ILR Press

The Japanese Economy: Before and After COVID-19

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Economic Crises and Work

The COVID-19 crisis will inevitably have a massive impact on the global economy. As part of this, the Japanese economy is predicted to experience a recession which will likely have a significant negative effect on labor in Japan. It was in the midst of the 2008 Great Recession that I began the research into the Japanese political economy and the labor movement that is now contained in this new book, Contesting Precarity in Japan: The Rise of Nonregular Workers and the New Policy Dissensus. The 2008 crisis saw a large number of workers lose their jobs across Japan, with many not only losing their jobs but also their homes.

Now, in the light of this new COVID-19 crisis, we have already begun to hear another round of news across Japan, highlighting job losses and the cancellation of new hiring by firms.

Now, in the light of this new COVID-19 crisis, we have already begun to hear another round of news across Japan, highlighting job losses and the cancellation of new hiring by firms. It is in this conjuncture that Contesting Precarity in Japan will provide insights for those seeking to understand both how economic crises have affected Japanese workers in the past and how those workers were able to respond to the changed conditions in which they found themselves. As such, the book provides a perspective through which to view the present crisis, to consider how the COVID-19 crisis might be expected to change the nature of work in Japan, and the responses that workers, politicians, and business leaders might adopt.

Japan’s Changing Economy and Labor Movement

As Contesting Precarity in Japan shows, Japan’s economy has been transformed over the past three decades, including the emergence of new forms of grass-roots protest and opposition. This has had an important impact on Japan’s policymaking process. As a result, the contemporary Japanese economy is marked by new forms of worker-led protest, which in turn created unforeseen problems for Japan’s economy and economic policymakers, including those faced by the package of economic reforms referred to as ‘Abenomics’.

Japan’s economy has been transformed over the past three decades, including the emergence of new forms of grass-roots protest and opposition.

Since 1990, the Japanese economy has struggled to recover from a major economic and financial bubble. The economy has rapidly shifted away from its unique pattern of lifetime employment and a famously loyal workforce. Casual employment now represents over 40 percent of the labor market. But this has also resulted in more frequent and more innovative forms of protest and dissent—witnessing the creation of a new and vibrant precarious labour movement.

Contesting Precarity in Japan draws on a new dataset charting protest events from the 1980s to the present. It produces the first systematic study of Japan’s new precarious labour movement and details the movement’s rise throughout the post-bubble economic transformation. In doing so, it shows how this new pattern of industrial and social tension is reflected within the country’s macroeconomic policymaking, resulting in a new policy dissensus that has consistently failed to offer policy reforms that would produce a return to economic growth.

As we turn now, with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, to a new episode in the turbulent history of Japan’s political economy, Contesting Precarity in Japan provides an important insight into the changing nature of Japan’s economy and the new role of non-regular workers in contesting, and changing, those developments.


Saori Shibata is a lecturer at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University. Her research focuses on Japan’s political economy, Theoretical approaches to critical political economy, the study of workers’ resistance and protest, comparative political economy, and digital economy. Follow her @saoribailey.

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