Tent Villages Spotlight Plight Of Japan's Unemployed

Volunteers provide free legal and employment advice to the unemployed and the homeless in Fuchu city i i

hide captionIn a park in Fuchu city, just west of Tokyo, volunteers provide free legal and employment advice and free folk music to the unemployed and the homeless. It is one of many hakenmura, or villages for laid-off temporary workers, that have sprung up in Japan.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Volunteers provide free legal and employment advice to the unemployed and the homeless in Fuchu city

In a park in Fuchu city, just west of Tokyo, volunteers provide free legal and employment advice and free folk music to the unemployed and the homeless. It is one of many hakenmura, or villages for laid-off temporary workers, that have sprung up in Japan.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Yoichi Shima, 53, a welder, was laid off from his full-time job, then lost his temporary job, too. i i

hide captionYoichi Shima, 53, always thought that he would retire from his job as a welder with a decent company pension. Instead, he was laid off from his full-time job and then recently lost a temporary one. "I feel lonely and sad that society doesn't value my skills," he says.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Yoichi Shima, 53, a welder, was laid off from his full-time job, then lost his temporary job, too.

Yoichi Shima, 53, always thought that he would retire from his job as a welder with a decent company pension. Instead, he was laid off from his full-time job and then recently lost a temporary one. "I feel lonely and sad that society doesn't value my skills," he says.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Homeless people form a line to get a free meal at Tokyo's Hibiya Park, Jan. 2. i i

hide captionThe hakenmura movement began over the New Year's holiday, when organizers set up a tent city in downtown Tokyo's Hibiya Park. Homeless people form a long line to get a free meal at the village — which is just across from Japan's Labor Ministry — on Jan. 2.

Kyodo
Homeless people form a line to get a free meal at Tokyo's Hibiya Park, Jan. 2.

The hakenmura movement began over the New Year's holiday, when organizers set up a tent city in downtown Tokyo's Hibiya Park. Homeless people form a long line to get a free meal at the village — which is just across from Japan's Labor Ministry — on Jan. 2.

Kyodo

The current downturn is shaping up to be the worst since World War II for Japan, the world's second largest economy. Sony, Toyota, Canon and other major exporters have responded by cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs — mostly targeting temporary workers, who now make up one-third of Japan's workforce.

But in recent months, a grass-roots movement has emerged to help the temporary workers and focus public attention on their plight.

The organizers of this movement have set up a series of hakenmura, or villages for laid-off temporary workers. One of the more recent encampments sprang up on a weekend morning in Fuchu city, just west of Tokyo. Fuchu was once the capital of Musashi province in the seventh century. Today, it is home to a famous Shinto shrine, as well as two big Toshiba and NEC plants, which are the major local employers.

Unemployed Feel Abandoned

In Fuchu's park, volunteers provide free legal and employment advice, and free folk music, to the unemployed and the homeless — including 53-year-old Yoichi Shima.

Shima, a welder, always thought that he would retire with a decent company pension. Instead, he was laid off from his full-time job and then recently lost a temporary job. He is rail thin and wears a down jacket on a mild spring day.

"I feel lonely and sad that society doesn't value my skills," he says, looking down dejectedly. "Factories now want younger workers. I'm too old for them."

But Shima says he is still proud of his skills and would rather be unemployed than regarded as a disposable worker by employers.

Income Gap Widens

By international standards, published statistics for unemployment in Japan remain low, at less than 5 percent. And the hakenmura villages have not received massive numbers of poor and hungry people. But many Japanese feel that labor deregulation has widened the gap between rich and poor.

Japan deregulated labor laws during the 1980s and 1990s, and temporary workers grew from one-sixth of the labor force in 1990 to one-third today. They often do the same jobs as regular workers but get less pay and fewer benefits. They are ineligible for unemployment insurance until they have worked 12 months at a single job.

The increase in the proportion of temporary workers in the country's workforce means that Japanese wages grow more slowly and consumers buy less. According to the Japan Manufacturing Outsourcing Association, as many as 400,000 temporary and short-term contract workers have already been laid off.

Koichiro Azuma, an economist at Tokyo's Rissho Junior College, says temporary employees get little support from labor unions. But, Azuma says, deregulation gets powerful backing from the Keidanren, or Japan Business Federation, which represents corporate employers.

"The federation said that career choices and lifestyles are changing fast, and more flexibility will make it easier for workers to change jobs," he says. "But it really only made it easier for employers to fire workers."

Japanese companies have long been known for providing lifelong employment and comprehensive welfare benefits.

But activists say that is not the whole picture. They point out that Japan has many day laborers who have never known benefits or job security.

Shijin Tanaka, a 46-year-old who is volunteering to help fellow unemployed workers at the park in Fuchu, has drifted from job to job — from construction to a noodle shop. He is estranged from his parents and divorced.

Since losing his last job, Tanaka has spent his nights at Internet cafes, where he rents a reclining chair for the equivalent of $20 a night. He says he tries not to think about why he is unemployed.

"If I thought that I was fired unfairly, I'd probably get angry," he reflects. "But I don't want to do that. So blaming myself is much easier."

The hakenmura movement began over the New Year's holiday, when organizers set up a tent city in downtown Tokyo's Hibiya Park — in front of Japan's Labor Ministry — that attracted 500 homeless and unemployed people.

Media coverage of the event forced the Labor Ministry to temporarily house the campers in its lobby. One observer compared the villages to "Hoovervilles," the U.S. Depression-era shantytowns.

"The hakenmura incident really made the issue of poverty in Japan visible," says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "And that also drove home to a lot of people that it's not just somebody else's problem but potentially theirs, too."

Critics: Tent Villages Fill Gap

Since the villages started appearing, officials have promised to begin building a social safety net for the laid-off temporary workers. But Social Democratic party legislator Nobuto Hosaka criticizes the government for allowing the hakenmura camps to provide the services the government has failed to.

"The villages have certainly influenced the government, which has now included assistance for these laid-off workers in its budget," he observes. "But they haven't created any new jobs for these people and no money has reached these people yet."

Some analysts credit the villages' largely left-of-center organizers — labor unions, opposition political parties and activists — with a publicity coup. They point in particular to Makoto Yuasa, a veteran advocate for Japan's homeless. In an interview at a Tokyo cafe, he argues that the Japanese people lack a clear picture of poverty at home.

"Ideas about self-reliance have hidden poverty in recent years," he says. "This view held that poor people were not making enough effort, so it was their fault and not society's. This idea remains strong in Japan today."

On his jacket, Yuasa wears a pin with a picture of a little ghostlike figure named "Hinky." Hinky, Yusasa explains, comes from hinkon, the Japanese word for poverty.

"Poverty exists between the realms of the visible and invisible," he says. "If we do not confront this social problem, Hinky will get angry and get big. If we do confront it, he'll be happy and go to heaven."

Yuasa says that the villages have served their purpose and will be phased out this summer. He himself will continue his work running a Tokyo homeless shelter, and looking for new ways of putting the issue of poverty on Japan's agenda.

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