1980s >> 1986 >> no-981-may-1986

Sunrise Capitalism

Japan is often cited as an example of how capitalism can work, if only all workers were hard-working and loyal. Its low unemployment, high growth rate and high wages are apparently what we should all be striving for. Indeed, when he was describing Labour’s economic policy recently, Neil Kinnock said that Labour was after a Japanese-type economy.

It is not only in this country that Japan is held up as a shining example of “successful” capitalism. In the United States, competition from Japan has led to many industries closing down – especially car and steel plants – which in turn has resulted in some American workers mistakenly blaming “dirty foreigners” for their unemployment. Russian leaders have also been pointing to Japan’s economy, and the quality of their goods, as an example of what their workers should be aspiring to.

Despite the fact that in Japan unemployment is one fifth of Britain’s, that wages are on average one third higher and that the economy is growing at a relatively high rate – conditions which are supposedly the best that capitalism can achieve – Japanese workers face problems and conditions that are bad even by British standards.

Housing in Japan is generally very poor and costly in comparison with Britain. It costs three times as much, which makes a nonsense of directly comparing wage rates. In the late seventies, one third of Japanese houses averaged 11 feet by 11 feet, and are often referred to as “rabbit hutches”. Nearly one half of the 34 million homes in Japan have no flushing toilet and 6 per cent have no piped water. Within the three main metropolitan areas, 50 million of Japan’s 120 million people are crushed; Tokyo has very few parks or gardens.

The old and sick in Japan are in a precarious position. Pensions are usually low, and some workers do not even get one. Many have to rely on savings or charity from their families, although less old people are now being looked after in this way. Some old workers are retired by companies at 55 years old, although pensions don’t usually start until they are 60. On the other hand, many small businesses in Japan employ old workers who have to work until they drop.

It is not advisable to fall ill in Japan. Although there is health insurance, it is not comprehensive, and up to 30 per cent of the bill may have to be paid by the patient himself.

Unemployment in Japan may be lower, but if you are out of work then you are in trouble. Unemployment benefits usually lasts for only 90 days, although older workers at the bigger companies might get a maximum of eight months’ benefit. After this, workers who cannot get a job have to rely on any savings they may have, or on their families, as there is no supplementary benefit.

Although security of employment is better in Japan (at least in the bigger companies), when companies do make workers redundant it is the 45-55 year age group that is most vulnerable. Pay rates in Japan are linked to age and workers may get as much as three times more than their colleagues in their twenties which, apart from dividing the workforce, makes them a ready target for cost-cutting employers.

Employment in Japan is not an altogether pleasant experience, and workers there have less protection than their European counterparts. Independent unions are discouraged and instead workers join company unions. These unions preach subservience and loyalty to the company, which is like cattle preaching loyalty to the butcher.

In the bigger companies workers do have relatively high wages and security (of exploitation). Long hours are expected, however, and overtime is often little short of compulsory. Many Japanese workers, however, are employed in smaller firms, where wages are much lower (up to a third), and conditions and job security are much poorer. This is most noticeable in the car industry, where the further down the sub-contracting line the worse the working conditions tend to be. Temporary labour is used a lot, with the advantage to the capitalists of being cheap and disposable.

Workers in Japan are cajoled and exhorted to work hard and be loyal to “their” company. A strict labour discipline which is instilled in workers at an early age. The school system in Japan can be brutal. Strict codes define all aspects of a child’s behaviour throughout the day. The uniformed nonentities found in Japanese factories are found in the schools, where rules of dress are strict.

Large classes are geared towards passing exams, which are themselves geared to the needs of their future employers (pronounced exploiters). Failure is not tolerated. The creating of a compliant, docile workforce, suitable for the profit requirements of capital, leaves its mark on the children. Violence, bullying, absenteeism and delinquency are on the increase. Those children whose academic achievements are poor or appear different are the main targets for bullying in the classroom jungle.

In 1984, 572 people under the age of 19 committed suicide. The figure was 62 for those under 14, compared to two in Britain. The “success” of Japanese capitalism has its price.

Japan’s economy is now the second biggest in the world, after the United States. But the problems facing workers in Japan, who created this wealth, have not disappeared. In fact, you could argue that they are relatively worse off, in that the wealth they have created has increased faster than their wages, becoming an oppressive, alienated force in the hands of capital. Certainly, Japanese workers do face similar problems to those elsewhere.

When capitalism is a “success”, as we are led to believe it is in Japan, it is only the capitalists who benefit. It is clear that those who express an admiration for, and desire to emulate, Japan are only wanting capitalism to be “successful” in their countries. The lot of the working class is not substantially changed by capitalist success or failure. It will only be changed by its abolition.

Ian Ratcliffe

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