Tokyo's subway homeless - massive social dislocation on way in

Tom Boland (
Thu, 19 Feb 1998 21:50:00 -0800 (PST)

By Russell Skelton, Sidney Morning Herald Correspondent in Tokyo
JAPAN  Friday, February 13, 1998


       The winter sun was barely up when fire erupted along the icy
corridors of Tokyo's Shinjuku railway station, engulfing the makeshift
cardboard city of homeless. Within minutes it was all over. Of the 100
temporary residents who have defied police and local government by living
in the precincts of the busy station, three were dead.

       Last weekend's blaze did what authorities have been wanting to do
for ages: it drove the small but highly embarrassing battalion of homeless
away from one of the most visible spots in Tokyo. Each day an estimated 2
million commuters - office workers, public servants and business people -
pass through Shinjuku. The swelling cardboard city had been a stark
reminder of the nation's fastest-growing social problem, unemployment.

       Some of these people worked the commercial fishing fleets, some were
itinerant farm hands and others casual employees in the vast components
industry, sectors that are contracting under the strain of the stalled
economy and the fiercest credit squeeze to grip the nation in 50 years.

       By Australian standards, Japan's unemployment record may look
impressive, especially for an economy that is on the brink of recession.
The unemployment rate is a modest 3.5 per cent, or 2.34 million. According
to official estimates, the economic downturn will put another 100,000 out
of work this year.

       But few analysts believe the present figures or future estimates
accurately reflect reality. Much of Japan's unemployment is hidden because
extended families and some companies provide support.

       Benefits are paid for only a very limited time, making it hard to
calculate numbers.

       Some analysts believe unemployment may jump to 5 per cent this year,
causing massive social dislocation and unrest. The Asian economic slowdown,
the credit squeeze and the erosion of lifetime unemployment contracts are
threatening to add millions rather than thousands to the unemployment

       Six hundred companies are failing each week. Last year, bankruptcies
jumped 75 per cent to their highest level in 50 years. Apart from leaving
behind about 14 trillion yen ($166.3 billion) in liabilities, an estimated
140,000 employees lost their jobs in a six-month period last year.

       The high rate of business failures is expected to accelerate in the
coming months as the debt-encumbered banks struggle to get their liquidity
levels up by the end of Japan's financial year in April. The crunch will
greatly increase the number of jobless.

       However, with Japan coming under intense pressure from its Asian
neighbours and the United States to deregulate its domestic markets and
allow more imports, the Government's policy-makers are faced with a
decision-making crisis.

       Deregulation will result in enormous disruption of the labour
market, requiring large numbers of workers to move out of non-productive
sectors into more productive ones. Given the rigidities of the labour
market, such disruption can only result in more unemployment.


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