Although Japan’s economy is limping along with little if any real growth, its official unemployment rate is an enviably low 4.2%. Even accounting for some differences in the way the data is calculated (supposedly it’d be about a percentage point higher if the same method as the U.S. were used), that’s still lower than many other countries. But the actual job situation in Japan is far from rosy, of course. Because there’s been essentially no inflation over the past 20 years (about the only thing that got more expensive since I came here was Coca-Cola, which went from 100 yen to 120 yen in 1993), wages have also not grown much during that time. Also, five years of an incredibly strong currency have caused many of Japan’s most illustrious brands to move jobs to other countries in order to stay competitive. Recently a report was released showing the number of Japanese employed in manufacturing was under 10 million, the lowest number since 1961, and this has really come as a shock to people here. In some ways it’s an unavoidable step in the evolution of an industrial economy — when I was taking economics courses in university in the late 80s the topic of how the U.S. had “lost the manufacturing war” to Japan was hotly discussed, and now the same thing is happening to Japan. All is not lost, of course: Japan’s engineering skills are incredibly high, and there are many options open to the country as it tries to find the best path going forward.
Japan’s manufacturing jobs are in peril.