Winds of change in Japan, after massive layoffs

People feel Japans future is bleak under the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled for over 50 years

But since losing his lifetime job seven years ago, and going through several other jobs that paid less than half his former salary, Toyoda, a 54-year-old salesman, says he is fed up with Japan’s long malaise. Like many Japanese, he now wants what amounts to a revolution in this politically risk-averse nation: the ousting of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for more than a half-century.

“Things have gotten so bad that you have to ask, ‘Can’t someone else do a better job?’ ” said Toyoda, one of thousands of middle-aged salarymen who have struggled to adapt to a harsh new era of job insecurity and declining living standards. “It is time for new ideas, and new faces.”

Japan has seen a broad upwelling of such frustration in recent years, and particularly since the beginning of the financial crisis last fall, which brought the unfamiliar sight in Japan of mass layoffs and the unemployed tossed onto the streets. Now, the growing disillusion seems to have reached a critical but long-elusive threshold: when Japanese voters go to the polls on Aug 30 to vote in parliamentary elections, they appear almost certain to oust the Liberal Democrats from power for only the second time since 1955.

“Voters are finally being pushed into action because their livelihoods are starting to crumble,” said Masaru Kaneko, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo. “Until now, Japanese were politically apathetic because they could still live comfortably despite the weak economy.”

The trend

With the Liberal Democrats looking unresponsive or downright incompetent, more voters now seem willing to give Japan’s untested opposition a shot at finding a way out of the nation’s stubborn economic morass. A poll published by ‘Yomiuri Shimbun’, Japan’s largest newspaper, showed 30 per cent of 1,047 respondents backing the opposition Democratic Party, versus 25 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. No information on the margin of error was available.

Behind this brewing voter revolt is a grim new pessimism that has gripped this former industrial juggernaut. Japan’s economic situation has grown increasingly severe in recent years: the nation’s per capita gross domestic product declined from third-highest in the world in 1991 to 18th last year, according to the World Bank. Average household income has also fallen from its peak in 1994 to a 19-year low of 5.56 million yen, or about $58,000, in 2007, the labour ministry said.

A public opinion survey by the government-financed Institute of Statistical Mathematics showed that 57 per cent of 3,302 respondents said they expected their lives to get worse, with only 11 per cent saying they would get better — almost the mirror opposite of replies to the same survey 30 years ago.

But it was the current global slowdown, threatening the livelihoods of Japanese young and old, that seemed to push people past the breaking point. Japan’s export-dependent economy fell more precipitously than those of other developed countries, contracting at an annualised rate of 15.2 per cent in the first quarter of this year, its steepest decline on record.

This has brought widespread pain and dislocation, as companies have laid off about 2.16 lakh temporary and short-term workers since October, according to the labour ministry. The sight of hundreds of these newly jobless temporary workers protesting in Tokyo early this year shocked a country unused to mass layoffs, and raised fears of growing social inequalities.

No reason for pride

Anxieties are particularly acute about the future for Japan’s youth. In May, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24, not including students, rose to nine per cent, according to the internal affairs ministry, far higher than the 5.2 per cent rate for all age groups. And this in a nation that for decades prided itself on having virtually no unemployment.

A national media storm was stirred up earlier this year when companies hurt by the downturn began rescinding job offers made to university seniors, the first time that had happened to any significant degree since the bursting of the real estate bubble in the late 1980s. That left thousands of students to graduate in April without jobs waiting for them.

One was Shiho, a 23-year-old resident of the western city of Kobe who asked that her family name not be used for fear of embarrassment. Last year as a senior in business management, she said, she got a job offer to be a white-collar worker at a large construction company. She said she even went to a training seminar at the company in December, only to have the offer withdrawn in January.

In a desperate scramble to find work before graduating in March, the end of the Japanese academic year, she took the only job she could find, as a uniformed receptionist at a golf course. She said she felt so ashamed that she stopped talking to many of her friends, and ignored their cellphone messages, until she found out that they had also settled for jobs they did not like.

Toyoda said he believed that Japan had no future under the Liberal Democrats, who had turned his country into a nation without hope.

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