Japan is basically divided into two economic groups: Those who can marry and afford to have children, and those who can’t.
In “Shin Nihon no Kaikyu Shakai” (The New Japanese Class Society), sociologist Kenji Hashimoto says that class divisions are widening. Traditionally, there were two classes, an owners’ class and a workers’ class. The rise of the white-collar employee following World War II created a middle class, but in principle even these salarymen belonged to the workers’ class.
Hashimoto breaks the current population down into five classes.
He defines the owners’ class as those who employ at least five people. They number, in his estimate, about 2.5 million, or 4.1 percent of the working population. Their average annual income is about ¥6 million, weighed down somewhat by the many small business owners who belong to this class.
The new middle class numbers 12.85 million or 20.6 percent of the working population, and includes people in administration, engineering and higher education. Their average annual income is a little less than ¥5 million. Then there’s the regular employee workers’ class, the largest group at about 22 million, or 35 percent of the working population.
The traditional middle class is made up of self-employed individuals, numbering some 8 million people.
Finally, there is the layer known as the underclass, which is made up of nonregular employees and numbers about 9.3 million or 15 percent of the working population. Regular full-time employees are protected to a certain extent by organizations like the Japanese Trade Union Confederations, usually referred to as Rengo, but nonregular employees have very little protection or representation to help them receive raises or gain benefits.
With the exception of women who work to supplement household incomes, almost all part-time workers belong to the underclass, which Hashimoto says has expanded in size in recent decades and become a fixed class.
The biggest problem is that once a person is hired as a nonregular employee they tend to be stuck in such a position for the rest of their lives, even if they change jobs. So even if the economy improves, the lives of the people in the underclass don’t. As it stands, minimum wage earners barely get by. The underclass in Japan makes roughly 40 percent of the national median income, while in Europe, the underclass makes anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the median income, depending on the country.
University of Tokyo professor Yuji Genda edited a book which explores wage stagnation since the dawn of the Heisei Era. Most people blame the country’s lost decade of the 1990s, but since then the demand for labor has gone up, and with an increase in demand, there is almost always an increase in wages. That’s basic economics. But that hasn’t happened here, and Genda partly blames workers themselves for not demanding higher wages. Companies, uncertain about the future, are hoarding cash rather than sharing profits with employees, so it’s up to employees to use their leverage to gain access to that cash, but that would require a certain amount of organization.