Japan's low jobless rate masks grim reality

TOKYO • Japanese employers are scrambling to find staff, unemployment is at its lowest level in more than two decades and the labour market is tighter than it was during Japan's booming bubble economy years.

This should be great news for the world's No. 3 economy, but analysts are warning not to pop the champagne just yet because it is mostly due to a shrinking labour force. And many jobs are temporary and pay very little.

Japan tied with Iceland last year for the lowest annual unemployment rate - 3.1 per cent - among 35 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

This week, Japanese government figures showed the jobless rate at 2.8 per cent in April for the third consecutive month and the lowest since 1994.

Another key labour market measurement - the ratio of job offers to job seekers - hit 1.48, meaning there were 148 positions available for every 100 job hunters.

This is the strongest level in 43 years and is higher than before Japan's once-booming economy collapsed from a stock and real-estate price bubble in the early 1990s.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may claim Japan's employment picture as a win for his Abenomics growth policy - the jobless rate was 4.4 per cent in 2012, the year he swept to power on a ticket to reignite the laggard economy.

But analysts are not convinced.

"Low unemployment is not an achievement of Abenomics," said Professor Ivan Tselichtchev, an economics professor at Japan's University of Niigata.

"It is a structural phenomenon and, unlike most other developed countries, it looks quite independent or autonomous from the business cycle and economic growth rates."

Examples of labour shortages are everywhere in Japan these days. Some 24 restaurants are cutting back their hours because they don't have enough staff, while delivery service Yamato has been forced to trim services, citing a lack of drivers.

A lack of formal immigration is part of the story. Bringing in foreign workers is a tough sell politically, so Tokyo has focused on attracting even more seniors and women into the workforce - many women quit jobs after marrying.

But Japan's population is expected to fall by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2050 to below 100 million. And over-65 seniors are set to make up almost 40 per cent of the population, from 26 per cent in 2015, the highest in the OECD.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Japan's low jobless rate masks grim reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe