Three times a week, Seiya Ogawa bikes to an unemployment center in Kadoma, home to Panasonic Corp., looking for work to help pay for his son’s final year at college.
“At this point, I’m willing to take any job,” said the 49-year-old, who assembled electronic circuit boards in what was once a bustling manufacturing suburb of Osaka, Japan’s third- largest city. This month, it’s officially one year since he first signed on at the center, and “it’s like my humanity’s been stripped from me,” he said.
Ogawa and his son rely on the incomes of his wife and daughter, a social role reversal that is spreading in Japan as factories and building companies fire workers and services that hire mostly women add employees. The new jobs pay lower average wages, making it harder for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to spur consumer spending and pull the world’s third-largest economy out of a decade of deflation. The increasing burden as breadwinners also gives women less incentive to marry and have children early in a country that already has the fastest-aging population in the developed world.
“With Japanese companies increasingly moving abroad and a shrinking population making growth in construction work unlikely, these sectors just can’t absorb male workers the way they used to,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai- Ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. “Nominal wages are falling and falling as a result. This mancession is far from over.”
Japan’s economy is shifting from monozukuri, or making things -- which the nation prides itself on -- to services, especially those catering to the 29 million seniors over age 64. Manufacturing and building industries, where seven out of 10 staff are male, will lose 4 million positions this decade, according to Tokyo-based Works Institute, funded by employment- services provider Recruit Co. Health care, 74 percent female, added people at the fastest pace across all industries in the past three years, growing 16 percent, Labor Ministry data show.
The shift is accelerating, thanks to a near record-high currency that’s wiping out profits at exporters including Panasonic and Sony Corp. (6758), giving the government no time to ease the transition. Panasonic forecast its biggest annual loss in a decade this fiscal year, while Sony estimated it will lose 90 billion yen ($1.2 billion).
Panasonic and Sony shares have slumped 45 percent and 53 percent this year, helping pull the benchmark Topix index 21 percent lower. At the same time, Message Co., the nation’s second-biggest operator of nursing homes by number of rooms, has risen 2.3 percent, and Nichii Gakkan Co. (9792), operator of the largest number of homes, is up 25 percent.
‘Future of Japan’
Services such as nursing and health care are “the future of Japan,” said Curtis Freeze, founder of Honolulu-based Prospect Asset Management Inc., who is considering adding Message to the $300 million that Prospect manages because its employment policies may reduce staff-turnover costs. Manufacturers “are in the middle of restructuring, and they’re going to struggle. It’s the smaller services companies that will do most of the hiring.”
Health care, with 19 percent of working women, isn’t the only field to add jobs in the past three years: Education -- another profession where women outnumber men -- as well as research, restaurants and real estate also have grown, even as Japan lost a net 12.1 million positions.
Forty-two percent of people employed in 2010 were women, the highest share since the Labor Ministry made comparable data available in 1973, when the figure was 38.5 percent.
“It’s really tough right now,” said Reiko Sato, 31, at the government employment office near her home in Tokyo. “It’s the end of the year, so there are lots of short-term positions at department stores or restaurants that everyone’s competing to get. It’s easier for the girls, because that’s who the stores want. I just feel bad for the men who have to come here. They probably won’t have something in time for the New Year.”
Manufacturing, where men outnumber women by more than 2-to- 1, is still Japan’s largest employer, accounting for about 16 percent of its 62.5 million workers. In construction, the ratio of men to women is 6-to-1. Since October 2008, the former shrank payrolls by 9 percent and the latter by 11 percent. Meanwhile, the health-care workforce will grow 32 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to Works Institute.
As a result, one of the developed world’s biggest gender- pay gaps -- second only to South Korea and roughly double the average in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- is narrowing. Women between 30 and 34 earned an average 2.99 million yen last year, 69 percent of the 4.32 million yen for men, according to National Tax Agency data. That’s up from 55 percent in 1978.
The increase may help shift consumer spending toward services women prefer, such as traveling and dining out, and away from durable goods including cars and electronics, said Kyohei Morita, chief Japan economist at Barclays Capital in Tokyo. HIS Co. (9603), Japan’s largest listed travel agency, has risen 3.7 percent this year, to 2,128 yen.
“It’s because I work that I can go on these trips and buy my favorite makeup,” said Ayumi Ohtaki, a 27-year-old call- center operator in Tokyo who earns 240,000 yen a month. While she’s in no hurry to marry, she said she would want to keep her job after her wedding to ensure she could continue to buy the things she wants.
“If the money’s just from my husband, I wouldn’t be able to do anything fun,” she said.
With women like Ohtaki marrying later and delaying starting a family, and more men struggling to find work, Japan’s falling birth rate is likely to get worse, said Mary Brinton, a sociology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who studied the lives of young Japanese men shut out of well-paid, full-time work in the 1990s.
The number of babies born in 2010 was 1.07 million, down from 1.19 million in 2000, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
“This so-called mancession is going to cause continuing problems for the marriage rate and birth rate,” she said. “Many young Japanese men say they want to have a stable job before they consider marrying.”
Even so, the shift toward more female employees isn’t likely to boost overall consumer spending because the factory jobs being lost paid more than the newly created service positions. Social services and nursing paid an average 229,732 yen a month last year, 63 percent of the 362,340 yen for factory workers and 62 percent of the 373,288 yen earned in construction, according to the labor ministry.
“The reality is that women get paid less,” Morita said.
The trend of women replacing men in Japan’s workforce mirrors a similar shift in other developed nations as companies cut back payrolls. Last year, the average male unemployment rate among the OECD countries was 8.5 percent, compared with 8.1 percent for women, according to the organization’s website. In 2000, the situation was reversed, with 5.8 percent of men jobless and 6.8 percent of female workers.
Japan’s unemployment rate in 2010 was 5.4 percent for men and 4.6 percent for women, a record gap. Joblessness may rise to 7.1 percent for men and 5.9 percent for women by 2020, Works Institute estimates.
That’s a bleak outlook for Ogawa, who lives alongside Kadoma’s rusting, shuttered factories, which once drew laborers from across Japan as they boomed with the Panasonic headquarters they surround. He says the stagnation has changed the attitude of young people in their 20s like his son and daughter, who hoard the money they earn rather than spending it.
“It’s hard to tell them to aim high when I’m struggling to find a job,” Ogawa said. “I don’t dare talk about my good times when I was their age; they just wouldn’t understand.”
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