An astonishing fact: 92 percent of Japanese consider themselves middle-class, according to a labor ministry report published in 2019. That seems to clash with another fact: that nearly 40 percent of Japan’s work force is employed on a part-time or temporary basis, earning less and more vulnerable to layoffs than regular company employees. The point seems to be that you are as middle-class as you feel, or as you want to feel.
Then came 2020 and COVID-19. Spa! (Dec 29 – Jan 5) raises a question appropriate to the events of the year: Is the middle class dying?
It’s certainly weakening. The magazine’s headline is “The despair of the poor middle class. Take for example “Kazuki Saito” (all the names in the story are pseudonyms). He’s 40 and in real estate. His pre-coronavirus income of 6 million yen a year – plus bonuses and other benefits – was solidly middle class. It was not easy money – it meant putting in 80 hours a month overtime. He wishes he could do that now. But he teleworks now, and there’s no overtime pay in that. His income has consequently shrunk to 4 million. “What,” he asks, “about my housing loan? What about the kids’ school fees?”
What about them indeed? “Yuki Ota,” 44, is store manager for a men’s wear chain. His former 6 million yen a year salary is down to 4.5 million. Not only that, he never knows when the ax will fall. Business is poor; sales staffers have been let go in droves; his turn could come any time.
Unemployment would be devastating. He is a single father raising a 7-year-old son. What if he took the boy and went back to his parents’ home in Akita Prefecture? The cost of living there is just low enough that the unemployment insurance benefits he’d get would (though barely) cover it. On the other hand, the child has just begun making friends at school; to force a change on him and make him start all over again would be too cruel. His ex-wife takes the boy on weekends. She works part-time and is poor herself.
“I can’t let my son see how poor his father is," he says.
He’s found a solution of sorts: after working hours and on weekends, he works part-time delivering meals on a bicycle for Uber Eats. “It’s just the thing for single fathers. I deliver in the neighborhood and can look in on the boy from time to time. On weekends I take him with me. He rides on the back. We call it ‘touring.’”
“Minan Hirakawa,” 38, entered 2020 in high spirits. Her husband in finance was earning 7 million a year, the future looked bright – time, she decided, to put her elementary school daughter into a private school. The couple talked it over, agreed, and went ahead. We all know what happened next. Coronavirus struck, the husband’s earnings sank to 5.5 million, and school fees for the first year are 850,000 yen. The solution seems simple – send the girl back to public school. Simple, maybe – but unacceptable, Hirakawa decided. Come hell or high water, her daughter must go to private school.
It’s hell and high water. They began economizing by moving into a smaller and older apartment, reducing rent from 90,000 yen a month to 60,000. The new quarters are cramped and shabby, but never mind. They sold their treasured belongings at flea markets – he his golf set, she her brand name handbags. Did they think that would do it? They were wrong.
For eight years Hirakawa had been a full-time housewife. She made up her mind to go back to work. She found a job with a food processing plant in the neighborhood. Most employees are foreign “trainees” – a good thing, Hirakawa thought; she was unlikely to encounter there a parent from her daughter’s school. Unskilled and inexperienced, she makes frequent mistakes, and must bow to being sharply upbraided by her Vietnamese superiors. She grits her teeth. “It’s for the child,” she keeps telling herself, “it’s for the child.”
Is it really? The night shift pays better, so Hirakawa works nights. “Lately I can only be with my daughter for only a few hours a day,” she tells Spa! “But surely,” she adds, “when the coronavirus is over it’ll be better?”
It’s what we’re all hoping.© Japan Today