- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

TOYOTA, JAPAN (AP) - The optimistically named “hello work” unemployment office here is jam-packed with anxious faces these days as the city named after Japan’s top automaker bids goodbye to the boom times.

The lines of jobless are testament to the human costs of a global slump that’s dragging Toyota Motor Corp. _ the mainstay employer for the city and surrounding region _ into its first annual loss in nearly 60 years.

Many job seekers aren’t thinking about leaving Toyota city just yet as prospects for finding work elsewhere in a recession-struck Japan are even more dismal. They’re also pinning hopes on Toyota, the world’s No. 1 automaker, recovering to drive the city’s prosperity again _ unlike Detroit, the U.S. auto capital, which has been blighted by a decades-long decline.

Up until now, the area’s sprawling network of parts-makers had been notorious for chronic labor shortages as global consumers snatched up Prius hybrids and Lexus luxury cars.

Toyota city’s branch of “hello work,” government offices that provide job-referral services and help with applications for unemployment benefits nationwide, isn’t used to big crowds. No wonder its officials look harried.

“We’ve never seen anything like it in decades. The need for jobs has ballooned in such a short period,” said Masami Kawajiri, a “hello work” manager rattling off words in near-panic.

People looking for jobs have nearly tripled to more than 2,600 a month from about 1,000 the same month the previous year, and the numbers were growing in recent weeks.

Job openings have shriveled to about a third of last year’s levels, leaving only scarce offerings in the service sector, such as restaurants and homes for the elderly.

Global economic woes are trickling down as everyday pain to the very people who had flocked to Toyota, a city with a population of about 400,000, in search of lucrative work _ not only from Japan’s remote rural areas but also from as far away as Peru and Brazil.

But Toyota may avoid the serious social woes that besieged the American “motor city” of Detroit, starting in the 1970s.

So far, the job cuts at Toyota Motor Corp. are coming for those hired on temporary contracts, and the core employees hired under Japan’s longtime system of “lifetime employment” have been spared.

Toyota has not resorted to layoffs, although it has reduced temporary workers at its Japan plants to 3,000 workers recently from as many as 9,000 in March last year.

Jonathan Cutler, associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, says Detroit saw the exodus of production to global markets over a timeframe of decades, partly because of hopes that General Motors Corp.’s profits would grow, and thereby slow, if not stop, the hemorrhaging of Detroit jobs. But Motown’s renaissance never came, he said.

The main difference in Toyota city is that long-term employment practices are not being threatened.

“This crisis will not instigate the death of the city of Toyota,” said Cutler. “Toyota will not be abandoned to die alone as was Detroit.”

The streets of Toyota are still bustling with shoppers, engineers on-the-go and happy couples dining out.

Shuttered storefronts and abandoned streets associated with urban decay commonplace in other Japanese towns _ as well as Detroit, Toyota’s official “sister city” _ are nowhere to be seen.

Like other jobseekers, Enrique Kamisaki, 58, a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry and a 16-year veteran at a Toyota group parts-maker, is hopeful he will be rehired, once the recovery comes.

“After all these years, it seems heartless to be treated like this,” he said in careful Japanese, and suddenly kicked his foot in the air to illustrate his plight.

Kamisaki is among the 59,000 Peruvians of Japanese ancestry entitled to special government work permits in Japan, a program that began in the early 1990s to fill a labor shortage at places like Toyota. Brazilians are even more numerous at about 310,000.

Japanese expressed similar sentiments.

Masaaki Oda, 42, who was making brakes for Toyota cars until five months ago, under a temporary contract, was counting on getting his job back, and had no plans to return to the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

“The job situation there is even worse,” he said.

Still, worries are growing that, in the long run, plants could merely open elsewhere, perhaps in emerging markets like China or India _ and not in Toyota.

“Maybe the best days for this city are gone,” mused Jitsuro Narita, a cab driver who was born 66 years ago in Toyota.

With overtime vanishing, the daily traffic now gets jammed at 5 p.m., when everyone goes home. Narita’s earnings have dropped from 40,000 yen ($400), and even 60,000 yen a day in the city’s heyday, to between 15,000 yen and 20,000 yen.

“We just had it too good before,” he said.

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