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Tokyo massacre raises concern for Japan's temp generation

Traditional 'jobs for life' are disappearing in the country. -AFP

Fri, Jun 13, 2008

TOKYO - THE massacre by a distraught, knife-wielding auto worker in Tokyo has raised concern over conditions for Japan's temporary employees, whose ranks are growing as traditional 'jobs for life' disappear.

Tomohiro Kato, 25, was arrested Sunday after swerving a two-tonne truck into one of Tokyo's busiest areas and then slashing bystanders at random, killing seven people and injuring 10 more in Japan's worst crime in years.

Kato's motives were painfully documented in hundreds of Internet messages that have come to light since the killings in which he said he felt like a loser.

The son of a banker, Kato graduated from a prestigious high school. After failing university entrance exams, he settled for a technical college and then for a series of temporary jobs.

'For the past eight years, my life has been a series of defeats,' he wrote in one message quoted by Japanese media.

Kato's case appeared to be 'a combination of his personality and a desperate situation common to temporary workers,' said Prof Akira Sakuta, affiliate professor of criminal psychology at Seigakuin University.

'Japanese companies used to offer a sense of community to their employees through life-time employment,' he said. 'Now that's disappearing.' Japan once prided itself on providing life-long employment to workers, who would devote their entire careers to one company and were rewarded with middle-class lifestyles and iron-cast job security.

But much has changed as Japan steadily recovers from recession in the 1990s.

Since 1999, Japan has gradually eased laws to permit firms to hire temporary workers for virtually any profession.

The number of dispatch workers has soared from 900,000 in 1998 to 2.5 million in 2005, the last year for which labour ministry figures were available.

Kato was sent by his temping agency in November to a small-town auto parts factory, where bosses announced in May that they planned to cut the number of workers on temporary contracts.

While Kato was told his job was safe for now, he reportedly feared it was only a matter of time before he would be thrown onto the street.

'Now I'm losing a fixed address? It's getting more desperate,' Kato, who lived in a factory dormitory, wrote in a message two days before the killing spree.

'What I want to do - kill,' he wrote.

The Japanese government has pledged to look at whether temporary employment was a factor in the killings.

'If the instability of dispatch work pushed him to this heinous crime, we may have to consider measures to make employment more stable,' chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said.

Certainly, Kato had more problems than just his job. In messages filled with insecurity, he called himself ugly, longed for a girlfriend and related a troubled relationship with his parents.

But even if his case is extreme, activists say many temp workers have other, less visible problems.

A government survey last year found that more than 5,000 Japanese, mainly young temp workers, had effectively moved into all-night Internet and comic-book cafes because they could not afford their own homes.

'Many people tend to hurt themselves, including trying to commit suicide,' said Mr Makoto Kawazoe, a trade union official.

Mr Shuichiro Sekine, an official at a trade union for temporary workers, said he often heard stories of desperation like Kato's.

'Because some temporary workers are hired on a short-term contract of just a few months, there is no way for them to dream of a stable life, not to mention a career path or a marriage,' Mr Sekine said.

'Manufacturing companies treat temporary workers as if they were auto parts and just like they can slash inventory, they can suddenly slash their jobs,' he said.

'One worker told me in despair, 'I'll be finished if I ever get sick, and of course I can't get married,' he said. -- AFP

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