Women seeking full-time work frequently find themselves in irregular jobs too, which also has implications for raising a family, since the hours are unpredictable and the pay is low. But it is more of an obstacle for marriage if a man doesn’t have a good job—roughly 70 percent of women quit working after they have their first child, and depend on their husband’s salary for some time.
Women in Japan’s big cities say they’re getting tired of the lack of available men. While in Tokyo, I visited an event put on by Zwei, a matchmaking company. Dozens of women clustered in a small studio to take a cooking class featuring food from Miyazaki Prefecture, in southern Japan. The event was part of an initiative that Zwei was putting on to make them interested in life—and men—outside of Tokyo. Zwei’s business model is based on matching women in Japan’s big cities with men in other areas of the country, where men are more likely to have good jobs and be considered viable partners. “Men in this city are not very masculine and they don't want to get married,” Kouta Takada, a Zwei staff member, told me. A recent survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that nearly 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women aren’t in a relationship.
I also visited the office of POSSE, a group formed by college graduates who wanted to create a labor union for young people. Haruki Konno, the group’s president, told me that some of the young men in irregular jobs become what are called “net-cafe refugees”—people who live in the tiny cubicles available for rent overnight at Japanese internet cafes. (Shiho Fukada, a photographer, has documented the lives of these “refugees.”) Others with irregular jobs live with their parents or go on welfare.
POSSE calculates that irregular employees earn on average about $1,800 a month, but spend much of that money on rent, paying back their college loans, and paying into Japan’s social-security program. That doesn’t leave them much to live on. About a quarter of Japan’s college graduates—a proportion that roughly corresponds with the share of students who go to big-name universities—are set for life in good jobs, he told me. Everyone else, he said, is struggling. “Men in their 20s, they don’t have an idea of having families or a house,” Makoto Iwahashi, another POSSE member, told me. “Most of them feel that it’s just not a reality.”
The surge in irregular jobs doesn’t just create problems for the people working those jobs. It’s also led companies to feel that they can treat their regular workers poorly, because those workers feel so lucky to have a job, Konno told me. Knowing that people in their 20s and 30s are desperate to get regular jobs, companies hire lots of young people and force them to work long hours for little to no overtime pay, assuming that most won’t be able to survive the harsh conditions, Konno said. Japan has long had a culture of overwork—there’s even a Japanese word, karoshi, for death by overwork—but Konno says that it has worsened since the Great Recession, as companies have realized that good jobs are hard to find in Japan, and so push their employees harder.