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Japan: Precariat May Day march sparks debate

On April 30, among many other May Day gatherings, “MayDay for Freedom and Lives” took place in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Subtitled “Resistance of the Precariat”, over 400 people including freeters, part timers, day labourers and homeless, who live with neither security nor stability, participated in this May Day event.

Over the past two decades, the numbers of so-called freeters, freelance workers who live on earnings split between several jobs, and other temporary workers, day labourers, and so on, are increasing. Debates on the issues of wage disparity and social welfare, including health insurance and pension plans, have surfaced in recent years in response to this trend. The Precariat May Day event was organized by the “Freeters’ General Union” in order to provide an opportunity for the precariat to send a message about their situation to the larger Japanese society.

The event was covered briefly by major newspapers and TV networks. Many bloggers, having seen these articles and broadcasts, reacted very negatively to the march, criticising the laziness of the participants and accusing these workers of not being realistic.

Amamiya Karin

Kaz argues that the disparity is a natural result of a capitalist society:

確かに、フリーターや契約社員が増加ししていますし、最近よく取り上げられているワーキングプアのこともふくめてかなり【格差】が表面化してきたように思います。確かに深刻な問題であると思いますし、福祉の観点からしていったいどうしたらよいのかという思いも確かにあります。

ただ、ひとつ思うのが多分これが正常な資本主義社会の仕組みなのかなという点。アメリカやイギリスを以前旅行して感じたのは圧倒的は格差社会の存在。日本では最近になってこの問題が浮上してきましたが、それは当然のこととして捕らえられているのような感じさえします。

It is true that the numbers of freeters and temp workers are increasing, and including the issue of the working poor, I think the disparity has become visible. I agree that this is a serious problem and I wonder how we should handle this in terms of social welfare.

However, I think this is a natural mechanim of capitalist systems. When I was travelling in the U.S. and Britain I could sense the existence of an overwhelming social disparity. This problem has only surfaced recently in Japan, but I have a feeling that people in these counties take it as a natural thing.

システムを正常化させるということと、国民の福祉や生活の保障を行っていくということはどこかで矛盾点をはらんでしまうのは以下仕方ないのかもしれないと思います。合理化や利益追従型だけではこうなるのはあるいみ当然の結果のように思います。

テレビで誰かが言っていましたが、身の丈に合った生活をしていかなくてはいけない。ということなのかもしれません。一億総中流という状態にあったこと自体が不自然だったのかもしれません。今後日本がどういったことを目指していくのかはよく分かりませんが、このままでは疲弊してしまうだけなのではと感じています。

I think it is unavoidable to have contradictions when normalising the system and securing social welfare and lives of the people. It seems like a natural result if you are only streamlining and maximising profits.

I saw someone on TV say that you have to live a life that is within your means. I guess that's what it means. Perhaps the situation in which all Japanese were middle-class was unnatural. I don't really know what Japan is aiming for in the future, but I have a feeling that the country will only get impoverished if this goes on.

No exploitation poster

Blue tarp performance

Hiroki Tenjou, a business owner, criticizes these people for their lack of discipline and work ethic:

経費をカットする為、売上げをアップする為
経営者は毎日、頭を悩ませて生活しています。
そうなると正社員を雇うというリスクを負うよりも
適材適所に派遣などを雇う方が賢明な事は誰にも理解出来る事です。

[…]

「声を上げて訴えなければ、この社会は悪くなる一方だ」
と街を声高に徘徊する前に、する事があると思います。

In order to cut down costs and maximise profits, business owners are living everyday agonizing.
Therefore, it is a smart choice to hire temporary workers, rather than taking a risk of hiring full time employees. Anyone can understand this.

[…]

There are other things to do besides walking around the city and shouting “If you don't speak up and appeal, this society will only get worse”.

人生とはそもそも辛いものです。
生きる事は苦しい事です。
楽しい事なんてほとんどありません。
人がこれだけ増えて来る世の中です。
どんどん悪くなるのは当たり前です。
そして時代は常に動いています。
もぅ昭和の時代はやって来ません。
それを前提に自分の頭で考えて動く事から始めて欲しいものです。
街をデモで歩くよりも。

Life is difficult to begin with.
Living is painful.
There is hardly ever anything fun.
There are more and more people in this world.
It's natural that things get worse.
And time moves on.
The Showa era is gone.
Bearing that in mind, they should think for themselves and start taking action,
instead of walking around the city demonstrating.

Crowd at Precariat May Day march

Sukiya (gyuudon chain) should raise wages

A blogger who participated in the march countered this argument with an analogy:

もはや言論でなにかが変わることは無い、行動を起こさねばならないと考え、人生で初めてデモに参加しました。勉強になること、新しい発見、本当にたくさんいろいろあった。早速日記を書こうと思ったけど仕事も忙しく、他の皆さんの日記やブログを読むことしかできなかったんだけど、正直言って唖然としましたね。笑っちゃうほどに共感力や想像力の無い批判のオンパレード。
なぜこのデモが「自由と生存のメーデー」と言うのか、それがわかってないんだなぁと思いますね。

Talking does not make any difference, and I had to take action, so I went to a demonstration for the first time in my life. I learned and discovered so many things. I wanted to write a diary but I was very busy with my work, so I was just reading other people's diaries and blogs. I was struck speechless to be honest. One after another, there were criticisms with no sympathy or imagination. They even made me laugh. They don't even understand why the demonstration was called “MayDay for Freedom and Lives”.

たとえば、フリーターになることが100%自由意志によって自主的に選択された行為だと考えるのはばかげています。いまや全労働者に占める非正規雇用の割合は3分の1以上を占めてます。つまり、3分の1の人間は正社員になりたくたってなれない。これは自己責任でしょうか? 最悪ホームレスになったり餓死しなければならないほどの罪・過ちなのでしょうか?
いまや大半のフリーターは週40時間以上働いています。労働基準法に定められた労働基準をクリアしており、憲法に定める労働の義務を果たしています。
自由には義務が伴うとかしたり顔で日記書いてる人もいるけど、義務は十分果たしてますよ。
なぜちゃんと義務を果たしているのに、生活がままならない賃金で我慢したり、容易に解雇されたりしなければならないのでしょう?

For instance, I think it is ridiculous to think that the decision to become a freeter is 100% based on people's free will. More than one third of the entire working population is made up of non-full time workers. In other words, even if they wish, one third of all people cannot be employed full time. Is this self-responsibility? Is this such a serious fault that they deserve to become homeless or even starve to death?
Today most freeters work more than 40 hours a week. This satisfies the standard set by the labour standards law, and fulfills the duty of labour as defined in the Constitution. Why do these people have to put up with this kind of salary, which barely allows them to live, and be in a position to get fired easily, even they are fulfilling their duty?

[…]

日本の労働者が仮に100人の村だったとして、30人は非正規雇用です。1人は大学教授かな。
全員が全員がんばって才能を磨き大学教授並みの知識を得たとしても、30人はごみ拾いや牛丼屋で働く必要があります。なぜなら大学教授は1人で十分だし、牛丼屋で働く人も必要だからです。

100人中1人に入り込む努力は賞賛されるべきです。それなりの報酬も与えましょう。ですがこの教授に報いるために、30人を不安定な状況に放置していいということにならないでしょう。それならば教授の報酬を減らして、30人がちゃんと生活できるために使うのが当たり前ではないですか。だって能力的にはほとんど差が無いんだから。社会構造の需給関係で教授をやったり、牛丼盛ったりと分業してるだけの話です。
労働に貴賎は無いという言葉はもはや死語になってしまったのでしょうか?

[…]

If all Japan's workers were a village of 100 people, 30 would be non-full time workers. One person would be a university professor.
Even if all of them worked hard and improved their talents in order to gain a level of knowledge equal to the university professor, 30 people would have to collect garbage or work at a gyudon restaurant. We only need one university professor, and someone has to work at the gyudon restaurant.

Efforts made to be the one out of 100 should be rewareded. But, it does not mean that we can leave the 30 people to live insecure lives so that we can compensate the university professor. Otherwise, doesn't it make more sense to cut down the professor's salary and allocate the money so that the 30 people can live decently? There is no difference among them in terms of ability. It's just that some poeple work as professors and some serve gyudon based on the division of labour, that's all.
Has the saying “every occupation deserves respect” become a dead expression?

As in Tokyo, as in Paris, as across the world: Solidarity!

  • Hamid Tehrani

    Great reoport.I would like to know if some political groups or parties support this movement.What about intellectuals?

  • Thank you for your comment. The event was supported by 38 groups including non-profit orgs, labour unions, and support groups, and 103 individuals including journalists, lawyers, university professors and so on (the list was distributed at the event. Sorry no link). Some well-known figures such as Social Demoractic Party leader Fukushima Mizuho and writer Amamiya Karin were present at the event and joined the march.

  • Pingback: Anarch[Oi]! | Anarchy, Love, and PUNX... » MayDay 2007 in Review: Global Roundup()

  • Chris_B

    While I have sympathy for the working poor, I find this a bit laughable. I dont demand a genuine attitude of service from the Gyudon-ya baito, for what they get paid all I expect is my order served and the correct change when I pay. For the last few years, more and more I dont even get that. So I’ve come to accept that alot of young workers in Tokyo cant perform basic tasks with barcode readers and cant do the basic math of making change. Such is life.

    Given this however, expecting me to in any way subsidize their livelihoods or that they deserve equal pay to someone who can do more work than them is foolish beyond belief “Resistance”? More like a child throwing a tantrum for attention from mommy.

    Worth noting is that my comment comes just under a year from when this was posted and since then there has been some action towards making people who do full time work but are on the books as part timers more equal compensation. Exploitation of employees is never a good thing but lets not confuse that with the lazy and stupid.

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