The rise of socialist and populist ideas worldwide reaches Japan, stimulating support for universal suffrage, social welfare, workers' rights, and public protest. The socialist movement is mostly repressed, although a labor movement does emerge.
Even as the left is suppressed, the state adopts some emerging Western models of medical and financial assistance.
The social ethos stresses the citizens' duty to work, and state responsibility for citizen welfare is limited to those physically unable to do so. There is little sympathy for the working poor, and employer opposition to unemployment insurance compels alternatives such as work relief.
Displacement, unemployment, and food shortages plague postwar Japan. The new constitution includes social rights such as compulsory education, and a 1946 law guarantees a minimum standard of living. Land reform cuts tenant farming, while flexible labor laws increase unionization from 3.2 percent in 1945 to 53 percent in 1948. Strikes become common.
Surplus labor depresses wages and job security, and strikes continue until a consensus is in place for lifelong employment and wages tied to seniority. Firm-level unions include all but temporary workers and upper management and identify with the firm's health. Government, labor, and management councils set minimum wages. Low social security encourages a high savings rate, despite low returns.
Universal health care and pension laws come into effect. The unions' Spring Labor Offensive now achieves annual wage hikes in a predictable and negotiated way, replacing the bitter strikes of the 1940s and '50s. Incomes and living standards consistently rise, and by 1964, 87 percent of Japanese consider themselves middle class.
Labor shortages lead to a rise in female employment. Despite otherwise high levels of unionization, industries now employ non-union temporary and part-time workers who can be hired and fired as needed.
Social security spending increases through the 1970s and '80s, but continues to lag behind that of other industrialized economies. Economic downturns following the oil shocks temporarily transform the pro forma Spring Labor Offensive into a genuine surge of strikes. Economic challenges, however, ultimately reinforce business-labor collaboration.
By 1989, over-65s account for 12 percent of the population, straining pension plans, which are merged into the compulsory Employee Pension Insurance Plan. The worker contribution rises even as benefits are cut, and the retirement and eligibility ages both rise as well, leaving a gap between retirement at 60 and benefits at 65. Homemakers are granted pension benefits.
Japan's aging population continues to strain government resources. Critics argue that piecemeal reforms or health and pension systems fall short of the comprehensive efforts necessary to deal with the aging population. Despite the economic downturn, public assistance benefits reach a mere 1 percent of the population, mainly the elderly and disabled.
The lengthy recession is taking its toll across society. Unemployment has shattered the "salary-man" culture, and many youth, facing poor job prospects, prefer to drop out. Crime is on the rise. Even the 2002 soccer World Cup fails to energize Japan or spark its economy as it does the other co-host, South Korea. Controversy dogs new school textbooks accused of disregarding Japan's war crimes.
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