In Japan, a country grappling with stagnant economic growth, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita stands at USD 28,872 annually. This figure falls short of the OECD average of USD 30,490 a year. Additionally, the gender wage gap persists, with women earning 22.5% less than their male counterparts. The “Work Style Reform” (WSR) initiative, led by the late former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, has emerged as a response. It promotes “fukugyō,” or side jobs, as a path to better income and job security, especially for women. But does this solve the problem, or merely disguise it? In a recent study, I exposed two paradoxes associated with the WSR’s endorsement of fukugyō. These paradoxes relate to two distinct but interconnected neoliberal strategies: labor market flexibilization and the feminization of informal labor.

The allure of side jobs and the misguided solution

The WSR presents fukugyō as an opportunity for better income and job security. The idea of working on your terms, choosing when and where to work, has undeniable appeal. Yet the flaws are apparent. The lack of legal protection for certain workers, such as freelancers, exposes them to exploitation. Moreover, the persistence of traditional gender roles complicates this solution, especially in a culture that often expects women to handle both paid and unpaid work.

The double truth of neoliberal governance reveals itself here. The promotion of flexibility and choice, while seemingly empowering, conceals a lack of protection and reinforces gender inequality. It’s a façade that promises liberation but often leads to more restriction and precariousness.

A brief history: From agriculture to digital

Historically, fukugyō was a male domain linked to agriculture. Men would engage in side jobs to supplement their income. Women, on the other hand, were confined to home-based tasks. But times have changed, and technology has played a significant role.

Today, fukugyō is a dynamic sector transformed by technology, the platform economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift includes digital-based tasks performed both on-site and remotely. It’s no longer confined to men or agriculture but has become a multifaceted part of Japan’s economy. This transformation reflects a changing society that’s striving to adapt to new opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities and challenges: The bright side and the dark side

Fukugyō offers opportunities for income growth and personal development. The ability to work on different projects, expand one’s skill set, and have control over work schedules sounds like a win-win situation. But it’s not all rosy.

Along with the benefits, fukugyō brings significant challenges like overwork, fatigue, and tax complications. Imagine working an extra two days a week on top of your regular job! That’s what some fukugyō workers are doing. The numbers are concerning: surveys indicate that 13.4% of fukugyō workers sleep less than 5 hours per night. This complex picture reveals the tension in modern work lives where ambition sometimes comes at a personal cost.

Double truth: The contradictions of neoliberalism

The government emphasizes fukugyō as a means of free choice and achieving good work-family balance. However, the reality of fukugyō is often far from the ideal picture painted by the government. Fukugyō workers typically experience low wages, employment insecurity, a lack of social protection, and limited opportunities for upward career mobility.

The WSR is a set of legal reforms that allow employees to work for other companies outside of their regular working hours. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, it’s more complex than it seems.

Paradox 1: Labor market flexibilization

The WSR claims that fukugyō offers the freedom to determine one’s schedule. But here’s the reality: it doesn’t ensure equal labor rights for all fukugyō workers. Many are hired without contracts and don’t get protection like minimum wage, sick leave, or paternity leave. It’s a big concern in today’s platform economy, where some workers engage in fukugyō.

Also, the WSR sets limits on work hours, but not for those who aren’t classified as “laborers.” Independent contractors and freelancers might be left vulnerable to workplace hazards and overwork. It’s a contradiction that demands attention.

Paradox 2: The feminization of informal labor

The WSR’s approach to the gender pay gap and fukugyō is equally perplexing. While it appears to encourage women to pursue fukugyō as a means to economic independence, this encouragement may inadvertently reinforce gender inequality. How? By expecting women to juggle between paid and unpaid work within the conventional male-breadwinner model, pushing them further into informal work, and consequently deepening the existing gender pay gap.

Japan’s gender pay gap is glaring. Regular employees (mostly men) earn around USD 46,000 yearly, while non-regular employees (mostly women) earn only about USD 16,000. The WSR’s endorsement of fukugyō as a career choice for women might just perpetuate this disparity.

The murky definition of equal pay

The WSR’s “Equal Pay for Equal Work” Law adds to the confusion. Its definition lacks clarity and allows for arbitrary interpretation. Employers can justify unequal pay for the same task if deemed “reasonable,” a term left to individual interpretation. This ambiguity can lead to selective and unjust remuneration, particularly affecting non-regular workers, who are mostly women.

This duality, which I conceptualized in my recent study through the theoretical lens of “double truth doctrine,” developed by Philip Mirowski, highlights the contradictory nature of neoliberal governance. It presents one truth to the public while concealing another that benefits privileged individuals through market strategies and deregulation.

Solutions and considerations for the future

The WSR’s endorsement of fukugyō presents a complex and paradoxical situation. On the one hand, it seems to offer flexibility and opportunities. On the other, it opens up potential inequalities and risks, especially for women and non-regular workers.

The contradictions in the WSR’s approach to labor market flexibilization and the feminization of informal labor highlight a broader tension in employment reforms. They reflect the challenges of crafting policies that truly address the needs and rights of all workers. As Japan moves forward, these inconsistencies must be examined and addressed to create a more equitable and inclusive labor market.

To encourage active discussion about the fairness of fukugyō, the following steps are needed:

  • Recognize workers’ rights as human rights and protect them within a legal framework.
  • Establish a regulatory framework that prioritizes workers’ well-being and welfare.
  • Ensure that the pursuit of sustainable economic and social development does not leave behind the most vulnerable workers.

The double truth at work in neoliberal Japan brings to the fore the complexities of labor market adjustments and reforms. The issues with fukugyō and their solutions are not simple, but it is necessary to examine and resolve these contradictions and complexities to create a fair and inclusive labor market.

Iori Hamada, at the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics at Monash University in Australia, conducts research projects on the gendered division of labor, precarious labor, labor migration, and social inclusion, with a special focus on Japan and Australia.

To read more, see: Iori Hamada. “Double truth: employment insecurity and gender inequality in Japan’s neoliberal promotion of side jobs” in Japan Forum 2023.

Image: via Pxhere (CC0)