Why Japanese people keep working themselves to death

TOKYO — Years after losing his son, Itsuo Sekigawa is still in shock, grief-stricken and angry.

Straight out of college in 2009, his son Satoshi proudly joined a prestigious manufacturer, but within a year he was dead. Investigators said working extreme hours drove him to take his own life.

The young engineer fell victim to the Japanese phenomenon of “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

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Shakai hoken shake-up will open up pensions for some but close door on benefits for others

June 6, 1980, was a Friday. The Social Insurance Agency quietly issued an untitled internal memo called a naikan regarding the eligibility of part-timers in Japan’s shakai hoken health and pension program. Who could have known what chaos, confusion and frustration that single-page document would cause in the coming decades? Let’s get our hands dirty and dig through the details.

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For Japan’s English teachers, rays of hope amid the race to the bottom

The major economic engines of Japan Inc. — car manufacturers, appliance giants and the like — have often been caught price-fixing: colluding to keep an even market share, squeeze competitors out and maintain “harmony.” Similarly, the commercial English-teaching business could be accused of wage-fixing: Rather than competing for talent, they have followed one another’s lead, driving down salaries to hamper career development, limit job mobility and keep foreign teachers firmly in their place.

We’ve all heard the tale of the scorpion and the frog. In a rising flood, the scorpion asks the frog for a piggy-back ride across the river. The frog refuses, complaining that the scorpion will sting it to death midway. The scorpion assures the frog it would do no such thing because they would both drown. The frog accepts the logic, lets the scorpion on its back and begins to swim.

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AKB48 members deserve to get workers’ comp for saw attack

AKB48 on stage

On May 25, a man wielding a saw attacked and wounded 19-year-old Rina Kawaei and 18-year-old Anna Iriyama, two members of bumper girl group AKB48, and a male staffer at an event where fans get to shake hands with their AKB idols.

Fortunately the injuries were minor, but fans were shocked. The victims and their AKB48 comrades must have been terrified.

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Demands submitted to Interac/Maxceed concerning Drug Testing

株式会社インタラック 御中
株式会社マクシード 御中全国一般東京ゼネラルユニオン

緊急団交申し入れ Emergency Request for CB

Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (“Tozen”) and Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union Tozen ALTs request emergency collective bargaining.  We have heard that you instructed your employees, including union members, to undergo drug testing.  The need for drug testing is not accepted for an ordinary employment relationship and drug testing of employees in general is accepted only in extreme circumstances.  We strongly oppose your casual testing of employees also in light of recent requirements to protect individual privacy, including the passage of Individual Information Law,   We therefore ask for cb with the agenda stated below.

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An Immigration Stimulus for Japan

Allowing in more foreign workers would boost growth, especially in quake-ravaged areas.

Recent economic data showed that Japan was slipping into recession even before the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11. In the aftermath of that natural disaster, putting the country back on an economic-growth track is doubly important as the government and businesses try to finance reconstruction. Given the urgency of the challenge, any and all pro-growth policy options should be on the table. That includes a controversial but important measure: immigration reform.

Population is a central problem confronting Japan. A falling birth rate and an aging population mean that the country has far too few young, productive workers. This will become even more noticeable as the current working generation begins to retire. Unless radical policies are implemented, it is simply a matter of time before manufacturing, consumption, tax receipts, fiscal health, the pension and welfare system, and the very ability of people to make a living will all collapse under the inexorable dual pressures of rapid aging and rapid declines in the young working population.

The only solution is to import more workers. I estimate that Japan needs to welcome some 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years to avoid the negative consequences of population decline. That would bring immigrant numbers to about 10% of the population, the level in the U.K., France and Germany.

Such numbers would spur growth because new markets and demand would arise for clothing, food, education, labor, finance, tourism and information. Robust immigration policies would encourage foreign investors to reassess long-term economic prospects, starting another virtuous cycle of interaction with the outside world.

Immigration will be critical to reinvigorating Japan’s most important industries. Take farming: The farming population of Japan declined by 750,000 between 2005 and 2010, bringing it to merely 2.6 million, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The average age of a farmer is 65.8 years.

This makes it a certainty that in 10 years, the farming population will decline by roughly half. The fishing industry faces the same fate. The population of fishermen and the volume of their catches are headed in the same direction: down, rapidly.

This demographic trend was already afflicting areas such as the rice-growing areas in Miyagi Prefecture that are now reeling from the March 11 disaster. Unless radical reform is implemented, the decline will only accelerate as older farmers balk at rebuilding and younger workers continue to flee. It will simply not be possible to rebuild local industries using only Japanese employees that have only a few more years in the workforce left.

Nor is the list of regions in need of immigration confined to those affected by the disaster. Aichi Prefecture, the heart of Japanese industry and home to iconic companies such as Toyota, is a case in point. The population that supported the economy in these areas in the past has declined. For instance, in Aichi prefecture not only did the total population decline between 2000 and 2009, but the percentage of working-age persons (age 15-64) dropped to 65.5% from 69.8%. Similar rapid trends have affected Niigata Prefecture, a rice-growing center, and the Sanriku Oki area, one of the finest fishing grounds in the world.

The problem extends deeper than mere numbers of workers. One consequence of a shrinking population is that visionaries and risk-takers—entrepreneurs in business, politics, education, journalism and the arts—become scarcer and scarcer. That compounds the phenomenon that a society that was highly homogeneous to begin with has educated its people with standardized content in a culture that discourages too much free thinking. Lack of fresh faces makes the country seem increasingly sterile.

Because Japan has traditionally been such a homogeneous place, many have feared the prospect of greater immigration. Yet a pro-immigration policy doesn’t have to undermine Japanese values or culture. If policy makers have the will to encourage greater immigration, they can find ways to do it well.

The centerpiece of any immigration policy would be to ensure the country attracts highly skilled workers and provides them with a clear path to integrate into Japanese society. To start, Japan needs a total overhaul of its system for foreign students and trainees. Currently those students have few or no prospects for staying permanently. Only 30% of foreign students graduating from Japanese universities stay in Japan. That number must be closer to 70%.

Not only must the government do more to attract students in a wider range of fields, including vocational areas such as agriculture, but policy makers must make it easier for those workers to stay permanently. A country with a declining population does not need guest workers. This would involve simplifying the procedure for gaining permanent residency and even citizenship. At a minimum, any foreign worker in steady employment should be able to apply for permanent status.

In some respects, boosting immigration can seem like a daunting task. The government needs to reform the pension system to cover workers who immigrate in mid-career; landlords must be more willing to accept non-Japanese tenants; citizenship laws need to offer citizenship from birth to the children of immigrants. Policy makers also will need to work to change the culture within companies. For instance, foreign workers often are discriminated against in terms of salary and promotion opportunities. Government should press the private sector to end this sort of practice.

These reforms would be significant, but none would require sacrificing the best features of Japanese life. For instance, government should actively encourage immigrants to master the language—and everyone should remember that children born to immigrants likely will grow up fluent if we ensure they’re allowed to integrate into society. And despite caricatures of frightening or violent foreigners in the popular imagination, immigration won’t compromise public safety as long as Japan is attracting highly skilled, employed immigrants and allowing them and their families opportunities for social and economic advancement.

Japan must recognize that globalization is here to stay, and should stake its very survival on accepting people elsewhere in the world as its brethren, and transforming itself into a much more multicultural, diverse society. It will be a large task, but Japan is past the point where easy solutions will do.

Mr. Sakanaka is executive director of the Humanitarian Immigrant Support Center in Tokyo. He previously served as the Chief of Entry and Residence at the Nagoya and Tokyo Immigration Bureaus.


Renewal Time

Hello all,

It is that time of year again! Time for the mad scramble of March when good teachers everywhere are worried if their contracts are going to be renewed or not, otherwise known as the “ALT Shuffle”. Two things you should be sure NOT to do:
1) Do NOT let your employer force you to sign resignation papers! You do not need to sign any such thing. If they do not have work for you, they should give you dismissal papers so that you can claim your unemployment benefits until you find your next job.
2) Do NOT let your employer threaten you into leaving your apartment. It does not matter whether your employer is your guarantor or not, you can pay your landlord directly. Tenant’s rights are strong in Japan, but they are non-existant if you do not claim them.

If you find yourself facing either of these situations, call your local union representative to report the harassment.

If you are not in a union, and would like to fight against these kinds of ill treatment, join a union and help improve the working conditions of Japan.


Attention ALTs!

If Interac tries to pressure you into signing up for Kokumin Kenko Hoken, don’t do it! Kokumin Kenko Hoken is for people that are self-employed or unemployed. If you sign up for Kokumin Kenko Hoken, you may be forced to back enroll into the system up to the time that you started working in Japan (meaning you will have to pay your monthly dues up to the maximum limit of two years).

Instead, you should enroll into Shakai Hoken, because Interac will be forced to pay their half. If there is any back enrollment it will be covered by the company, not by you. You are all eligible for this. The only reason Interac tells you otherwise is because they don’t want to pay their portion of the money.

You can do this on your own, or you can join the “Interac union” (aka members of the Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union Tozen ALTs) and we can force them to pay up together in solidarity. The Tokyo General Union has a lot of experience in forcing companies to enroll their employees into Shakai Hoken so we can get you enrolled with much less effort on you part.


An open letter to Interac concerning health insurance

An open letter to the management of Interac (as well as Maxceed and Selnate)

November 5th, 2009

To whom it may concern (including Kevin Salthouse and Denis Cusack),

I am an executive of the ALT branch of Tokyo Nambu’s Foreign Workers Caucus. I worked for Interac  from September of 2005 until February 2008, under the Osaka branch.

I am writing to clear up some misconceptions about health insurance in Japan that were evident in a couple of PDFs that were circulated from management at the beginning of October 2009.

The two PDFs in question are the “FAQ – Insurance System in Japan” and the one titled “Social Insurance Letter” dated October 1st, 2009. In these PDFs, you tell your ALTs that they are not eligible for Shakai Hoken if they work less than 29.5 hours.

This is not true.

You also tell them that the only alternative is to sign up for Kokumin Kenko Hoken and that they may have to pay up to two years of back enrollment.

The problem is that, since they are eligible for Shakai Hoken, it is the company that will have to pay the back enrollment (up to two years) into Shakai Hoken, after which the employee can be billed for their half of enrollment fees.

Let me give you some background information on how I know this.

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