It takes a village to move a ministry

By Cory Gaskins

The economic crisis continues to severely affect Japan, with over 34,368 people losing their jobs in the past month alone. Approximately 85,012 workers are likely to be fired between October 2008 and March 2009, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. In response, many organizations have taken steps to help the people who have recently become homeless, due largely to the recent increase in “haken-giri,” or temporary worker cutbacks.

The surge in homelessness during the cold winter period had been predicted to happen for months — a visible result of corporate Japan’s treatment of temp workers. Although the recent increase has pushed the government to provide some shelter and food for them, as the deadline for the respite period approaches, the outlook still seems grim for the jobless, even more so considering that the “Temp Worker’s New Year Village” (Toshikoshi Haken Mura) closed its doors this week.

The emergency camp, which opened on December 31 and closed on Monday January 5, provided meals and sleeping facilities for the destitute. Over twenty organizations participated to set up the village in Hibiya Park, situated in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare building. Some saw this choice of location as a visible criticism towards the labor and social securities administration. Recreational events and various performances were also provided in order to welcome the New Year in a brighter spirit.

According to the executive committee of the village, over 499 unemployed people had enrolled in the village, 353 had sought consultation services, and 230 had applied for welfare. Around 1,700 people volunteered to help,in raising over 23 million yen for the operation.

The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare agreed to open its auditorium on January 2, to cope with the excess amount of people streaming into the village. “Village leader,” Makoto Yuasa, executive director of NPO Corporation Independent Life Support Center (MOYAI) said the ministry could no longer stand by idly. "The ministry couldn’t ignore the wretched state of affairs that is taking place on their doorstep," he said.
With the closure of the village this week, the village executive committee is pushing for the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare to provide continued clothing, food, and housing for the haken-giri homeless. According to the committee, many were in a poor physical condition when entering the village and eight were hospitalized with pneumonia.

The Ministry agreed to allow four unused school gymnasiums in Tokyo to shelter the Haken-Mura homeless until Sunday. Local authorities throughout Japan have started taking on extra temp workers and a taxi company in Fukuoka Prefecture announced plans to hire up to 6,000 new fulltime employees by March this year. The government admitted the problem was a national crisis, and pledged to “seriously address the issue.”

But who are to blame? The workers? The corporations? The government?

According to the village committee, when Ministry officials were asked whether this disaster was caused by the government’s employment policy, they responded “Yes, we believe so.”

However, not all politicians have wholeheartedly endorsed the haken mura as a way to address the growing problem. Tetsushi Sakamoto, a member of the House of Representatives, controversially said he wonders whether the people who gathered in the village were really serious about finding jobs. He also said he saw aspects similar to the intense student activism that was popular in the 1960s.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that the employment rate of people aged from 15-24 in Japan is 41.5 percent–lower than other developed nations. On top of that, long-term unemployment for the same demographic is on the rise, and even if they do find employment, a third of them end up working as temps, essentially not improving the situation at all.

Mahatma Ghandi said a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Now is the perfect opportunity to revise government policy and determine what kind of society we would like to cultivate.

You can access the official village blog here:

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