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Laid-Off Japanese Workers Becoming Homeless

The Japanese government is considering a $16 billion aid package to help the unemployed and prevent job cuts. Tens of thousands of workers have been laid off, as the nation faces its worst economic downturn in decades.

A few dozen volunteers scoop globs of white rice and vegetables into small Styrofoam bowls.

Every Sunday night for more than a decade the non-profit organization Shinjuku Renrakukai holds a soup kitchen at a park in the heart of Tokyo.

Nearly 300 homeless men stand in line waiting for their food, others receive free medical check-ups.

One man, who did not want to give his name, says that he owned his own construction business for seven years, but now that the economy has gotten so bad, he can only get food at soup kitchens like this.

Esuyoshi Inaba, who heads the group's welfare division, says compared to a year ago, the number of homeless coming to the soup kitchen has increased by up to 50 percent.

Inaba explains most of these men are day laborers, and companies are now laying off this type of contract workers. He expects that more and more young people will become homeless this year.

That is because in Japan, contract workers often live in dormitories provided by their companies. So when they lose their job, their housing goes with it.

Inaba says the government is not doing enough to provide shelter or food for these men. If it were not for groups like his, they would probably starve to death.

Japan has been hurt badly by the global financial crisis. Exports make up the backbone of Japan's economy and as worldwide demand for Japanese products dries up, corporations are slashing jobs.

Analysts say short-term contract workers are serving as shock absorbers during this time, so that companies are not too badly shaken during this time.

Company paternalism disappears rapidly with increased financial trouble

Temple University in Tokyo lecturer Jeff Kingston is the author of Japan's Quiet Transformation explains.

"To in a way, offset the costs of this aging, increasingly expensive core workforce companies have in a sense been expanding the peripheral workforce, which is workers that are paid less well, whose jobs that are not secure and do not have the same sort of benefits as the full time workers in the core," he said.

Japan's unemployment rate stands at around four percent. But that number could rise as some companies are expected to report record loses at the end of this month.

Kingston says neither the Japanese people nor the government is ready to cope with an unemployment rate that goes much higher.

"And what really people have discovered is how threadbare the safety net is, there is not much there for these people, they [have] programs that are designed for a country where unemployment was always very low, it has always been the expectation that companies would act paternalistically, in a sense you had a corporate welfare system, the corporations would not fire the workers and the workers would be loyal," he added. "Well now the corporations are firing the workers and this paternalism has disappeared very rapidly. And so I think you find a sort of sense of shock."

Suicide rated on the increase

In a nation that has long had a high suicide rate, the recession and unemployment may be causing more Japanese to take their own lives. Recent data published by the National Police Agency shows an increase in self-inflicted deaths compared to this time last year.

Nobuko Sago is managing director of Inochino Denwa, a nationwide suicide hotline.

Sago says calls come in constantly, when an operator finishes one, they get a new call right away.

Meanwhile, some relief for Japan's workforce may be on the way. Politicians from the ruling party, who are facing re-election later this year, have proposed a $16 billion aid package that would provide benefits to the unemployed and keep companies from cutting more jobs.