Thursday, October 3, 2013

Who Swings the Pendulum? Japan's Youth in the Pit

Once lonely at the top, Japan's elderly can expect company. Via.

Sexagenarians arrested for shoplifting. A population hardest hit by Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. An August ministry report stating Japanese people aged 65 or older have surpassed 30 million for the first time. Japan is clearly experiencing a crisis among its elder demographic. But what of the youth, many of whom find themselves as vulnerable as their aging counterparts?

"Recall, for inspiration, that young people made the last Japanese Spring," a 2012 Japan Times article declares, citing youth participation in the Meiji Restoration as a counterexample to all the doom and gloom surrounding Japan's young. With Prime Minster Shinzo Abe unveiling a plan Tuesday for both a ¥5 trillion stimulus package and a 5 to 8 percent rise in the consumption tax, it is the 20-somethings as much as the elderly who must wait to see the real results of Abe's great experiment.

On the one hand, the sales tax could ultimately benefit both groups by mitigating runaway social security expenditures, a problem that a raise in the minimum age for collection of benefits to 61 earlier this year has apparently been unable to curb. On the other, the tax hike comes at a time when pensions earn "close to zero interest," with no rate increase planned for at least a few years, and when companies are reluctant to implement a much-needed increase in wages. In other words, both pensioners and younger workers stand to suffer from a rise in prices without a commensurate rise in income, whether in the form of social security or wages.

While part of Abe's plan provides ¥160 million in tax breaks to companies that raise wages by 2 percent, some in New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe's LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), see this as nothing more than "wishful thinking." The results of the recent Reuters Corporate Survey seem to support the party's doubts. Of 266 companies polled as to what action they will take in response to the expected tax increase, only 13 percent planned to increase wages. Given this depressing response, Abe's call for a vaguely philosophical "virtuous circle of rising jobs, profits and wages" might prove shortsighted in the long run.

Take another part of Abe's plan: ¥110 billion in tax breaks and up to ¥300,000 in cash handouts for homebuyers. How will this affect Japan's working youth? Certainly, some kind of stimulus is needed. A 2012 government white paper showed the number of homeowners in their 30s to have dropped over 10 percent between 1983 and 2008, with a dramatic drop of over 50 percent for younger individuals. At the same time, the report blamed falling income for a rise in the burden of housing loans.

A topical look at Japan's housing development statistics paints a sunny view: increases in housing starts of 31,462 units a year for the past three years; booming business for Sekisui House Ltd., the nation's second-biggest home builder. But consider the example of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, where a fifth of apartments stand empty, and the land ministry's grim prediction that a similar fraction of all residential areas will become ghost towns by 2050. Suddenly, the housing boom starts to look much more like a housing nightmare, reminiscent of the kind of superficial newness that Murakami writes of in A Wild Sheep Chase:
"What a view! Instead of ocean, a vast expanse of reclaimed land and housing developments met my eyes. Faceless blocks of apartments, the miserable foundations of an attempt to build a neighborhood… Everything brand new, everything unnatural." (107)
Part of the problem of vacant housing stems from years of youth migration away from rural areas to cities, where they might hope to find more opportunities for work. Though young graduates have seen their fortunes improve somewhat since 2008, employment numbers still illustrate an uneven recovery. A recent report by Japan's education ministry showed 1 in 5 university grads coming into the market in the spring unable to obtain secure employment.

Nature reclaims vacant housing in Japan. Via.

Five and a half percent of those surveyed fell under the NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) designation. Though this number represents 30,770 people, only recent graduates were included in the report. If we look at an earlier study from 2009, which tallied the total number of NEETs at 640,000, we can see the grim reality: many of those unemployed graduates won't see improvement in their fortunes moving forward.

Even those who do manage to land full-time jobs face difficulties in a market with a glut of eager workers and a scarcity of positions. Recently, the term burakku kigyo (black companies) was coined to describe companies that demand as much as 100 hours of uncompensated overtime a month from their young employees. The overworked Japanese salaryman became something of a stereotype even during the golden age of bubble Japan. However, Ayako Mie of the Japan Times believes today's abuses stand apart due to the economic climate. Citing Haruki Konno of the NPO Posse, Mie writes, "exploitative companies hire new college graduates en masse, assuming most won't be able to survive the harsh conditions and will eventually resign. Then they just hire more."

With over 45 percent of college graduates employed in the service, entertainment and education industries leaving their jobs within three years, according to a 2012 health ministry report, one wonders whether the earlier 1 in 5 number for graduates without secure employment really tells the whole story.

A revolution in youth employment will require more than stimulus, such as Abe's ¥10,000 yen cash allowance for low earners. Writing on the topic of a youth-led Japanese Spring mentioned earlier, Roger Pulvers recognizes that companies themselves are "struggling to keep up not with the Joneses but with the Wangs and the Kims," illustrating the dwindling figure of the Japanese economy next to that of neighboring China and Korea.

Even inspiring efforts like that of Yujin Wakashin, who aims to establish a self-titled NEET Corporation for business-minded, iconoclastic NEETs, seem more like standouts than the start of a movement. The real rise or fall of Japan's youth will hinge not only upon the results of Abe's economic vision, but also more broadly upon a change in thinking.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda spoke at Japan Society yesterday on topics ranging from the Senkaku Islands conflict to social security reform. Prominent throughout his speech and his responses during the question and answer session was a call for Japan to become a nation that can make decisions in the present for the generations to come. His admonishment seems particularly relevant for a society and government that must decide whether to abandon its youth, and, by extension, its children of tomorrow, or to age into oblivion. The solution Noda calls for may require less of what he called the "two types of leaders: politicians and statesmen," and more of what he deems his own goal: the political reformer.

--Andres Oliver

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