Letter to the Editors from the July 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
Might I make one or two comments on Ian Ratcliffe‘s interesting article on capitalism in Japan (Socialist Standard, May 1986)?
Unemployment is said to be low in Japan, but it all depends on what you mean by "unemployed". Unemployment was reputed to be relatively low in France during the 1930s (for example, in 1932 there were 273.000 registered unemployed in France, compared to 2.817.000 in Britain and 5.580,000 in Germany). The point was that workers were only judged to be "unemployed" if they qualified for unemployment benefit. Since most workers without a job did not qualify, officially they were not "unemployed”.
Those who manage capitalism in Japan use similar methods to disguise unemployment. One technique among the many used is for companies to offload surplus workers and "set them up in their own businesses" (read "make them redundant”). It is no coincidence that 28.5 per cent of all companies in Japan are "one-man” or "family businesses" (compared to 8.6 per cent in the USA. for example). With a few pieces of machinery installed in the living room or garden shed, such workers engage in contract work (often for the company which formerly employed them) at piece-rates which often make it necessary to work for more than twelve hours per day. seven days per week, in order to survive.
Ian Ratcliffe mentioned the divisions which exist within the working class in Japan, but these are probably deeper and more damaging than even he implies. The media-created image of the Japanese worker who is guaranteed life-time employment and who receives a wide range of "benefits" from the company applies, at most, to about 30 per cent of the workforce who work for giant companies. (It is no coincidence that the rate of unionisation is 28.9 per cent, since trade unions are largely confined to this sector of the workforce.) The vast majority of workers are employed by small- and medium-steed companies, where pay and "benefits" are low. employment is insecure and unions are virtually unheard of. The results are that average wages in small companies employing no more than four workers are only 52 per cent of average wages paid by large companies employing more than 1.000 workers; bonus payments to workers in small companies are a mere 21.8 per cent of those received by workers in large companies.
Even within the giant companies, the workforce is divided. The main reason why large companies can guarantee employment to workers on the "permanent" payroll is that categories of "temporary" workers exist (some of them permanently "temporary"). Such "temporary" workers receive none of the "benefits" enjoyed by "permanent" workers, are not eligible for union membership, and have no long-term security of employment. Even for workers on the "permanent” payroll of giant companies (who are often regarded as an "aristocracy of labour"), life is far from rosy because for every one of them, there are plenty of less well-paid workers who are eager to step into their shoes, they can resist few of the demands which the companies make on them. To give just one example, most workers in this position dare to use only half of the average of 15 vacation days per year which are their due. The rest of their vacation allowance they give up "voluntarily".
As Ian Ratcliffe rightly makes clear, capitalism is a monstrous and degrading system wherever it is found. In Japan, as in all other countries, wage-earners find themselves manipulated, oppressed and exploited. The solution to the problems confronting workers in Britain certainly does not lie in aping the practices of Japanese capitalism. Rather, the solution to workers’ problems wherever they might be lies in a worldwide effort to achieve the objectives which have adorned the banners of the best sections of the Japanese working class: Chin Rōdō to Shōhin Seisan no Haishi ("Abolition of Wage Labour and Commodity Production").
Yours for communism.
Department of Politics
University of York