Japanese-style slackers work, but get a life

Decade ago, when Takumi Ishitobi was a teenager, he promised himself he would never join a company and trudge to work like the glum, suit-clad men he saw during his commutes to school. "All the salarymen looked miserable on those crowded trains. I just didn't want to be like that."

Now an earnest young musician, Mr. Ishitobi has certainly avoided the corporate look. He goes to work in jeans and a T-shirt, finishing off the ensemble with a knitted cap he pulls down below his ears. Playing small concerts twice a month pays pretty miserably, so he earns money with a dead-end, hourly-wage job at a computer company.

But Ishitobi isn't complaining. He's happy to be one of a growing number of young Japanese who are rejecting the assumption that they should join the big corporations that dominate this country's economy. Instead, they have revived an old Japanese saying about doing your own thing - "10 people, 10 colors" - and started living life on their own terms. At least for a while.

Ishitobi and his fellow dream chasers are called freeters, a term that merges "free" from English with a German word used here to mean part-time worker. Theirs is a hedged revolution, because they believe they can still join corporations and put together a more conventional life if they miss out on the artistic success and celebrity they are seeking.

Still, the freeter trend is yet more evidence that the rigidity of Japanese society is breaking down. This country achieved what is probably history's fastest turnaround - from defeated nation to economic superpower in about 30 years - because of a remarkable ability to marshal national resources toward a common goal.

That sense of cohesion has waned in recent years, and Japanese have been fretting aloud about the need to identify the next goal. In the meantime, the absence of an overriding national objective is allowing people newfound freedom.

Most Japanese have long tended to follow certain life patterns. For many young men, the ideal has long been to get from high school to a good university and then to a big company, preferably for life. Others transit from vocational schools to a big manufacturer. But freeters say they don't fit into Japan Inc.

"Life is a challenge. Life is only once. I want to live my life as I want to," says Tsutomu Sakakibara, an easygoing apparel-design graduate now working as a nightclub DJ in Tokyo. Like Ishitobi, he works a part-time job to make ends meet.

Mr. Sakakibara says he wonders whether his conventionally minded friends are happy. "My full-time working friends don't have time to enjoy themselves. They live to work," he says, noting that he has plenty of time to see his friends and visit record shops.

It's difficult to pin down the number of freeters. One indicator is the circulation of From A, a magazine that caters to hourly-wage and part-time workers, which sells 460,000 copies a week in Tokyo. A rival weekly sells 420,000 copies.

The term freeter came into use a little over a decade ago, after the number of part-time jobs proliferated during the boom economy of the late 1980s.

The government counts freeters as non-full-time workers, of whom there are 12.7 million, or about 10 percent of the population. But the category also includes homemakers with a part-time job and student workers, and officials say they are now gathering information on freeters in particular.

The government is worried about how freeters will affect everyone else. "The path is plus for some, but mostly it's a minus for both the society and the people themselves," says Reiko Kosugi, a senior researcher at the government-backed Japan Institute of Labor.

She says most freeters are unskilled - the prototypical freeter job is convenience-store clerk - and must resort to low-income full-time jobs if they fail as artists or musicians or whatever they aspire to be. Most are hoping for success in highly competitive fields, such as entertainment.

Other observers want to cut freeters some slack. "They are in a moratorium period to discover their future paths," says Yuji Koutari, a youth-culture columnist.

"Freeters aren't negative at all socially," adds Katsunori Fujimori, a marketing manager for From A magazine, which is enjoying great success advertising part-time positions. "Being a freeter is another option for youth."

Citing a recent survey, he says most freeters are willing to become professionals or get full-time jobs in their 20s if they drop out of the lifestyle. "Freeters are realistic and tough so they can manage their lives."

In the survey, conducted by From A, a unit of Recruit Co. Ltd., Japan's dominant job-information company, freeters said they wanted to chase their dreams rather than become employees. Others said they needed time to think about what to do with their lives, and still others said they wanted freedom because they cannot fit in organizations.

In some ways, freeters are slackers with more sincerity. They seem intent on pursuing the opportunities not available to prior generations.

During high school, Ishitobi, the young musician, fell in love with the guitar. He initially planned to go to college, but went to a music school instead. "My father told me to do as I like. But if I'm not successful in a few years, I have to find a regular job," says Ishitobi.

His father is a company worker - one of those men Ishitobi used to see on the train to school - but spent a few years as a proto-freeter before signing on with a corporation in his early 20s.

External support is key to the freeter lifestyle; in many cases parents provide accommodation and regular meals. Ishitobi, for one, says he could not make ends meet without his family's help. More independent freeters like DJ Sakakibara can survive on their incomes - in his case, about $20,000 a year - if they live frugally.

Japanese corporations are increasingly happy to employ part-timers, who don't receive the salaries, benefits, and lifetime commitments that regular workers expect. "Management takes advantage of freeters as a cheap and easy workforce," says Takanori Matsuura, a business management professor at Tama University outside Tokyo.

"I don't think, over all, such people would increase in the future," the professor adds. At some point, he argues, they will face the reality that the society won't allow them to maintain their freeter lifestyles, such as when they get married or have children.

"I'll show the people who criticize us," Sakakibara vows, "when I'm successful."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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