Globalization: “Freeters, combini and Uniqlo”

[A version of this article was first published in Kansai Scene magazine and was co-written with Anil Ramsingh.]

How is globalization happening?

The people of Japan have a strong sense of belonging. Group identity comes before individual identity and the most basic unit of society exists in ie and mura, which literally mean ‘house and ‘village.’

When humiliated after the defeat in World War II, Japan harnessed this well-established mindset to marshal the national outlook and their resources toward the common goal of transforming from a destroyed economy into that of a superpower – a process that took only 30 years.

During this time, Japanese males were expected to go from high school to a ‘good’ university, then into a job with a big company, usually for life. For the less educated, blue-collar worker the dictated route was from vocational school to a major manufacturer.

This resulted in a national psyche of rigid conformity that is tailor-made for exploitation by global corporate culture – which demands that its citizens only consume.

Benjamin R. Barber in his book Jihad Versus McWorld, looks at what effect this having on Japan’s foundations. On the subject of food, he wonders “whether the behaviour modification resulting from the climb of McDonalds and KFC into first and second place in Japan’s restaurant industry will trickle down into Japan’s cultural bedrock and rot out the ancient stone.”

There is nothing very “Japanese” about sipping a latte in a Starbucks, of course. Recently this dominator of the coffee shop opened yet another new outlet in the Kansai region. This latest Starbucks in the Porta Mall, under Kyoto’s central train station is the fifth store they have set up in the ancient capital.

According to their website, Starbucks have so-far established 217 branches across the country. In the past five years they have averaged the opening of one new store in Japan every week.


At the same time, other low-wage/high profit multi-nationals like McDonalds, The Gap and Nike are making deeper inroads into the Japanese love of branded goods.

Jyoji, a 28 year-old former company executive, recently found himself a full-time job sweeping the streets at Universal Studios Japan (USJ). The park cost approximately US$1.5 billion to make. Jyogi makes the Japanese equivalent of less than 8 Euros per hour. “It has always been my dream to work in America,” he beams.

USJ President Akira Sakata has said of his sanitized world-within-a-world that their aim is to “showcase and create the best of Hollywood entertainment right here in Osaka.”

Apparently, this is globalization doing its finest work: the fake-transplanting of one culture directly into another…minus the ugly bits: US ‘glamour’ without even leaving Japan. The slogan of the company is “The Power of Hollywood.” Certainly, the power is undeniable.


There’s nothing relaxed about “Casualisation”

Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo believes that the World Trade Organisation’s “free” trade agreements are “systematically taking away the tools that Japan had, in order to take foreign investment and turn it into sustainable development. In exchange for trade [the Japanese] are trading-away their ability to affect their own domestic economic policy.”

There is a further piece of irony to the problem in this country notes Klein. “The Japanese business model of a family company under a single brand name is in a sense what several of the big brands like Virgin are trying to mold them selves after.”

“Except that it’s a distortion of the Japanese principles of corporate responsibility to employees. Now what we have is the worst of that model, a shell of it. They’ve taken that model as a good idea but now it is run entirely through sub-contractors.”

Here, Klein has hit upon a trend that is quickly enveloping the industrialized world: the “casualisation” of work. According to a study done by the Agency for Comparative Civilian Labour Force Statistics, while employment in the manufacturing industry has plummeted since 1970, in the ten largest developed economies, employment in the service industry has skyrocketed. The increase has been the largest in Japan and the USA.

As developed world economies have become increasingly dominated by the service sector, Japan has seen the “lifetime employment within Japan Inc.” erode into a free-for-all of service jobs, many of them part time. Thus was named the “freeter”: (from ‘free-timer’ ) the Japanese equivalent of the American “slacker”.


Klein says that in North America “there’s a generation who’ve grown up thinking that they’re never going to have a full time job” but that this does also allow some of them to “take on and criticize certain corporations fearlessly.”

It remains to be seen if Japanese youth will have a similar self-assurance to question their authority figures, but an increasing number will certainly not have the comfort of a well-paid, secure career position from which to do this.  

Klein thinks that casualisation “has been utterly devastating because [sub-standard] health care and pensions are a big concern.” Of those whose conditions of work or prospects are being whittled away by this symptom of globalization-sickness.

In Japan, the Health and Labour Ministry estimates that two in five young people have no desire to work as salaried company employees. Four in five of those unemployed between the ages of 15 to 24 left their job voluntarily. Where ten or twenty years ago university graduates were expected to pick up a company and stick with it for life, one third of them now leave their first job inside three years.

Reiko Kosugi, a senior researcher at the government-backed Japn Institute of Labour, says that freeters are unskilled. The most common freeter job is behind the counter of a “combini”, a small (usually chain) convenience store.

These workers must resort to low-income, full time jobs if they do not earn a decent income as musicians, artists, writers or whatever they aspire to be. Many are hoping for success in highly competitive fields such as entertainment. Kosugi estimates that about 60% of freeters work in the service industry.


The McDonalds of Casual Clothing

The most visible example of a Japanese company following the lead of powerful companies in the Western world is the budget clothing retailer Uniqlo. Across Japan they have 432 shops, having opened 65 new outlets last year, with a plan to open another 80 this year.

But how are they able to do this when most other business are still suffering from the continued economic downturn?

Quite simply, they are doing what many others outside Japan are also doing – they use contract workers in countries like China to make their shirts and shorts, where production costs are one-twentieth of those in Japan.

Since Uniqlo’s labour costs are so low they can afford to sell a T-shirt for 1,000 yen [about 10 Euros] and still make a very healthy profit. In the six months from September last year they raked in US$300 million in clear profit.

Tadashi Yano, the head of Uniqlo’s Yamaguchi-based parent company Fast Retailing, has been quoted as saying that he wants to do for casual attire what McDonalds has done for fast food. “I want us to be the next Gap or Limited.”


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