When 96% of respondents answer “No,” something is afoot, if the poll has any validity at all. Spa! (Dec 6) surveyed 100 company employees aged 35-49 earning under 4 million yen a year. The question that drew the overwhelming negative response is, “Are you satisfied with your current salary?”
Dissatisfaction is not necessarily a bad thing. It can fuel ambition, stimulate the drive to get ahead. But Spa!’s point is that for the vast majority among the growing ranks of underpaid middle-aged workers, the state of the economy is such that getting ahead is impossible. Hard work yields no rewards; the 4-million-yen barrier is impenetrable; you’re mired in poverty, comparatively speaking, “until death.”
Labor ministry statistics show an average annual salary for employees in their early 40s of 5.75 million yen. A certain “Iwasaki-san,” single at 47 and earning 3.6 million a year, may not be poor in absolute terms, but he works for a struggling company, hasn’t had a raise in 10 years, has no hope of a raise any time soon, and perhaps can’t be blamed if he feels poor.
His company, a metals processor, is too small to cope comfortably with the soaring cost of imported raw materials – a by-product of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Consequent cost-shaving focuses on salaries, which stagnate, and overtime pay, which has vanished. Iwasaki used to earn 3.6 million a year working overtime. Its loss is a significant crimp in his personal finances. He can save nothing, he says, and as for marriage, “I’ve given up on it.” Marriage, he feels, requires a firmer economic base than he can possibly build.
Iwasaki is fairly representative of workers in small and midsize companies, says personnel consultant Shigeyuki Jo. “The domestic market is shrinking,” he explains. “The firms that are doing well are the leading global exporters” – this, adds Spa!, four years after the government’s “Abenomics” reform package went into operation with the declared intention of igniting a more general upsurge. Economy, trade and industry ministry figures the magazine cites show sales for small and midsize companies down no less than 30 trillion yen between 2011 and 2015. From 2009 to 2015, those same smaller companies reduced their payroll costs by 1.6 trillion yen. It’s people like Iwasaki who feel the pinch.
Some feel it much worse. “Mr Imoto,” at 41, seemed to escape one "burakku kigyo" (black company) only to land in another, and then another. A black company is one that exploits its employees shamelessly. Long hours, low pay. Even so, Iwamoto, a software engineer, had worked his way up to peak earnings of 4.5 million a year, but the endless workdays – he’d spend a month at a time sleeping, or rather catnapping, on cardboard spread out on his office floor – took their toll. His health broke down, he took a leave of absence and finally found a less demanding job, but his salary plunged to 3.3 million. He has three children. The family lives in a small house, the kids sleep in one room. That will do for now, while they’re all in elementary school – but when they’re bigger? “We” – the parents – “will have to sleep in the kitchen,” says Imoto ruefully.
Then there’s “Mr Takahashi,” whose father at 73 suffered a stroke that left him half paralyzed and one of an estimated 6.2 million people nationwide who cannot live without more or less constant assistance. Takahashi, 41 and single, is an only child. What could he do? His father was not quite incapacitated enough to qualify for subsidized institutionalization, so the son quit his job and found another close to his father’s house. The convenience does not come cheap. Takahashi now earns 3.3 million a year, 2.5 million less than before. His new boss is understanding and allows Takahashi as flexible a schedule as possible – but the boss’s retirement is approaching and the boss’s son, poised to take over, is known to resent the drain on efficiency. Takahashi sees the axe raised over his head. He doesn’t know what he’ll do when it falls.© Japan Today