Welcome!
2017-10-19 22:42:03
Japan’s Young Workers Get a Lift, and Its Leaders Profit

TOKYO — When Japan’s largest package-delivery company announced that it was raising pay in response to a severe shortage of drivers, Shota Fukuyama answered the call.

Mr. Fukuyama, 28, was driving a truck for a supermarket chain when the delivery company, Yamato Transport, offered to increase his wages by 100,000 yen, or about $900, a month. The timing was fortuitous: His wife gave birth to their second child last year and money was getting tight.

“I started my old job when I had one child, but with two the paycheck was pretty thin,” said Mr. Fukuyama, who started training at Yamato on Monday. “I’m glad I found something else.”

Japan’s young job-hoppers are feeling more secure than they have in years, and that is good news for the country’s political leaders, who face parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Many younger Japanese workers have never known the security of lifetime employment that was common to older generations. Their plight has become a source of economic anxiety in Japan. Now, though, their prospects are looking up thanks to Japan’s modestly — but steadily — growing economy.

On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pointing to rising wages for lower-income workers as part of a broader trumpeting of his economic record. He is hoping that signs of spreading prosperity will help win his governing coalition a renewed majority in Parliament, extending its five-year hold on power.

There are plenty of numbers for the prime minister to boast about. Output has grown for six straight quarters, the first time that has happened in more than a decade. The stock market is at a 21-year high. Jobs are plentiful, with unemployment at just 2.8 percent, the lowest level since the mid-1990s. Even Japan’s longtime economic nemesis, persistent consumer-price deflation, is being kept at bay.

In a television appearance this month, Mr. Abe compared his efforts to ratchet up economic growth — through a mix of stimulus policies widely known as Abenomics — to the 10 way stations that climbers pass on their way up Mount Fuji.

“We’re at Station Seven, and when you’re climbing it’s after that when things get the most difficult,” he said, inviting voters to grant him the chance to shoot for the summit.

Economic policy has taken a back seat in the campaign to other matters, notably national security and dueling claims over whether Mr. Abe used his influence to help right-wing supporters. A new opposition party created by Tokyo’s popular governor, Yuriko Koike, a former ally of Mr. Abe’s, has seen its support in the polls weaken after a promising start.

If Mr. Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, wins on Sunday, as appears to be likely, entrenched structural issues will be his next target, he said. His party has promised to increase spending on child care and education in a bid to encourage families to have more children and reverse an accelerating decline in Japan’s population, which has held back economic growth.

The opposition has struggled to formulate a counterattack. One challenge for Mr. Abe’s rivals is that the prime minister is a conservative who spends like a liberal. Though his policies have benefited business — he has cut corporate taxes and brought about a devaluation of the yen, giving Japanese companies with big overseas operations like Toyota Motor a leg up on foreign competitors — there has been no painful austerity to rally against.

Opposition parties have instead seized on a longstanding point of controversy: Japan’s sales tax. The national tax is scheduled to rise in 2019, to 10 percent from the current 8 percent, but Ms. Koike’s party and other groups say they would call off the increase if elected.

Mr. Abe, who has already delayed the rise once, says he will allow it to go ahead but will divert more of the money to social programs, rather than use it to bring down Japan’s chronic budget deficit, as was initially planned. A proposal to balance Japan’s budget, excluding interest payments on debt, by 2020 has been quietly set aside.

“All the parties are promising things like getting rid of school fees,” said Ami Miyamoto, 25, an undecided voter who works for a recruiting firm in Tokyo. “I worry that’s just piling up bills for the future.”

Ms. Miyamoto said business at her firm was booming, as a shrinking work force means that companies are scrambling to find staff. But she was skeptical that Mr. Abe deserved the credit.

“Demographics is the biggest factor,” she said. “I don’t know what Abenomics has to do with it.”

A broader line of attack against Mr. Abe has been that his policies have done little to enrich the average family. Finding a job might be easier, particularly for flexible part-time and temporary workers, but in most parts of the economy wage gains have been small or offset by a higher cost of living.

Hikaru Kisaka, a 55-year-old part-time restaurant worker, said she had recently switched employers, netting a pay increase of about $1.80 an hour. But she said that her husband, whose full-time job generates most of her family’s income, has not had a raise in years.

“I don’t get the sense that the economy is improving,” she said. “I don’t feel change.”

Ms. Koike, the Tokyo governor, has been described variously as a supply-side conservative and a populist. She has floated several experimental policy proposals, such as offering citizens a universal basic income or taxing corporate cash reserves instead of profits, an idea intended to induce companies to cycle more of their earnings back into the economy.

Her pitch does not seem to be resonating. Polls show support for her party, the Party of Hope, is stuck in the single digits. A more left-leaning party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has gained some traction, but over all, the Liberal Democratic Party appears to be on course for a landslide that could keep Mr. Abe in power until 2021.

“I don’t see any choice other than Abe,” said Takafumi Sakai, 31, who works in sales at a Chinese-owned information technology company. “There’s nobody else who jumps out as an alternative.”

Mr. Fukuyama, the delivery driver, has been luckier than most. A boom in online shopping has increased demand for delivery services. Yamato and other companies have no choice but to lift pay sharply. Mr. Fukuyama said that he had voted for the Liberal Democratic Party in the past and that, although he had not made up his mind this time, he saw little reason to overturn the status quo.

“It doesn’t really matter who’s in charge,” he said. “So rather than leave things to someone unpredictable, I think it’s better to stay the course.”