It's a bad time to be a working male in Japan as 'mancession' is far from over
THREE times a week, Seiya Ogawa cycles to an unemployment centre in Kadoma looking for work to help pay for his son's final year at college.
"At this point, I'm willing to take any job," said the 49-year-old, who assembled electronic circuit boards in what was once a bustling manufacturing suburb of Osaka. This month, it's officially one year since he first signed on at the centre, and "it's like my humanity's been stripped from me", he said.
Mr Ogawa and his son rely on the incomes of his wife and daughter, a social role reversal that is spreading in Japan as factories and building companies fire workers and services that hire mostly women add employees. The new jobs pay lower average wages, making it harder for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to spur consumer spending and pull the world's third-largest economy out of a decade of deflation. The increasing burden as breadwinners also gives women less incentive to marry and have children early in a country that already has the fastest-aging population in the developed world.
"With Japanese companies increasingly moving abroad and a shrinking population making growth in construction work unlikely, these sectors just can't absorb male workers the way they used to," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. "Nominal wages are falling and falling as a result. This mancession is far from over."
Manufacturing and building industries, where seven out of 10 staff are male, will lose four million positions this decade, according to Tokyo-based Works Institute. The healthcare sector, where 74pc of staff are female, added people at the fastest pace across all industries in the past three years, growing 1pc, Labour Ministry data shows.
The shift is accelerating, thanks to a near record-high currency that's wiping out profits at exporters including Panasonic and Sony, giving the government no time to ease the transition.
Shares in both electronics companies fell last year. At the same time, Message, Japan's second-biggest operator of nursing homes by number of rooms, has risen 1.6pc and Nichii Gakkan, operator of the largest number of homes, is up 25pc
Services such as nursing and healthcare are "the future of Japan", said Curtis Freeze, founder of Honolulu-based Prospect Asset Management, who is considering adding Message to the $300m that Prospect manages.
Manufacturers "are in the middle of restructuring, and they're going to struggle. It's the smaller services companies that will do most of the hiring."
Healthcare, with 19pc of working women, isn't the only field to add jobs in the past three years: Education -- another profession where women outnumber men -- as well as research, restaurants and real estate also have grown, even as the economy as a whole lost a net 12.1 million positions.
Forty-two per cent of people employed in 2010 were women, the highest share since the Labour Ministry made comparable data available in 1973, when the figure was 38.5pc.
"It's really tough right now," said Reiko Sato (31) at an employment office in Tokyo just before Christmas. "It's the end of the year, so there are lots of short-term positions at department stores or restaurants that everyone's competing to get. It's easier for the girls, because that's who the stores want. I just feel bad for the men who have to come here. They probably won't have something in time for the new year."
Manufacturing, where men outnumber women by more than two to one, is still Japan's largest employer, accounting for about 16pc of its 62.5 million workers. In construction, the ratio of men to women is six to one. Since October 2008, the former shrank payrolls by 9pc and the latter by 11pc. Meanwhile, the healthcare workforce will grow 32pc from 2010 to 2020, according to the Works Institute.
As a result, one of the developed world's biggest gender- pay gaps is narrowing. Women between 30 and 34 earned an average 2.99m yen last year, 69pc of the 4.32m yen for men. That's up from 55pc in 1978.
The increase may help shift consumer spending toward services women prefer, such as travelling and dining out, and away from durable goods including cars and electronics, said Kyohei Morita, chief Japan economist at Barclays Capital in Tokyo.
"It's because I work that I can go on these trips and buy my favourite make-up," said Ayumi Ohtaki, a 27-year-old call-centre operator in Tokyo who earns 240,000 yen a month.
While she's in no hurry to marry, she said she would want to keep her job after her wedding to ensure she could continue to buy the things she wants.
With women like Ms Ohtaki marrying later and delaying starting a family, and more men struggling to find work, Japan's falling birth rate is likely to get worse, said Mary Brinton, a sociology professor at Harvard University, who studied the lives of young Japanese men shut out of well-paid, full-time work in the 1990s.
"This so-called mancession is going to cause continuing problems for the marriage rate and birth rate," she said.
The trend of women replacing men in Japan's workforce mirrors a similar shift in other developed nations. Last year, the average male unemployment rate among the OECD countries was 8.5pc, compared with 8.1pc for women. In 2000, the situation was reversed, with 5.8pc of men jobless and 6.8pc of female workers.
Japan's unemployment rate in 2010 was 5.4pc for men and 4.6pc for women, a record gap. Joblessness may rise to 7.1pc for men and 5.9pc for women by 2020, Works Institute estimates.
That's a bleak outlook for Mr Ogawa, who lives alongside Kadoma's rusting, shuttered factories, which once drew labourers from across Japan as they boomed with the Panasonic HQ they surround. He says the stagnation has changed the attitude of young people in their 20s like his son and daughter, who hoard the money they earn rather than spending it.
"It's hard to tell them to aim high when I'm struggling to find a job," Mr Ogawa said. "I don't dare talk about my good times when I was their age; they just wouldn't understand."