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The US Fight for $15 Minimum Wage Has Spread to Japan

Twitter/Kyodo News

McDonald’s first sent happy meals to Japan in 1971. Now, nearly five decades later, the US-based burger chain is exporting something much different — the dissatisfaction of its employees.  

The “Fight for $15,” a US political movement driven largely by fast food workers calling for a $15 federal minimum wage, recently sparked parallel protests in Tokyo, nearly 5,000 miles from its origin point in Seattle.

In April, 1,500 people marched in Japan’s capital to demand an increase in the minimum wage so that low-income workers can afford a decent standard of living.

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Protesters chanted "Reduce inequality," "Raise wages for people working in the nursing industry" and "Don't vote for politicians who are indifferent to poverty," according to Kyodo News.

The protest was organized by an anti-poverty organization called Aequitas, which means “fairness” and “justice” in Latin and it was dominated mostly by students such as Rie Fujikawa.

“We want to eat something other than bean sprouts and poultry,” Fujikawa told Kyodo News. “We want to buy children what they want."

The Fight for $15 has been one of the most successful protest movements in the US over the past several years, having gained victories in major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.

Fight for 15.jpg

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And now organizers in Japan are trying to emulate that success. This isn’t the first time that the movement went global. In 2015, 40 countries joined more than 200 US cities in a mass protest for economic justice, once again showing that protest movements nearly always carry a global dimension.

The movement in Japan, however, bears a striking resemblance to the movement in the US. Both the US and Japan are advanced economies struggling with stagnating incomes, both have varied minimum wages across municipalities creating regional inequality, and both are dealing with the rise of “contingent” workers.

In Tokyo, protesters are calling for an increase in the minimum wage from ¥823 an hour ($7.50 USD) to ¥1,500 ($13.68 USD). The US movement, meanwhile, is seeking to go from a federal level of $7.25 an hour to $15.

But just as Seattle has already achieved $15, while the state of Georgia has a rate below the federal level, Japanese prefectures differ markedly in their minimum wages. For instance, Tokyo’s minimum wage is ¥907 ($8.26), while Okinawa and Kochi have a rate of ¥693 ($6.31).

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The US movement has been helped by growing public anger over economic inequality — the top 1% of US earners hold between 33% and 42% of all wealth and between 2009 and 2015, 99% of all new income went to the top 1%.

In Japan, economic inequality between the top 1% and the rest of society is not as pronounced, according to The Economist. And the country does have a broader social safety net, including universal health care, to cushion economic inequality.

But Japan has been struggling with deflation for more than two decades, a problem that mainly hurts middle and lower class citizens.

And both countries share one significant trend — the rise of precarious working conditions in the “gig economy,” when hours, work locations, and job longevity are unstable, leaving workers in a constant state of uncertainty about the future.

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In Japan, the percentage of these “irregular” employees in the workforce is around 40%, the same rate as in the US economy.

In both countries, the rise of contingent workers is mainly to cut costs. Contingent workers generally don’t receive benefits such as job security, retirement, and worker’s compensation.

Further, there’s also an income disparity. In 2015, permanent employees in Japan made an average of ¥5m ($41,500), while precarious workers made an average of with ¥2m ($29,420). In the US, 10.8% of full-time employees were impoverished in 2015, compared to 18.8% of independent contractors.

Lifting the minimum wage would be an important first step toward ensuring greater economic security for more people.

And as one Tokyo protester named Hashiguchi said, economic equality makes economic sense.

"If the minimum hourly wage is raised to 1,500 yen, consumption will be invigorated, helping turn around the economy,” he said.