March 29, 2014 5:49 am JST

Women, seniors bolster Japan's labor force

TOKYO -- The number of Japanese citizens out of the workforce fell in 2013 for the first time since 1991, with growing participation by women and the elderly helping to reverse a trend fueled by the bursting of the bubble economy and the aging population.

     The number of unemployed people not seeking work fell to 45.06 million. The 0.7% decrease was the steepest in 58 years, according to a government survey. Aided by the gradual economic recovery, nonparticipation declined on the year in January 2013, marking the start of a record 14-month streak.

     The workforce, including the employed and job seekers, climbed for the first time in six years, rising 0.34% to 65.77 million. This brought it up to 59.3% of the population aged 15 and older, the first increase since 1997.

     One notable trend is housewives returning to the workforce. The number of women in the labor pool rose 1.4% to 28.04 million, setting the first record in three years. The number of full-time homemakers tumbled 4.3% -- the largest drop since 1953, the first year for which such data is available.

     More job openings are cropping up, and municipalities and the government are making it easier for women to work. Yokohama was able to temporarily clear its waiting list for nursery schools.

     More measures are being taken to make it easier for women to go back to work after marriage, birth or child-rearing as well.

     Lawson set up in April a special department to which women are assigned for six months to a year after maternity leave. It aims to not only help returnees get used to work again, but also provide a chance for them to propose new goods or services in light of their time away, according to the company.

     The number of young people not employed or in school dropped for the first time in three years, falling 5% to 590,000. This owes in part to a growing number of jobs aimed at their age range available in the restaurant, manufacturing and other industries.

     According to a survey by Bunkahoso Career Partners, 29% of firms are hiring employees who have already graduated, a fourfold jump in three years. Businesses are casting a wider net amid labor shortages, the survey said.

     More seniors are working as well, with the number of people in the workforce aged 60 and older up 1.2% to 12.5 million. A measure that came into effect last April requires companies to rehire all employees who wish to stay on past retirement age. Suntory Holdings raised the retirement age to 65 that month, and other firms are implementing such changes.

     If more people outside the labor force get jobs and start earning money, the effects will be felt by those paying income taxes or premiums for pensions or medical care. If benefit payouts are kept under control, this alone can improve the health of the pension program.

     For seniors, employment will "maintain their health and limit medical and nursing costs," said Taro Saito at NLI Research Institute.

     The government's Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy and Competitiveness Commission have discussed reviewing such breaks as lower income taxes for households with a full-time homemaker. If labor force nonparticipation shrinks further, the economy and Japan's finances could benefit.