Japan: Misery of capitalism to continue into ‘new era’

Japan’s Heisei Era – which began on January 8th, 1989, in line with Emperor Akihito’s ascension to the throne – will end next April with his abdication. This will be a purely symbolic ‘end of an era’, however, as for many millions of ordinary Japanese working-class people, the misery of capitalism will continue unabated.


In the early 1990s, at the very beginning of the Heisei Era, the bursting of the ‘bubble economy’ marked an end to the affluence and higher living standards for many that had come about from the post-war restoration of Japanese capitalism and resulting economic growth.

‘Lifetime employment’, once held up worldwide as an ‘exemplary’ feature of Japanese capitalism, is now but a pipe dream for so many. Last November, the British paper – Financial Times – spoke of how irregular work has risen “relentlessly” since the 1990s – going from 19% then, to 37.9% in 2015.

The examples below speak for themselves about the current state of Japanese capitalism and what it means for working-class people:

• A child poverty rate among working, single-parent households of 56% – highest among all the OECD nations.

• 4,000 homeless people in any given weekend in Tokyo ‘living’ in 24-hour internet cafes; with over 70% being temporary workers.

• A relative poverty rate for the elderly of 19.4% – well above the OECD average of 12.6%.

• 15 million workers on fixed-term contracts; 4.5 million of whom have worked with the same employer for over five years.

Big business politicians

On the other side of the class divide in Japan come the major players in big business and their cronies in the Japanese parliament (Diet). ‘Japan Inc.’ had an aggregate net profit of around ¥8.9 trillion (approx. $80.4 billion) between April-June this year – a 28% increase from last year. Of 1,588 companies who declared their earnings, 56% reported higher profits, with record profits going to 24% of them.

Hand in hand with the capitalists, of course, are the politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who won the LDP’s leadership contest in September. Last December, the ruling bloc voted to slash corporation tax from 30% to 20% as a means of encouraging companies to increase pay by 3%. This has not happened, however; in a Reuters corporate survey earlier this year, less than half said they would raise pay beyond 2%.

This is at the same time that Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), urged the government to increase consumption tax to 14% by 2025, from its current level of 8%. The consumption tax had already been hiked up from 5% in April 2014, despite the lack of pay rises alongside this.

The LDP itself – whose pro-business policies give it an almost 70% approval rating amongst the capitalist class – of course has many members cut of the same cloth.

In 2017, the average income of the lawmakers (not just from the LDP) stood at ¥24.12 million ($217,870). Among the top earners were LDP members drawing extortionate salaries from second jobs.

• Ichiro Aizawa – ¥711.93 million – from sales of property and shares in a relative’s company

• Taichiro Motoe – ¥310.72 million – mostly from capital gains of corporate shares

• Kenji Nakanishi – ¥292.44 million – again, mostly from sales of shares

Shigeru Ishiba, who was Abe’s main opponent in the LDP leadership election, also had a ‘miscellaneous income’ of ¥9.37 million from articles and TV appearances.

Leading LDP members have also let the mask slip and revealed how out of touch they are with the reality of life for ordinary Japanese people. Despite the high levels of child poverty, and increases in the number of public canteens needing to provide subsidised meals for poor children, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai called those who didn’t have children “selfish”, stating: “In order for everyone [in Japan] to be happy, we should have many children and develop our country”.

Joining him is Kanji Kato, an LDP member who tells newly-weds at their wedding receptions that they “must raise at least three children”. And then there is Koichi Hagiuda, executive acting GS of the LDP, who said that fathers taking a primary role in looking after their children is an “unwelcome idea”.

And then there was Mio Sugita, a leading LDP member who in August criticised the idea of taxpayers’ money supporting marriages for same-sex couples, on the basis that they don’t have children, and are therefore “unproductive” and “do not contribute to the prosperity of the nation.”

Widespread discontent and anger exists within Japanese society; indicated by the protests and demonstrations against the use of nuclear power and the restarting of power plants following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The Abe administration’s attempt to revise Article Nine of the constitution – the dearly-held ‘peace clause’ – has also sparked, and appears likely to spark further protests across Japan.

Many people – including young people, as well as others protesting for the first time – also took to the streets over the recent Moritomo school scandal, involving Abe and his wife as well as other Cabinet ministers. This involved a shady backroom deal, where the Moritomo school operator – who aims to push a conservative, revisionist education programme – was sold public land by the government for only a fraction of its actual price. One young protester – a university student – taking part in a demonstration over the scandal hinted at the change in consciousness across a wide layer of people: “I think it’s getting harder and harder even for those usually apathetic toward politics to stay silent.”

Little change

Despite all of this, however, there have been very limited political changes in line with the conditions within Japan. In the election last October, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was the largest opposition party to the LDP, split. The more liberal elements of the DPJ formed the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP); while the right-wing elements joined the Party of Hope, a right-wing populist party posing its own challenge to the LDP. The programme of the CDP included reformist policies such as an increase in the minimum wage, scrapping tuition fees, supporting LGBT rights and ending the use of nuclear power in Japan. However, the CDP has made no mention of the need to break with capitalism, or even to promote ‘socialist’ policies; candidates even claimed the party was neither right-wing nor left-wing, despite now hoping to foment a ‘grassroots movement’, with party leader Yukio Edano having recently met with Bernie Sanders in the USA.

As we wrote in October last year: “The seeds of destruction of the Democratic Party are to some extent also present in this new party.” While it emerged from the elections as the largest opposition party and will likely gain in the polarised atmosphere of a constitutional revision referendum, it still contains a mixture of pro-capitalist politicians allied with others sympathetic to the labour movement and the left.

As well as a mass workers’ party, within Japan there is a need for fighting, democratic trade unions with which the struggles can be linked to the need for a socialist transformation of society.

The unions in Japan are but a shadow of their former militant nature; the immediate post-war period saw a huge upsurge in strikes and disputes, after the right to strike was allowed again. Today however, the main action of the unions – the yearly ‘spring offensive’ – is largely ritualistic, with such minimal demands as 2-3% pay rises and little if no political demands. In fact Abe was able to berate union leaders for not fighting for pay increases, which would boost demand and help economic recovery! Not only this, but almost 60% of unions do not even allow so-called irregular workers (those on part-time or limited term contracts) to join!

This September, Shinzo Abe was re-elected as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party despite the Moritomo school scandal and another one at Kake Gakuin. This is largely because of the weakness of the opposition parties, the fact that they are putting forward no alternative to Abe and support a continuation of capitalist austerity. A divided, and as yet ‘untested’, opposition also means the LDP are likely to stay in power for longer.

Period ahead

It will not be plain sailing, however, should Abe push ahead with his aim of constitutional revision. Article Nine – which prohibits the active use of Japanese military capabilities abroad – is for huge numbers of Japanese people the dearly-held ‘pacifist clause’. There have already been large protests across Japan over the last few years against any ‘war legislation’, or the notion of (once again) sending the youth to ‘die on a foreign battlefield’, given the legacy of the Second World War. In order to amend the constitution a 50% majority in a referendum is necessary. Opinion polls are presently showing a small minority against amendment, so a victory is not a forgone conclusion. Even a layer of those who support Abe do not see the urgency of such a move.

With tensions in Okinawa escalating over the US base issue, where large scale protests, rallies and sit-ins regularly take place over plans to relocate a US military facility to the Henoko area, a linking of these two struggles could result in a major movement across Japan. These have included ‘sit-in’ protests by citizens, blocking the roads used by construction and transport vehicles. The recent gubernatorial election in Okinawa was won by anti-base candidate Denny Tamaki, and so the issue come even further to the fore very soon. The many huge mass protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1959 and 1960 are a possible precedent, and testament to the potential of the Japanese working class to rally to a cause and fight back.

Kokusai Rentai (the CWI in Japan) completely opposes any changes to the constitution that would drag Japan into an imperialist war. It is vital that fighting trade unions, citizens’ groups and political organisations of the working class unite and create an alternative to replace capitalism. One of the major tasks is to fight in order to win rights and equality for temporary workers. Organising temporary workers is a crucial task. Such a movement can lay the foundations for a new working class political organisation and provide a basis for stepping up the fight for a socialist Japan and a socialist world.

CWI Japan – what we stand for

• A minimum wage of 1500 yen (£10 an hour)!
• Employment and health insurance for all workers, whatever the status of their employment!
• The organisation of all non-unionised workers, workers in small and medium businesses, dispatch, contract and part-time workers, and young people starting in part-time work!
• Oppose hate speech and racial discrimination! Allow foreign trainees and migrant workers to join unions!
• Oppose nuclear power and the re-starting of the nuclear plants!
• Oppose the introduction of outsourcing and irregular employment. Organise the irregular and dispatched workers to fight for regular employment and a living wage for all.
• For democratic fighting trade unions independent of management!
• Oppose any moves to constitutional changes in favour of profits for imperialism and major corporations!
• For an alternative based on the needs of working people! For the creation of a working-class party based on independent trade unions, citizens’ groups and young people!
• To put an end to a society ruled by big business and monopoly capital, and fight for the creation of a socialist Japan! To place major corporations and banks under public ownership and the democratic control of the working class. For economic planning based on peoples’ needs, not profit!


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October 2018