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Amid an increase in corporate firings, warning signs that you may be next

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Postwar Japan was a gutted ruin. It rose from the ashes on the strength of indomitable determination shaped and directed by a system peculiarly suited to the time and place. Key was the age-old Japanese virtue of loyalty. Employees were loyal to their companies which in turn were loyal to them. Employees worked long, long hours in return for guaranteed lifetime employment, steady promotion and rising salaries. Within 20 years the nation was an economic power; within 40, a superpower; within 50, floundering.

“The bubble burst,” it is said of the stagnation that dogged the 1990s and dragged on into the 2000s. New times, new technologies, new attitudes rendered the postwar system obsolescent, then obsolete. Lifetime employment became an unaffordable luxury. Unproductive employees were “restructured” – laid off. Merit, not seniority, governed promotions and pay raises. A whole “lost generation” suffered and suffers to this day the consequences of a general hiring freeze that closed doors to young applicants, forcing many into a life sentence of insecure, low-paying, dead-end part-time jobs.

A partial recovery energized the 2010s. The worst seemed over. Stability still eluded, and one-third of the nation’s workforce remains part-time; still, hope returned and things seemed to be looking up.

Then, of course, as everyone knows, came COVID-19. The economic blow was as deadly as the pathogenic. In 2021, the government’s Cabinet Office reported in February, 360,000 employees lost their jobs. There’s no reason to assume the worst is over. It’s probably not, says Spa (Feb 22 – March 1).

Years before the pandemic, companies began canvassing for applicants to accept hastily conceived voluntary retirement programs. Globalization, harsher competition, new technologies, artificial intelligence in particular, and heightened emphasis on speed and innovation, youth and adaptability, were making what remained of the old loyalty system redundant. Leaner and meaner were the watchwords. The virus raised the stakes. For the past two years in a row, says Spa, the number of companies inviting early retirement exceeded 80. Respondents number 15,000 plus.

Let’s consider individual cases. The names are pseudonyms.

Ryu Imabashi, in his 50s, works for a leading apparel maker. Decline set in during the recessionary 1990s. Annual sales of 15 trillion yen halved to 7.5 trillion. Two waves of restructuring preceded the virus. It was “voluntary retirement” in name only, Imabashi tells Spa. In fact there was little choice. Imabashi, at executive level, helped set up and implement the machinery. Now, he fears he’s a target.

The procedure, as he explains it, was to sound out each employee one by one. How did they feel about the way things were evolving? If the response was positive and the employee not on a list of “deadwood,” the talk went no further. If otherwise, the company line was, “We cannot guarantee your position going into the future. Would you consider early retirement?” The unspoken hint was that the offered package would never be more generous. You refuse it at your own risk.

Nothing has been said to Imabashi directly, but he knows how to read the signs. At his peak he was earning 7 million yen a year; at his nadir, 5 million; lately it’s rising again. Should he stay? “At my age,” he says, “it’s not easy to find a new job that’s satisfactory.” Relaxed in-house rules on outside freelance work has given him one opening he’s developed – freelance writing. That’s pocket money; but his wife works, and there are savings. Still, “I look at my college classmates who switched to IT and are thriving, and I must admit I feel ashamed of myself.” For now, “I’m hanging on,” he says. But for how long?

Kyoji Kuriyama, 32, worked on a contract basis for a food maker. His contract came up for renewal once a year. You can never be sure that this year is not your last. It’s something non-fulltime staff have had to learn to live with, a fixture of the “lost generation” years and beyond. Still, Kuriyama was happy. He enjoyed his work and was good at it. He sold protein products. Among his customers were high schools and colleges. He made the rounds of school sports teams, giving lectures, developing friendships with up-and-coming athletes.

A transfer sent him from Tokyo to Miyazaki in Kyushu, his assignment to develop a new market there. Perhaps it would have gone well if not for COVID-19. But suddenly face-to-face encounters were impossible, and business went “remote.” To that too he could have adapted, but “rural gym teachers are hard-headed,” he says. Remote contact was suspicious; to them it smacked of deception. His sales figures dipped, his contract was terminated.

Well, he reflected, there are plenty of others in the same boat. “Maybe I can turn this into a new opportunity?” He has a sideline: illustrating. It’s a hobby that could become a vocation. He’s determined to make it one. Meanwhile, his wife works, so they won’t starve.

Hard times invite despair – or hope. It’s all in how you look at it – if youth, strength and ability are your allies.

© Japan Today

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Its simple, companies became greedy, they wanted to maximise profit, already the worker was doing ridiculous hours, but felt rewarded because of the salary, a move towards a bonus based system, lower salary, high bonus was the way. Then the percentages were lowered, the worker was trapped, a mortgage and expected standard of living, all the while those at the top reaped an ever increasing profit.

The suicide rate due to overwork is shocking, more die from that, than Covid and even indiscriminate bombing in the Ukraine, the Japanese Government turns a blind eye to the shocking conditions that people endure, and I suggest a signifficant reason as to why they are reluctant to have people from Western economies.

They rely on loyalty, but also take advantage, it is time for lawyers to stop sitting on their golden thumbs and address all of these inequalities in the workplace. Take the abusers to court, have the cases highlighted in the international arena, then and only then will things change.

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Hard times invite despair – or hope. It’s all in how you look at it – if youth, strength and ability are your allies.

Sounds like an elegy for that lost generation faced with precarity and low wages now. But not everyone in Japan , and elsewhere has suffered.

The bureaucratic and rentier classes have benefited from higher taxes and subsidies directed at property holders to the exclusion of the working class. These have been policy decisions, not the work of impersonal market economic forces, which is the usual cop out excuse.

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What do all these Japanese wives do that is recession-proof and Covid-proof? Maybe their husbands should have a go at it.

The last five years have taken down globalisation, control reverting to governments. Governments are not very good at stuff, so there are consequences. The greatest impact will be felt in the 'everyday economy'. That's the bit of the econoverse that ordinary people live in (rich people will be fine).

Things will now get worse. Inflation will rocket. There will be shortages. Chunks of the economy will vanish.

How to cope? Realise it is happening. Tomorrow will not be like yesterday. Downsize: Your property, your car, your lifestyle. Now, not next month or next year. Develop a 'side hustle', because soon it may be your only income. Avoid anything the government do not like: tourism, migrant workers, crypto. Oh, and unlike Japan Inc. and its zombies, your business has to pay. Profit, from day one. Every Yen of expenditure counted. An adequate profit margin on every product. You cannot fix your prices for 40 years like some products have been. Avoid staff and overheads, which means ad hoc employment or the net.

There is always something you can do to earn cash. Sell everything you do not need. Grow and cook things that can sell at farmer's markets. Buy clothing from fleamarkets and charity shops, mend and wash it and sell it online as retro chic. Produce your own unique clothes. Buy collectibles and flip them online at 2x or 3x the price. Sell Japanese stuff to foreigners who can no longer visit. Collect wild seeds and packet them up for sale. Sell homemade sweets. Buy collections of stamps or coins and sell them singly online. Find your niche.

Think that small profits are beneath you? Nothing is beneath you when you need to earn a living. And small profits scale. Welcome to the world where turnover is everything. You can sell higher priced, higher margin items, but with greater potential reward comes greater risk.

The movement from a wage to self-employment, where every Yen has to be earned, is brutal. If you thought you had a long day at work in your office, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Start small and get a feel for it in your spare time. Don't wait until you are sitting at home, unemployed, unemployable and sinking into depression.

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