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The socio-economic woes of Japan

Written by Maciamo on 12 December 2003

Male chauvinism insure life employment

Why is discrimination towards women at work still so endemic in Japan ? The answer is not as difficult as it may seem.

Japanese claim their tradition of the women staying at home, making babies and caring for them, while the husband provided for their (financial) needs. But do they know that it used to be exactly the same in Western countries In the 1950's ?

Not only was this the same, life employment, which Japanese sometimes believe to be peculiar to their business culture, was also the norm until not so long ago in Europe or North America.

For me, Japan is just slower to adapt to social changes than other, mostly Northern European and English-speaking countries.

The woman liberation of the 1960's and 70's has prompted women to study more, get better jobs and fight for equality with men at work. In Japan (and some parts of Southern Europe), this is far to be won yet.

The problem is that some motivated Japanese women don't have the same opportunity to get promotions, because Japanese men think they'll quit once they have a baby. That would be fine in a flexible economy, where the women can easily join another company after their maternity leave, but that is still somewhat taboo in Japan where life employment in the same company is seen as sacred.

High cost pre-schooling keeps unemployment low

In addition, nursery schools are scare and often expensive in Japan, which means that most women prefer to stay with their children till they reach the age 6, rather than continue working and possibly spend all their salary to pay the nursery.

In fact, if all mothers staying at home and not looking for work suddenly decided to get a job (because of an outburst of feminism or a massive number of free nursery schools being opened), unemployment in Japan would be much higher than in any Western country, maybe over 30% (it is now around 5%).

I believe this is why men, on the one hand, but more precisely the Japanese authorities (goverment, CEO's), try hard to keep the traditional system as it is. It would bring shame onto Japan not to be able to cope with such rampant unemployment, especially that of the supposedly male bread-winner, while women staying at home is not shameful at all because of traditions. And you know how image-conscious Japanese are internationally. Like Chinese or Koreans, they would prefer to lie about statistics rather than lose face by saying they can't control their unemployment.

That is why pre-schooling remains expensive, as it prompts young mothers to stay at home for as long as possible, letting jobs to the men and reducing unemployment figures.

Lower living standard

Incidentally, why do you think Japanese have such small houses ? Most certainly because only the man works in the average Japanese household, while both partners do in England or other Western countries.

The reason I always heard from Japanese is the lack of space and high prices, but compared to the situation in England, that does not make the least sense. England's population density is slightly higher than Japan's and real estate prices are consequently also higher. Actually, I have scrutinised and compared accommodation prices, both for rental or for sale, in Tokyo and London, and it appears that London's are in average twice to 5 times higher for a simliar size and distance to the city centre. Prices also fluctuate more in London between areas, because of the standing and security criteria that virtually don't exist in Tokyo (all building are the same everywhere in Tokyo, and security isn't an issue).

No economic miracle

In conclusion, Japan is not the economic miracle some believed it was back in the 1980's. Salaries were higher because people had to work much longer hours, and still aren't actually that high if considered on a hourly basis. Men had to work longer because their wives stayed at home (and until now, no Japanese couples live under the same roof without being married), which was a trick to keep official unemployment figures almost inexistent. Since women have started (slowly) to work for real and want to make a career instead of getting married, unemployment is rising (how strange, isn't it ).

The Japanese economy went well for a while because Japan prohibited foreign businesses from establishing themselves in Japan (except a few Americans firms under the special economic agreements after WWII). During that time, Japan exported massively and implant itself in every Western country, building up car or electronic factories in Europe and America, while still preventing them to do the same in Japan.

Japan only recently (2 years ago ?) started opening up its market a bit by allowing a foreign presence under the condition that those companies had a partnership with or took over a Japanese company (not crazy, this way that will keep the ailing Japanese economy going by sustaining zombie companies with foreign capital )

High real estate prices were just another trick to falsely keep the cost of life, salaries, and most importantly stock exchange prices high. Once land prices dropped in 1990, the stock exchanged evidently followed, and the process is still continuing to this day.

High salaries, little in exchange

The reality behind this (no pun intended) is that Japanese living standard are much lower than Western ones, as cheaply built, uninsulated, cramped flat/apartment blocks show. Sometimes Japanese look rich when they travel abroad or buy luxury goods like Louis Vuitton bags or Rolex watches so casually. They are indeed rich when the yen is high (this can be achieved easily by financial manipulations by the Bank of Japan). But few Japanese enjoy the same (or even a third) of the holiday length most Westerners have. Everything being so much more expensive in Japan (especially transports and real estate), they spend a proportionally higher part of their salaries to do the same things as Westerners. Prices are so artificially high that a normal domestic flight in Japan cost around 40.000 to 60.000yen, as much as a flight to Europe or North America !

Another important point to explain artificially high Japanese salaries, is that tax levels are quite low - by European standard. This is also true of the USA, and in both cases people have to pay a huge amount of money for their education (esp. university/college), for medical care, and I could say for motorways/expressways. In contrast, most Europeans enjoy free education since pre-school to university, free or very cheap medical care and highways are all free (except in France and Italy). In the end, once their house, education and daily transport are paid (i.e. the major expenses in a lifetime), Japanese don't make much use of their money. What they can really get for their money's worth is food and clothing (though alcohol is again prohibitively expensive).

Tokyo or Japan ? Not the same story

It's equally essential to understand that Japan doesn't end outside Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya, where salaries are the highest. First there is already a huge gap betwen Tokyo and the rest. The average yearly salary in Tokyo is 50.000 US$, against 28.000 US$ in both Osaka and Nagoya. But in prefectures such as Nara, Kagoshima or Okinawa, the yearly average salary is under 17.000 US$, 3x less than in Tokyo, and well under Western European, North American or Australian average.
Consequently, prices are incredibly high for country people coming to Tokyo.

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