I, Freeter

Originally in: New Escapologst

Tom Mellors takes a look at the motivations of Japan’s everyday freedom seekers.

“There is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely to one purpose: work.”
Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom

Every morning Tokyo experiences an influx of 2.5 million people. It is a migration on a par with the mass migrations of wildebeest in East Africa or caribou in North America. Disembarking from crowded trains like greyhounds at the start of a race, an urban herd of neckties rushes through train stations before dissipating into offices throughout the city.

Freeter meanwhile, come in dribs and drabs throughout the day. Rarely in a hurry, they saunter past carrying guitars or drum kits. Some lug easels around the city while others fill their bags with anything from sketchpads to decks of cards with which to practise magic tricks.

Defining freeter

According to official statistics there were an estimated 2.5 million freeter in Japan in 2001; this number is likely to be higher now. The Japanese Government defines a freeter as anyone between the age of 15 and 34 who lacks full-time employment and is not a student. The etymology of the word provides more insight into what a freeter actually is however.

The term freeter is a portmanteau of the English word free and the German word arbeiter (labourer), which the Japanese use to describe a part-time worker. The meaning of freeter therefore is that of a “free casual worker” – someone who is free in that they feel little attachment to their job but also in that they have more free time.

Chieko and Shigeru

While studying in Japan four years ago, I became good friends with two freeter who together form a band called Eddy (myspace.com/eddyjapan). Chieko and Shigeru are in their late twenties and have been playing together for over five years.

Chieko moved to Tokyo from the countryside to pursue her dream of playing in a band. To support herself, she works part-time in a CD shop and a ramen noodle shop. When I asked Chieko why she chose this lifestyle, she answered:  “Because I thought I wanted to live by creating something in the field of art.”

Shigeru has lived in Tokyo all his life and works part-time in a discount ticket shop. I asked Shigeru the same question: Why did you choose to become a freeter?

“One reason was that in a place like a university where lots of so-called normal people come, I couldn’t find anyone with interests and values similar to mine. The second reason was that when I imagined myself working for a company, I could sort of see my successful future.”

“It’s part of my personality that I don’t like pre-established harmony very much, that I don’t like things to happen as planned. So I felt I wanted to choose an unpredictable way. The third reason was that I went to see a concert while at university and it struck me as powerful and fascinating.”

“The thing I want to do”

In Escape from Work: freelancing youth and the challenge to corporate Japan, Reiko Kosugi interviewed dozens of young people about their decision to become freeter. A phrase which cropped up again and again in the interviews was “yaritai koto,” or, “the thing I want to do.” The freeter lifestyle enables people to do what they want to do – whether it’s acting on stage or playing in a band.

The world they reject

Freeter like Chieko and Shigeru choose to reject corporate Japan – a world where the overworked sarariman (salaryman) is the symbol of white-collar exploitation. By European standards, the typical desk jockey in Japan works exhaustingly long hours. I have a friend in Tokyo who starts work at around 9am and finishes between 8pm and 10pm. Overtime is expected from every employee. Reiko Kosugi interviewed one freeter who quit his job after being made to work nine hours of overtime each day.

Ridiculously long working hours are just one element of the corporate world which freeter reject. Intimidation and bullying at work is another. A young freeter interviewed by Kosugi said that he quit his full-time job after he was physically abused by his boss.

“To put it bluntly,” the 24 year old said, “he spent a good part of each day beating me up. At times I was kicked. The treatment was beyond what a normal person could reasonably stand.”

Social stigma

There is a stigma attached to being a freeter in Japan. Politicians tend to see freeter as either idle youth or as economic victims struggling to find a permanent job in a country where the number of full-time jobs has been dropping since the early 1990s. The Government and media rarely view freeter as active individuals who prefer a life which allows for artistic expression.

Family and friends may see freeter as immature dreamers or as lacking the seriousness needed for ‘real’ work. Asked if it was shameful to be a freeter, Shigeru replied: “It is. Personally I don’t mind, but not all my family and friends share their values with me.”

Some genuinely worry about the well-being of their freeter friends. As nomadic workers, freeter are more vulnerable to dismissal and tend to earn less money than full-time workers. Despite calls for action, the Government has done little to safeguard the rights of part-time workers or to address exploitative working conditions.

Being labelled as socially vulnerable can make some freeter concerned about what will become of them. Chieko takes a philosophical outlook on this. Asked if she worries about her future she answered, “I do worry. But don’t people who are not freeter also worry? That’s how I think, so I don’t worry too much.”

Life is like playing in a sandpit

For Chieko, life is too short to spend in a full-time job: “Life is like playing in a sandpit. In a limited space like a sandpit, or during the short time we spend going home each day, what can we do? What can we make? In my case, this directly connects to the question, ‘what do I want to express?’ So, I feel that life’s like playing in a sandpit.”

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