In Japan, Carefree Lifestyle Becoming Career-Free Life

Special to The Times

When Tadashi Kitami reached 30, he spent some time thinking about his future. The question was whether to dramatically change his lifestyle by seeking a full-time job, with all the demands of overtime and loyalty that being a company employee usually entails in Japan.

In the end, he decided to carry on working part time for low pay, living in a tiny Tokyo apartment and pursuing his hobby of making music. Now 34, he says, “When you reach my age, the chances of finding a proper job diminish. Now I have come this far, I feel there is nothing for it but to carry on with this life I enjoy.”

It is a choice that a rapidly growing number of young Japanese are making, and which many have had forced upon them. The Japanese call them “freeters,” a term for young people who work in part-time and temporary jobs rather than follow the traditional Japanese career path of joining a company as a regular employee and staying there until retirement.


The term freeter, which combines the word “free” with the Japanese word for part-time worker, once had connotations of carefree young people rejecting the corporate straight-jacket. But with Japan’s recession stretching into its 13th year, it now includes hundreds of thousands of people in their 30s trapped in poorly paid jobs, without marketable skills and facing an uncertain future.

“From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, most people chose to become freeters for the purpose of living their lives according to their own interests. But now many have no choice because of the difficult job market,” says Toshie Ikenaga, director of the Cabinet Office’s Quality of Life bureau. “As the economy worsened, people who became freeters in the ‘90s found that they cannot escape and cannot acquire job skills. Being a freeter was once a stage, but it is possibly becoming a condition.”

Japanese fear that the low-skilled under-performers are becoming a burden on their economy and society.

The danger was highlighted in a white paper released by Ikenaga’s department this year showing that in 2001 as many as one in five Japanese of age 15-34, excluding students and homemakers, were freeters or unemployed. It also showed that while 95% of freeters thought it best to get a regular job before reaching 30, the number of freeters in their early 30s had grown by 270% since 1989.

“One of my young relatives can’t decide where to work,” Ikenaga says. “I said strongly, ‘Do not become a freeter, because if you do, there is no way out. Any company will do, but the situation is so bad you must get a regular job.’ ”

In the United States and Europe, part-time and temporary jobs and even internships can be a way to gain valuable experience and, eventually, a staff job. But in Japan, that is not the case, says Reiko Kosugi, assistant research director at the Japan Institute of Labor.

“In the U.S. and Europe, it is possible for people to go from being unemployed or from part-time jobs to full-time positions as long as they have the ability and will to work,” she says. “But Japan had no recent experience of unemployment, so traditionally you were expected to join as a company employee straight from school and stay. Until now, companies haven’t had any other entry points. We haven’t had a flexible system that allows freeters to graduate to full positions.”

There are now an estimated 2 million freeters in Japan, four times the figure of 20 years ago. They typically work in convenience stores, restaurants and in mundane clerical jobs. More than 70% earn less than $25,000 a year, and the average is just $14,000, which doesn’t go far in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

Nonetheless, most freeters find life bearable. Yukio Okubo, general manager at a think tank for publisher and employment agency Recruit, which coined the term freeter in 1987, says, “Although freeter pay is low, it is enough to live on, especially as over 70% of freeters live with their parents. Basically, they don’t spend much. If you have a high income and lose it, it is hard. But freeters have never had money and don’t miss it.”

Kitami, who graduated from a Tokyo design school, says his job cleaning floors four days a week leaves him just enough money to live on and enough time for his hobby of “making art with music.” His pay is around $1,200 a month, of which $585 goes to rent for his apartment in Shimo-Kitazawa, an area popular with Tokyo students and young people.

The 180-square-foot apartment is kept meticulously tidy -- there is no space for clutter. The room is dominated by an array of music decks, four guitars and a computer: the tools Kitami uses to make CDs and which he paid for over the years from his meager income. He cooks simple meals at home and drinks mostly with friends at their apartments. The only support he gets from his parents is rice, which they send him from their home in rural northern Japan.

One reason freeters typically do not feel poor is that during their 20s their lifestyles and incomes don’t differ much from contemporaries in regular jobs. Most Japanese companies still base pay for regular employees on age, meaning salaries begin to diverge seriously only when the freeters hit their 30s. But the gap will continue to grow as regular employees benefit from annual pay hikes and, eventually, generous retirement packages.

Freeters often are divided into three types: those who are pursuing a dream or hobby and therefore don’t want the burden of being a regular employee; those who have yet to decide what kind of career they want and just work to get by in the meantime; and those who have tried but failed to find regular employment.

Surveys show, however, that 72% of freeters want to become regular employees, suggesting that even if they started in the “dream chaser” or “moratorium” categories, many end in the “no choice” category.

The burgeoning of a freeter class has begun to set off alarms. For one thing, an estimated 50% of freeters do not pay their state pension contributions, putting further stress on a fund already burdened by a growing elderly population and a shrinking number of children. For another, observers say freeters drag down the overall productivity of an economy that once benefited from “ordinary” employees who were better educated and more skilled than their counterparts in other developed countries.

Freeters are even accused of exacerbating Japan’s falling birthrate, as they marry later, if at all, and have fewer children. For this reason, freeters are sometimes called “parasite singles,” a term widely used in Japan to refer to people who depend on their parents into their late 20s and 30s.

Certainly, a survey in this year’s white paper shows that freeters on the whole are somewhat less willing to make sacrifices and take on heavy work responsibilities than their full-time salaried peers. But most analysts say the main reason for the growth of the freeters is that Japanese companies have mostly reacted to the recession by declining to hire recent graduates rather than laying off well-paid but unproductive middle-aged workers. High youth unemployment and underemployment have been a hallmark of Japan’s recession.

Kosugi argues that, ironically, the scale of the freeter problem gives cause for optimism. The government is at last taking steps to address the problem after a decade of apparently just hoping that an economic recovery would make the problem go away.

It will make $600 million available in next year’s budget to set up consultation centers across Japan, and last month the education ministry announced plans for 56 schools nationwide to begin work skills courses especially for freeters. The courses are intended to give freeters some chance to escape underemployment, especially should Japan’s economy pick up.

In the meantime, millions of young people will continue to rely on their parents’ money.

“We are in an age when people even in their 30s have parents who are healthy and wealthy. That makes it possible for people that age to live even if they don’t work at all,” Okubo says.

“Some freeters work near-to-full-time jobs, but many others don’t really try and just work occasionally when they want money. But what happens when that older generation is gone?”

Rie Sasaki in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.