumi preaches to the corporate lifetime ideal in its union handbook, saying that entering the firm is the first of one’s major life plans.
He also points out how seniority wages create incentives overtime for employees to work longer for a firm. However, the lifetime wage system has faced considerable pressure from foreign workers in the corporate world. The international labor market, as a result of relatively lower levels of compensation, has strayed many corporations from sticking to across-the-board lifetime employment agendas. The fact that young salarymen have an increasing turnover rate and the number of day laborers working on economic whims is growing illustrates this shift in Japanese corporate attitude. Somewhat counter-intuitive, however, is how among a growing population of the jobless, the majority of the Japanese public exhibit an attitude that lifetime employment and job hierarchies are still completely in place.
The meritocracy ideal in Japan creates as Guzewicz describes it, a “disassociation” with the poor, as “they” are different and rarely helped. The numbers of new homeless and the day laborers in Sanya clearly show that many skilled and formerly employed Japanese are, in fact, not guaranteed lifetime employment by their firms. By ignoring these individuals, the Japanese public attitude neglects a serious issue. The group mentality of Japan has made the poor more ashamed of themselves and more transparent to the rest of society, which with a quarter of the nation of at least 65 years old, this could, as Guzewicz suggests, indicate a looming Japanese social breakdown.