Japan is one of the most powerful economies in the world but for decades the Japanese working class has been the victim of an extremely harsh and brutal exploitation. In this totally dehumanised society, workers must compete to survive; they spend long days at the office or the factory and this means many can't go home every night and have to sleep in various overcrowded dormitories near to their workplaces. And yet, until not so long ago, Japanese workers could look forward to a future of stable and reasonably well-paid jobs.
However, there has been a deep economic depression for the last 10 years. The working class is under attack from worsening poverty and insecurity and the new entrants to the labour market, young people, are being hit the hardest. This sector of the population, branded ‘the precariat' from a fusion of the words ‘precarity' and ‘proletariat', is being asked to accept unbearable living conditions.
The ‘precariat' and worsening poverty for young workers
In Japan, as elsewhere, young people have to put up with temporary jobs that are insecure and badly paid. In the best case, if they hang on to their job for a full month, they can ‘expect' to receive the equivalent of £400. But they will be expected to work extremely hard with poor pay and with three people doing the work of ten. For this whole sector of workers, housing itself and feeding itself has become an increasingly impossible task.
Because of these conditions, the manga cafés (cafés open 24 hours a day where customers read magazines and surf the internet) have become a sort of surreal escape from tiredness and the cold. Young people unable to afford to eat or drink here gather in large numbers just to get some sleep: "One 20 year old boy was arrested in January 2007 for not having paid for his food in a manga café [...], where he had spent 3 days. All he had in his pocket was 15 yen (about 10 pence). He had been staying in this place to avoid the cold and had only eaten a single meal with chips during the three days. The employee of another manga café had told me of one occasion when a customer had stayed for a week and had only consumed drinks in that time." (Courrier International, 05/07/07.)
The most despicable thing of all is that the ruling class wants workers to feel it's all their own fault. The bourgeoisie accuses the unemployed and temporary workers of being ‘good for nothings' ‘exploiting the system'. Subjected to this nauseating propaganda that ‘every man is his own keeper', young people suffering the insecurity and the drudgery are weighed down by the feeling that their lives are going nowhere. The pressure they feel is so severe that there has been a big wave of suicides and self-harming. And suicide has become the main cause of death in Japan for young people between the ages of 20 and 39!
Working class youth is searching but still hasn't found a way to respond to these attacks
However, since 2002, Japanese youth is slowly gaining confidence and beginning to get angry. Expressions of rebellion against this society are more common. In 2006, an important protest for free accommodation took place. Slogans raised by the column of demonstrators read: "We are living in dilapidated buildings", "We are staying in rooms of 4.5 tatamis [around 7.4 sq m]", "We are unable to pay the rent!", "Free accommodation!"....
For them to see that their situation is not their own fault but is due to the deep crisis affecting society is a vital necessity and it's the start of the reflection underway in the ranks of working class youth: "It is clear that, if young people's lives today have reached a point where they feel desperate, it doesn't mean that they have personal psychological problems or problems of will-power, rather, it is due to the unhealthy desire of companies who want to continue benefiting from a ‘flexible' labour force, so they can stay competitive internationally". However, there is still some way to go before a real perspective of struggle is reached. This sector has to be able to see itself as a part of a much greater whole, namely the working class. This can only happen when the struggles are able to go beyond the stage of responding to attacks in an immediate and impotent manner. For the present, while these young people feel isolated and cut off from the rest of the working class, the bourgeoisie will be able to channel the anger of all the temporary or unemployed workers into dead-ends and into despair. It's no surprise that a song ringing out from the loud speakers at the demonstrations was the Sex Pistols' No Future.
Japanese youth are not an exceptional case. In Germany, the young people feel obliged to accept government jobs for one Euro per hour. In Australia, for example, "one quarter of Australians between 20 and 25 years of age are not in full-time in work or at college, 15% more than it was ten years ago and it doesn't get much better for 35 year olds." (La Tribune, 10/08/07). In France in 2006 the bourgeoisie attempted to impose a new type of employment contract making sackings with no compensation possible, through the notorious CPE (the ‘Contrat Première Embauche'; young people sarcastically called it the ‘Contrat Poubelle (rubbish, in English) Embauche' (see ‘Movement against CPE: a rich experience for future struggles' ) But on this occasion, the working class youth knew how to mobilise en masse. The struggle was victorious and rousing; the bourgeoisie had to withdraw the attack. It is a clear demonstration that there is a real perspective for the new generations today in linking their struggles once again to the collective struggle of their class. 28/10/7