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Non-regular worker's sudden plunge into poverty exposes Japan's toxic labor environment

Yoshihide Suga, then a candidate for prime minister, is seen at a candidates' debate for the Liberal Democratic Party Presidential Election at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 12, 2020. The board in his hand roughly translates to "Self-help, mutual assistance and public support. Then bonds. A complete change in regulations." (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

Recently, a 42-year-old Japanese woman with a degree from a junior college, whose career has been a series of non-regular jobs, suddenly found she was facing "real poverty" -- circumstances she always thought had no relation to her life. "When I realized, I only had 103 yen ($0.99) to my name. I didn't even have money for the train fare for my commute to work starting on Jan. 4," she said.

    Although her wages had been low, she kept working without fail. But once she got into her 40s, she found she wasn't even being invited to interviews for part-time positions. She ended up in a place where she felt fear when her rent's due day drew closer.

    "I've led an honest life. Why did this happen to me?" she said when asked about her situation by a Mainichi Shimbun reporter. During the interview, she opened up about her life, circumstances, and the feelings she holds regarding the position she's in.

    I spoke to her on Jan. 3, at the "2021 New Year adults' canteen" event, in which free food was served at St. Ignatius Church in the capital's Chiyoda Ward. When I first spotted her it was sunset; she was leaving the now sparsely populated venue when a support worker called out to her: "We have vegetables, and ... oh, your gas has stopped, hasn't it?" She thanked him in a brisk voice. She looked like she was of the same generation as me.

    "Look at this. It's funny, isn't it," she said to me as she took out a purse from her shoulder bag. She opened the coin pocket and jangled the single 100 yen and three one yen coins inside it. She was thin, and all she had on to protect her from the cold was a dress with small polka dots and a pair of pants. "I've been living just on cup noodles for two weeks. I've run out of coconut sable cookies my friend gave me. I've been thinking, if my money runs out I'll pick up food off the street, I'll have to find some way to keep going," she said and laughed emptily. Then she produced from her bag a candy she said she picked up from the road.

    The woman grew up in a small regional city, and after finishing high school, came to Tokyo to study at a junior college. Following graduation, she lived alone. Due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, she lost her job cleaning a student dormitory in October 2020.

    People are seen sitting and eating bento lunchboxes handed out during a "New Year 2021 adults' canteen" event for people facing difficulties in front of St. Ignatius Church in the capital's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 1, 2021. As part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the food was takeout only this time. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    Once unemployed, she applied to three jobs a day. Via recruitment websites she put herself up for whatever industry she could find, including cleaning, sales, logistics and others. Of the 200 total applications she made, fewer than 20 led to interviews.

    In December 2020, she found a job doing light work assembling electrical products, and from Dec. 20 started doing shifts there. Her salary was going to be paid a month later. Her savings were depleted, but a friend got her work helping at a concert venue, and with it she was going to be able to make it through the New Year holiday.

    "I'm sorry, we don't need your help," read the cancellation message she got from her friend on Dec. 26, 2020. She'd thought she was going to be earning 8,000 yen (about $77.14) daily for three days starting Dec. 31, 2020. The part-time pay she'd been counting on was gone. She felt like she was sliding into the abyss.

    The woman graduated from junior college during Japan's "employment ice age," the period between around 1993 and 2004 after the "bubble" economy burst and secure employment opportunities became scarce for new workers. She, too, couldn't find a permanent company employee position.

    When she was looking for a job, she was confronted with questions from interviewers and senior company members such as, "If you get married will you quit your job?" and, "I'll give you the job offer, so let's go to a hotel." She was stunned to find out that in reality there really are people who say these things.

    "I lost the desire to work in a serious manner during those interviews," she said. Through registering at a dispatch worker service, she got jobs setting up event spaces and working at call centers, among other positions, and supported herself that way. There were also jobs available that could lead to full-time employee registration, but competition for them was fierce. She said, "One day I realized I'd always been in non-permanent work."

    She started her job cleaning a dormitory for international students in autumn 2019. Once the coronavirus began spreading, the number of residents fell to half their original count, and she was told by a colleague: "We want to make cuts. We're going to run things just with our veteran staff."

    The woman who visited the "New Year 2021 adults' canteen" and spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun is seen in this image taken at St. Ignatius Church in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    Non-permanent cleaning staff were the absolute first people to lose their jobs. Because she had trouble getting along with people at work, she told her employers she was willing to leave. Her unemployment notice says she "left of her own volition."

    Unemployment benefits can begin being paid a week after applying for them in the event that the termination of employment is cited as being at the employer's request. But when the employee is described as the instigator, payments don't begin until roughly two months later.

    The woman thought she'd soon find work, and prioritized finding a new job to the point that she didn't apply for benefits. But, far for being employed again, she hasn't even had an interview. She said, "Maybe it's because of the coronavirus. It's my first time being rejected this much at the application stage." At the time of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, she lost her job working at a miscellaneous goods store, but soon after found a new place to work.

    "At the time I was in my early 30s. But now at this age it's hard finding work that accepts people without experience. I get lots of rejection messages saying, 'After careful consideration ... '" she said. More than 80,000 people have been let go of or had their work stopped, and competition even for non-permanent positions has gotten tough.

    Before the coronavirus crisis, she would earn about 160,000 yen (about $1,543) a month. Although she didn't have issues leading her life, she did say that "because I was non-permanent, there was never breathing room in my budget." She only had about 60,000 yen (some $578) in savings.

    She lived on the wages she'd gotten from her previous job when she was made unemployed, but by the end of November 2020, she'd begun dipping into her savings just to keep afloat. Then she remembered that a former colleague had told her about the emergency small funds public loans for people struggling due to the coronavirus, and visited her ward government's office.

    The emergency small funds public loans are aimed at lending as much as 200,000 yen (about $1,928) minus interest to households where members have lost income because the coronavirus has caused them to be temporarily laid off or lose work.

    Until now, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare limited who could receive loans based on their income, but in a bid to offer a more flexible response amid the coronavirus crisis, the system was expanded. When introducing the system the ministry said, "Starting with non-permanent workers and individual self-employed people, we're improving the safety net for people in hardship." As a person who has lost her job, the woman should definitely have been eligible for acceptance under the system.

    In this image unrelated to the events described in the article, a consultation desk for people wishing to apply for emergency small fund public loans is seen at the Mito City Council of Social Welfare building in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has expanded the scheme to help people struggling due to the coronavirus, and many people have come forward to receive the aid. (Mainichi)

    When she went to the ward office, the seats in the waiting area were almost all full, and after about 20 minutes she got a chance to talk to someone. But she only got the chance to speak with an employee at the consultation desk for five minutes. Even though she told them, "There were staff cuts at the place I was working," they told her, "We don't 100% know if it was a result of the coronavirus."

    Then, when she told them she would be receiving part-time pay in two weeks' time, the government employee turned her case down, saying, "So you're already working aren't you. If it's just two weeks from now, please do something about it yourself. There are people who've got it worse than you." When she tried to explain somehow, another employee approached them and said, "What more do you have to say? Next person, please," and hurried her to vacate her seat.

    Following the exchange, she felt she wasn't eligible for help, and her motivation to try and look for other support schemes was fading. From the consultation booth next to her, she heard a man saying, "They might turn me out of my house." She told herself there were people in worse circumstances than her, and left the ward office.

    "If I were a university student, I'd be able to say, 'I've got no money, can you get me something?' but becoming poor at this age is just embarrassing," she said. She felt unable to reveal to people around her that she was in real trouble. To save on living expenses, she would turn down invitations from friends to meet for coffee. Rather than saying, "I've not got the money," she'd use excuses like, "I'm busy," or, "I've got work to do."

    "They're my friends so I can't talk to them about it," she said. "They might be stunned if I started talking about serious things, and my story might spread like a weird rumor, like, 'She went to an adult canteen. What's wrong with her?'"

    The woman did worry about losing her friends. She described going on Facebook and Twitter and seeing "happy pictures in posts from friends living at the family home, or who have families of their own. Just looking at them made me feel tired."

    She became so that she would avoid making contact with her friends, and her minimal opportunities for conversation started coming only from interviewers for jobs she was applying to. She would do the interviews remotely from home, and her attempts to sell herself over a screen as a good candidate became one of the few occasions for social interaction.

    She couldn't even talk about the issue with her family back home. "My parents tend to get sick a lot, and my father is the type to be quite harsh on people who are not good at work or studying." Her younger brother is a permanent company employee, and has family of his own. "He's like an average person in their 40s," she said.

    "I don't want to tell my close friends and family about me. If it's a case of asking for help from my aging parents, then I want to try and solve it myself." She hasn't considered applying for public assistance welfare, either. "If I applied, and for some reason they contacted my family, I'd be verbally attacked by my father. I never want that to happen. Not having money is my personal responsibility."

    Saturday crowds are seen in the shopping area in front of Kichijoji Station in the city of Musashino, Tokyo, on Dec. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    After not being able to decide, she eventually couldn't bear her hunger and went to an adults' canteen. At the end of December 2020, her rent was transferred, and all she had left was 600 yen (about $5.78). Her daily meals consisted of a cup of instant noodles and a chicken katsu sandwich marked down by 30% to 80 yen at a supermarket, but before she knew it, she had just 103 yen ($0.99).

    She remembered then that after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a global financial crisis in September 2008, there had been a "New Year dispatch village" initiative in Tokyo held in Hibiya Park over the New Year to help people who were in trouble as a result of the economic fallout. With this memory in her mind, she found out about the adults' canteens online.

    "I had a preconception that people who line up at that kind of place are individuals who don't even have a home. The people who appear on internet news are the ones who don't have a home anymore and don't know what to do. I thought if you're not in that state then you can't ask for help. I hesitated right up until things got really bad," she said. The words she was told at the ward office, "There are people who've got it worse than you," played on her mind.

    She was raised by very strict parents, which created a sense of pride that prevented her from asking for help.

    "I thought it was the absolute worst thing to look for help from other people. I had this feeling of despair that I had fallen this far. I never imagined I would end up going to that kind of place (canteens). I thought I was fine, even if I worked non-regular jobs. I never thought I'd be pushed to the point I'm at. Maybe it's because of my strict father. I felt like my sense of self-affirmation was crushed. But I had no money even for transport, and I wanted to eat something nutritious. My pride was nothing compared to my hunger."

    The woman received food and the minimum in money to cover living expenses, and she was able to pay the fare to travel to work in the New Year.

    "I'm a member of the employment ice age generation. I fell into a crevasse. It's dark and I can't see what's around me, and it's also hard to see in it from outside. It's a hardship which is lonely and without support. There's a tendency to criticize people who fall into the crevasse; they walked on the glacier so it's their responsibility, they say. People are more frightening than corona. If that tendency hadn't existed, I don't think I would have been pushed to the breaking point."

    The "rescue rope" being sent down to people who have fallen into the crevasse is the adults' canteen. "The government acts like they're saying, 'Hey, are you alright? Oh you're alive. We've got someone over there who needs urgent help.' It's like they're just doing triage on people in trouble. I think it's alright to be selective, but at least, I want them to make a system that is easy to understand and properly gets help to people."

    The New Year adults' canteen and its associated consultation service were hosted by an "emergency action for COVID-19 disaster" comprising of support groups.

    "There's the saying 'self-help, mutual assistance and public support' (that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says he wants in a society), but support from private entities is mutual assistance, and doing work and searching for a job on your own is self-reliance. What happened to public support?" she said.

    On Jan. 6, the woman was able to earn 2,500 yen (about $24) by working for a day at a part-time job, which will continue for an indeterminate period. "So that at least I don't run out of rice, I bought two kilos of it and some toppings and seasoning," she said.

    Even now every day she goes on recruitment sites to see what the state of employment opportunities is. "I realized that the position I'm at is not safe at all. I'm trying to look for hiring opportunities, so that whenever I'm let go of, I'll be alright."

    According to the welfare ministry, non-permanent female workers between the ages of 40 and 44, the age group the person interviewed for this piece falls into, earn on average 195,200 yen (about $1,882) a month. The woman the Mainichi spoke to previously earned about 160,000 yen (some $1,542) per month, lower than the average, but she had been able to lead a more-or-less comfortable life. However, the sudden changes to the working environment brought on by the coronavirus made her face "real poverty."

    Karin Amamiya, an author who engages in consultation service support, told the Mainichi: "In the cases of women like her who earn 2 million yen (about $19,278) or less a year, there isn't much room to save money. But in some cases, people who are used to being non-permanent workers due to doing it from the start of their adult life are not aware they're living in hardship. Currently in Japan, such non-awareness is spreading among non-permanent workers."

    Non-permanent female workers are directly affected by the coronavirus. According to the nonprofit organization Posse, which offers consultations on labor issues, from February 2020 to the end of November they'd had 3,304 consultations related to coronavirus issues. Some 60% of the cases were from women, and among them 70% were non-permanent employees.

    Warm bento lunch boxes for people in need are seen laid out ahead of the "New Year 2021 adults' canteen" event at St. Ignatius Church in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 1, 2021, (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    Amamiya said, "The service industry is being hit particularly hard. Dining, tourism, retail, those kinds of businesses in the service industry are primarily supported by women without permanent positions. The adverse effect (of such a corporate culture) is being exposed."

    When engaging in support activities, Amamiya says she is often asked to provide consultation over the phone and via emails to women, but few women come to face-to-face consultation or to soup kitchen events.

    "I think the hurdles to going to soup kitchens are high (for women); a lot of men line up, and they think that the original purpose of the activities is to give food to people who are homeless. I also hear people saying that it takes a lot of courage to come to the venues for these events. It seems like the level of resistance is unnecessarily high, particularly for people who never even thought they might end up sleeping outside."

    She added that the thinking behind "self-responsibility" is also alienating people from consulting others about their situation.

    Amamiya explained: "For the lost generation, who has always been forced to accept this overriding argument about personal responsibility, they don't have this concept that there's someone out there who can offer help. They have already given up, because they think no one is going to help them. From the very start, they don't think of themselves as people for whom support and consultation services are meant. The people who come to talk to us apologize. It's like they're apologizing to society. It's depressing, isn't it?"

    She continued, the conviction in her voice rising, "The ones who should be apologizing to them are society and politics. The lost generation has lived in a time where there is a tendency for society to comprehensively attack them if they so much as raise a slight complaint about struggling at work or in their personal lives. They think if they try to consult with someone, they would be seen as an easy mark and a target for humiliation. But if they can't talk to others they become isolated. I think there's also a link with the rising numbers of suicides by women."

    But the problem isn't just about the people who can't bring themselves to go talk to others for help. Amamiya said, "Although there are people struggling to lead their lives, the number of caseworkers and other employees at government institutions hasn't increased.

    "I also hear from people saying they were treated coldly at their local government office, but those public employees are also completely overworked, and working conditions at these services are on the verge of falling apart. Government offices could hire people who have lost their jobs. If they respond to the issues by increasing personnel numbers in places where they're needed, I think they'll be able to fully rescue them (people in hardship)."

    Amamiya and other activists are encouraging people under difficulties to use public assistance. She also said that support group members are going with people to submit applications for the benefits, and that they're also in negotiations to make it so that inquiries don't have to be made with people's dependents.

    She concluded: "Public welfare is help you can use if you have no savings or assets, and your income doesn't meet the lowest acceptable levels described by the national government (which in Tokyo's 23 special wards is an individual income of about 130,000 yen -- about $1,254 -- per month). I want anyone with an income below this amount to speak to someone about getting aid as soon as they can."

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Integrated Digital News Center, and Satoshi Fukutomi, Kyoto Bureau)

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