On June 8, 2008, a sunny Sunday afternoon, a man in his twenties made his way to the crowded streets of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, a popular venue for pop culture in the city. Lots of locals and tourists had come to see people dressed up as manga and anime characters. The peace of the afternoon was shattered when the man pulled out a knife and went on the rampage, killing seven people, seriously injuring 10 more and leaving the country reeling from the shock.
As always, specialists have come forward with an explanation: “Japan is in the process of becoming a criminogenic society. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, security measures need to be tightened up”. However, as Japanese violent crime figures have been falling continuously since the mid-1950s, Japan’s reputation as a fundamentally safe society doesn’t seem under threat.
The young temporary worker responsible for this savage attack had lost his bearings in Japanese society. “I wanted to kill anyone at all,” he said when he was arrested. That was the only justification he was able to give for his actions. In the weeks leading up to the attack, though, he had published posts on his website in which he expressed the fear of losing his job and being abandoned. He was afraid of confronting a reality which many Japanese escape by seeking refuge in virtual worlds. It is a malaise felt by an increasing number of Japanese who face the threat of unemployment and growing social inequality in a country where only 30 years ago more than 90 per cent of the population described themselves as middle class (churyu).
At that time, the whole country had a common objective, to join the club of great economic powers, and the feeling of cohesion this engendered made possible an amazing degree of political and social stability. The state, business, education and the family provided reliable reference points for every individual, and so it was natural that the Japanese should follow the course that was laid out for them.
No one was prepared for the upheavals of the 1990s. Neither the government nor business expected the “Japanese model” to fall apart as dramatically as it did after the financial bubble burst just as the communist world collapsed. In the space of a few months, the economy weakened, bringing repercussions for Japan’s international relations.
A period of chaos coming after such stability provoked a major trauma. One result of the crisis was a weakening of the banking sector, which a few years before had been ranked among the strongest in the world. Businesses were quick to make massive lay-offs among a workforce which had devoted itself wholeheartedly to its employers’ success.
In the geopolitical arena, Japan realized that being the exclusive ally of the US during the cold war no longer protected it from international shocks. Japan had to assert itself on the international stage at the very moment when its sickly economy was making it weaker. And no one seemed capable of setting the right course for the nation.
Ten years on from this first crisis, just as it seemed able to get back on its feet, Japan has taken another tumble. Even if it didn’t get carried away by the financial bubble this time around, it has nonetheless been affected by it: its GDP has fallen by 12.7 per cent. This collapse is due to the drastic drop in its exports, down 45.7 per cent in the 12 months to January 2009. “Japanese export industries have been big beneficiaries of a favourable set of circumstances globally. Now that the crisis has affected the whole planet, they’re suffering the most,” according to Ryutaro Kono, chief economist at BNP Paribas in Tokyo.
Car manufacturers, the symbol of Japan’s export-oriented economy, have been the first victims. In profit a year before, Toyota reported a ¥450bn loss ($4.5bn) for the year to end March 2009. It has announced 4,000 redundancies. In the car industry overall, 28,000 people are expected to have lost their jobs by April 1, 2009. The picture is the same in the electronics sector. Japan’s unemployment rate was 4.1 per cent at the end of January. It could exceed 6 per cent by the end of the year, and though that may seem a low figure compared with other developed nations, Japan is a country used to almost full employment where people find it difficult to accept that society is getting poorer.
The deregulation introduced to deal with the crisis of 1997-8 has undermined the country’s ability to cope with the current crisis. “There’s nothing left in this country. It’s a dead country,” says the high school student in Ryu Murakami’s novel, Kibo no kuni no ekusodasu (Exodus to the Land of Hope) – an illustration of the prevailing state of mind of Japan’s youth. In the book, the writer imagines huge numbers of adolescents going off to live in Hokkaido where they set up a semi-independent state which runs by different rules from the rest of the country.
Everyone profited in the years of the financial bubble. Twenty years on, only a minority are still doing well, while many others have to make do with low-paid work. The terms freeters (a neologism formed form the English word “free” and the German “Arbeiter”, which indicates a person who gets by on menial jobs) and NEET (not in education, employment or training) have appeared in the press and become synonymous with social exclusion. At the end of 2008, Japan had more than 1.8 million freeters and around 640,000 NEETs, members of a lost generation (known as the losu jene in Japanese).
In his film Tokyo Sonata (2008), director Kiyoshi Kurosawa portrays this generation through the character of the elder son in a family that is falling apart. The boy joins the US military (permissible under a fictional change in the law) and goes off to fight far from home according to an absurd logic whereby a Japanese national becomes a US soldier. The young man, however, takes control of his destiny and ends up going over to the enemy in order to “find absolute happiness”. And that’s the lesson the director wanted to get across: the renaissance of Japanese society will inevitably depend on its youth and the reconstruction of its key reference points. Kurosawa emphasises the border as a symbol of the relationship between Japan (represented in his film by the family) and the rest of the world.
This film illustrates the way society has changed as a result of the policies of Junichiro Koizumi’s government (2001-6). Takafumi Horie symbolizes this period in which neo-liberalism came to dominate. This young internet entrepreneur started in 1996 with the idea that everything is for sale if the price is right and went on to create the vast Livedoor empire. “Without doubt it’s you who makes today’s youth dream,” Koizumi assured him shortly before the 33-year-old was arrested in January 2006 for violating stock exchange rules. His indictment provoked a mini-crash, which forced the Tokyo stock exchange to close early for the first time in its history.
‘I can’t get rich even if I work’
If Horie’s value system made some of Japan’s youth dream, it contributed to the marginalization of others who never found a place in a country in which money was all-powerful. Tokyo Sonata opens with the father of the family being sacked when the company he works for moves to China. He feels outraged at the decision, but he accepts it. As long as the system worked and enabled companies to make record profits, few people questioned it. And those who were on the outside kept behaving as though they were still part of it; the father in the film continues to lead the life of a perfect employee: he goes off to work each morning although he has no job and acts like he believes he’ll still be able to find his place in the system again. But he has to put up with the fact that globalization has prevailed over the Japanese model.
Globalization has even contributed to the creation of a category of workers which the Japanese refer to by the English term the “working poor”, as if to emphasize that the very concept is alien to Japanese culture. While the Japanese overwhelmingly identify themselves as churyu (middle class), they prefer a foreign expression to talk about a phenomenon which profoundly disturbs them. A documentary entitled “I can’t get rich even if I work”, which was broadcast in an early evening slot in July 2006, came as a revelation: what had seemed until then a matter of individual behavior now struck them as a collective failure which demanded action.
Yuasa Makoto, a leader of the Network against Poverty, condemns what he calls the “toboggan society” in which workers who don’t have a contract have to fend for themselves. “Once you’ve reached the bottom, you can’t take the toboggan back up again. Starting over is an impossible task for people who are excluded.” As a result he decided to launch a campaign against poverty, which is threatening social cohesion.
Between December 31, 2008 and January 5, 2009 he ran a “Village of Temporary Workers” in Hibiya Park in central Tokyo, not far from the ministerial district. The aim was to publicise the distress of temporary workers as the first victims of the recession. As they have no social protection and are often given accommodation by their employer, they can find themselves turned out on the street from one day to the next. According to official figures, 157,000 of them were expected to be jobless by April 1, 2009.
Makoto Yuasa’s initiative had an effect: nearly 1,700 volunteers turned up at the village to lend a hand and legal advice given to some 500 of the unemployed workers has helped many of them get compensation. Other villages have been set up around the country.
Of course, Yuasa realizes that this won’t in itself be enough to get the country back on its feet. But a new, more stable economic model in which everyone in society has their place remains speculative. However, the time when the government could act without being held accountable is gone. The Japanese Communist Party registered around 14,000 new members in 2008 and subscriptions to its daily paper Akahata (Red Flag) also saw an uplift.
Twenty-six-year-old Haruki Konno runs the Posse association, which aims to establish new relations in Japanese society and help the young find their way in the world of work. He confirms that Japanese people want to get involved. In the first issue of the organization’s magazine one of the themes they tackled was “Identity and young workers in relation to the Akihabara killings”. The magazine’s editors knew that by presenting that tragic event in the context of their society’s malaise, they would make a splash. Their magazine has not just been selling very strongly, it has sparked a heated debate.
NAMIHEI ODAIRA is a journalist. The article appears in the April edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month list.