Three times a week, Seiya Ogawa bikes to an unemployment center in Kadoma, home to Panasonic Corp., looking for work to help pay for his son's final year at college.
"At this point, I'm willing to take any job," said the 49-year-old, who assembled electronic circuit boards in what was once a bustling manufacturing city in Osaka Prefecture. This month, it's officially one year since he first signed on at the center, and "it's like my humanity's been stripped from me," he said.
Ogawa and his son rely on the incomes of his wife and daughter, a reversal of social roles that is spreading in Japan as factories and building companies fire workers and services that hire mostly women hire new employees. The new jobs pay lower than average wages, making it harder for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to spur consumer spending and pull the world's third-largest economy out of a decade of deflation.
The increasing burden as breadwinners also gives women less incentive to marry and have children early in a country that already has the fastest-aging population in the developed world.
"With Japanese companies increasingly moving abroad and a shrinking population making growth in construction work unlikely, these sectors just can't absorb male workers the way they used to," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. "Nominal wages are falling and falling as a result. This 'man-cession' is far from over."
Japan's economy is shifting from "monozukuri" (making things) — something the nation prides itself on — to services, especially those catering to the country's 29 million seniors over age 64. Manufacturing and building industries, where 7 in 10 employees are male, will lose 4 million positions this decade, according to the Tokyo-based Works Institute, which is funded by employment services provider Recruit Co. The health care sector on the other hand, where 74 percent of workers are female, has recruited at the fastest pace across all industries in the past three years, growing 16 percent, data from the labor ministry.
The shift is accelerating, thanks to the near record-high yen that's wiping out profits at exporters including Panasonic and Sony Corp., giving the government no time to ease the transition. Panasonic has forecast it will suffer its biggest annual loss in a decade this fiscal year, while Sony estimated it will rack up losses of ¥90 billion.
Panasonic and Sony shares have slumped 45 percent and 53 percent this year, helping pull the Topix index 20 percent lower. At the same time, Message Co., ranked the nation's second-biggest operator of nursing homes by number of rooms, has risen 1.6 percent, and Nichii Gakkan Co., operator of the largest number of homes, is up 25 percent.
Services such as nursing and health care are "the future of Japan," said Curtis Freeze, founder of Honolulu-based Prospect Asset Management Inc. Freeze is considering adding Message to the $300 million that Prospect Asset manages because its employment policies may reduce staff turnover costs.
Manufacturers "are in the middle of restructuring, and they're going to struggle. It's the smaller services companies that will do most of the hiring," he said.
Health care, with 19 percent of working women, isn't the only sector that has recruited heavily in the past three years: Education — another profession where women outnumber men — as well as research, restaurants and real estate also have grown, even as Japan lost a net 12.1 million positions.
Forty-two percent of people employed in 2010 were women, the highest share since the labor ministry made comparable data available in 1973, when the figure was 38.5 percent.
"It's really tough right now," said Reiko Sato, 31, who was visiting a government employment office near her home in Tokyo. "It's the end of the year, so there are lots of short-term positions at department stores or restaurants that everyone's competing to get. It's easier for the girls, because that's who the stores want. I just feel bad for the men who have to come here. They probably won't have something in time for the New Year."
Manufacturing, where men outnumber women by more than 2 to 1, is still Japan's largest source of jobs, accounting for about 16 percent of its 62.5 million workers. But since October 2008, manufacturers have shrunk payrolls by 9 percent, and in construction, where the ratio of men to women is 6-to-1, jobs have declined 11 percent. Meanwhile, the health care workforce will grow 32 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the Works Institute.
As a result, one of the developed world's biggest gender pay gaps — second only to South Korea and roughly double the average in member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — is narrowing. Women between 30 and 34 earned ¥2.99 million on average last year, around 69 percent of the average ¥4.32 million men were paid, according to National Tax Agency data. That's up from 55 percent in 1978.
The increase may help shift consumer spending toward services women prefer, such as traveling and eating out, and away from durable goods, such as cars and electronics, said Kyohei Morita, chief Japan economist at Barclays Capital in Tokyo. Shares in HIS Co., Japan's largest listed travel agency, have risen 4.3 percent this year, to ¥2,141.
"It's because I work that I can go on these trips and buy my favorite makeup," said Ayumi Ohtaki, a 27-year-old call center operator in Tokyo who earns ¥240,000 a month. While she's in no hurry to marry, she said she would want to keep her job after her wedding to ensure she could continue to buy the things she wants.
"If the money's just from my husband, I wouldn't be able to do anything fun," she said.
With women such as Ohtaki marrying later and delaying starting a family, and more men struggling to find work, Japan's falling birth rate is likely to get worse, said Mary Brinton, a sociology professor at Harvard University who studied the lives of young Japanese men shut out of well-paid, full-time work in the 1990s.
The number of babies born in 2010 came to 1.07 million, down from 1.19 million in 2000, according to the health ministry.
"This so-called man-cession is going to cause continuing problems for the marriage rate and birth rate," she said. "Many young Japanese men say they want to have a stable job before they consider marrying."
The trend of women replacing men in Japan's workforce mirrors a similar shift in other developed nations as companies trim payrolls.
In Japan, the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent for men and 4.6 percent for women last year — a record gap. Joblessness may rise to 7.1 percent for men and 5.9 percent for women by 2020, Works Institute estimates.
That's a bleak outlook for Ogawa, who lives alongside Kadoma's rusting, shuttered factories that during their boom years drew laborers from across Japan. He says the stagnation has changed the attitude of young people in their 20s, including his son and daughter, who hoard the money they earn rather than spending it.
"It's hard to tell them to aim high when I'm struggling to find a job," Ogawa said. "I don't dare talk about my good times when I was their age — they just wouldn't understand."
I just read this excellent article in the Japan Times titled, "Firms hiring women in 'man-cession'" and thought I would just congratulate the writers on a thorough and well researched article. It is interesting to see someone focusing on the rising importance of the health care sector and the role women play. In my own field of mental health professionals in Japan as you may know there are 23,005 Clinical Psychologists and 3 out of 4 of them are women. So it was very good to see one emphasis of this article on the already existent and increasing important role that women play in providing health care services to the people of Japan, particularly at this crucial time of an increased awareness in society since the triple disasters of this year in East Japan of the need for qualified and licensed mental health counseling services.