Report From Japan’s National Employment Agency

Tired of clinical government data saying the economy is turning up again here in Japan because production rose in March, I spent a couple of hours at the Tochigi branch office of Hello Work, Japan’s national employment agency. I’ll report what was there, and you decide just how healthy the economy has become since the doomsday headlines of two months ago.

There were 20 staff members running the office, eight of whom interviewed candidates for various jobs to set up profiles, make a list of desired work, and produce other elements of an employment file. There were 80 people seeking work. Some browsed postings on bulletin boards and took notes. Others flipped through binders of job listings categorized by industry and region. Others searched at computer terminals. Another group waited along the walls, in the lobby, and even in the parking lot to be called for an interview.

The most plentiful jobs were in the “Service” category, and included restaurants, hotels, golf courses, and such. The pay ranged from $1,500 to $3,000 per month for salaried positions, and $8 to $12 per hour for hourly positions. Comments I overheard from those browsing were “still nothing,” “getting worse,” “cheaper every week,” “I might as well work at 7-Eleven,” and similar notes of discouragement.

The wait time for an interview was more than two hours.

I asked the harried information clerk whether the place was busier than usual and she said yes, more than twice as busy. When did it get this busy? Just last month.

The unemployment rate is a lagging indicator, but this recession is not exactly new. For the employment agencies to have more than doubled their usual volume of job seekers just last month sure sits at odds with the idea that this crisis is almost over. It was just two months ago that people were talking about the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Now — poof! — it’s over and everybody can get back to their favorite TV shows. Either it was never as bad as media sensationalized it to be, or it isn’t over yet.

Maybe the right man to listen to on this is Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe, who said at a press conference today: “The current severe environment will continue for the time being.” Toyota believes the global economy won’t recover any time soon, he added. His is a company that should know. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Crippled by stagnant demand and a strong yen, Toyota Motor Corp. Friday reported its first net loss in 59 years in the just-ended fiscal year and said it expects even deeper losses in the year to come.

The world’s biggest car maker by volume posted a net loss of Y436.94 billion in the fiscal year ended March, as it booked a net loss of Y765.8 billion, or about $7.74 billion, in its fiscal fourth quarter. The January-March loss was not only the company’s biggest loss ever but one of the largest quarterly losses on record by a Japanese manufacturer.

Toyota’s fourth quarter net loss was wider than analysts’ mean loss estimate of Y746.2 billion compiled by Thomson Reuters. The quarterly loss also compares with the Y316.8 billion profit that Toyota reported for the same period a year earlier.

For the current fiscal year ending March 2010, Toyota expects an even greater net loss of Y550 billion.

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