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Economy, Labor

Rengo, unionization, Communist parties, labor force, Union membership

In 2000 Japanís labor force totaled 68.3 million workers. The biggest employers were services (23.5 percent); manufacturing (22.3 percent); wholesale and retail trade (16.7 percent); construction (10.6 percent); agriculture, forestry, and fishing (7.1 percent); government (6.0 percent); transportation and communications (5.7 percent); finance, insurance, and real estate (4.6 percent); and utilities (0.7 percent).

Traditionally, Japan has had a low unemployment rate. It was 3.3 percent in 1996 and rose to a postwar height of 4.8 percent by early 1999. In 2000 men comprised 59 percent of the labor force and women 41 percent. Japanís famed lifetime employment system, in which firms employ workers for their entire career, covers about 30 percent of the workforce, mainly full-time male workers in big companies.

In 1945 only 3.2 percent of Japanese workers were unionized. That year a law was passed establishing workersí right to organize, and by 1946 unionization had exploded to 41.5 percent. Initially, most unions were controlled by Japanís Socialist and Communist parties. A pattern of frequent strikes, often violent, continued for years. Companies set up their own company unions, which resulted in violent clashes with the leftist unions. Union membership peaked at 50 percent of the workforce in the early 1950s.

Japan is now well-known for harmony between labor and management, but it did not achieve this harmony until rapidly rising living standards made union militancy unnecessary. Unionization fell to 33 percent of the workforce by 1964 and then to 23 percent by the mid-1990s. Over time, many unions cut their ties to leftist political parties and became less militant. In 1989 the nationís leading federations of private trade unions merged into a single group, the Japan Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengo. While strike activity was in line with international norms in the 1950s and 1960s, by the mid-1990s it was comparatively low.

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