Labor Report from Meiji Japan (17)
Life Condition of Japanese Workers
Hongo, Tokyo, Japan, July 16, 1898. The upward tendency of prices of general commodities in this country, which commenced some ten year ago and continued ever since, reached a stage of abnormality soon after the present year dawned. As much as 76 per cent. advance is now noticeable in comparison with prices that prevailed in 1887. This itself is sufficient to give us a fair ground to surmise great hardship that was and is endured by the great mass of our people. But if we take those commodities which constitute the principal articles of daily necessities of our working people we find a still more aggravating condition under which our workers are now suffering, as evidenced by the following data:
Thus it will be seen that prices, advanced in its special bearing with our workers, amounts to over 300 per cent.; in other words, our workers are now required to pay y.3* for what they were able to procure at y.1 in 1887.
While prices made such an enormous advance, wages of working people made but little advance. It is estimated by official authorities that the advance of wages during the period amounts to only 50 per cent. in average. Considered singly, however, we find wages of only a few trades advanced enough to cover up the advance of prices, while those of a large majority of trades made an advance of 200 per cent. at the most, and in some cases it amounts to only 50 or 20 per cent., as the following table indicates:
Comparison of the above two tables will convince every one of the great loss that was sustained by our working people during the decade of general high prices. It should be also noted that the decade was the most brilliant period in our history of civilization; when we made that remarkable stride in social and industrial development which amazed the world. As a matter of natural economic tendency wages of our workers should have, irrespective of prices advance, risen in proportion with the social and industrial progress, absence of which indicates another great loss incurred by our workers.
To give our readers a true insight of life conditions of our workers we will present budgets of several families which were prepared as results of the writer's personal investigations and inquiries.
A printer with nine years experience in the trade; 29 years of age, his wife 25 years old, and two boys 5 and 3 years, respectively. He works 28 days out of a month, 12 1/2 hours each day. His monthly earning amount to y.16.80, and his wife earns y.4 per month by sewing up backs of army shoes. Thus, a paltry sum of 20.80 yen constitute his monthly income. Out of this y.6 is paid for rice. y.1.50 for fish and vegetables, y.3.50 for rent of house with two rooms of 9 x 12 each, besides a kitchen. (An explanation is here necessary. We have no separate rooms for dining, or sleeping purposes. A room is used for all purposes--in meal time it is a dining, in night it is a sleeping chamber. This is a general rule with our people, and we find exception in cases of very opulent families only.) Fuel and charcoal cost y.1.20. Daily expense of children amounts to about y. 1 per month. Miscellaneous household expenses, such as charges for bathing, shaving, hairdressing, etc., foot up to y.4. Now, those will bring total expenditures to y.17. 20. The remaining y.3 is for clothing and footwears of two adults and two children. The writer has no hesitancy to declare that it is next to an impossibility, even in this country of a low living standard, to show a decent appearance of four persons at a sum of y.3 per month, as will be shown subsequently. Nine years skill in trade; wife's home work; still joint income of them is inadequate to sustain a decent living! And if once a misfortune befell on the family in the shape of sickness or accident to the head of family, those depending on him are destined to eke out their living by benevolence of other people. Dark is their life, indeed!
Next on our list is a blacksmith in service of the government arsenal. He is 40 years old and his wife 45 years. He is quite opulent with children; four boys, 17, 14, 9 and 5 years and two girls, 11 and 3 years respectively. He works 24 days in a month, 10 hours per day. His stipulated daily wages are 70 sen, but owing to piece work allowed in the arsenal, and 20 years skill in the trade, enables him to command a monthly income of y. 50, an extraordinary large earning for a workingman in this country. Every cent of this large sum was earned with hard work and considerable sacrifice of his health. His eldest boy, working as his assistant in the arsenal, receives about 20 sen per day. His home life is somewhat amazing. His dwelling consists of four rooms, 6 x 6, 9 x 12 and 9 x 9, and a kitchen. (Note, the crowding of eight persons in the flooring space of eighteen square feet.) Monthly rent of the house is y.2.10. Food item amounts to y.30......y.16 for rice, and y.14 for fish, vegetables and other expenses. For miscellaneous household expenses y.14 is expended, and his own expenses, including those for cigarettes and for his friendly intercourse with his fellow-workmen, foot up to y.10. Thus whatever high wages he is able to command, it is all expended in supporting his somewhat large family, and however averse he may be to the hard working, it is the only way that will enable him to earn enough to keep his family away from hunger. Malthusian doctrinaires may point scornfully to him, but actual conditions compel hint to sacrifice his health in order to support his family, a fact worthy of the serious attention of our economists, who never cease to give much economic importance to the low wages condition of our country.
Third is a machinist, 28 years old, his wife 22 and a boy 4 years of age. He is supporting a mother and a younger brother. He is employed at the Shibaura Iron Works owned by Mr. Mitsui, one of the richest families in this country. His stipulated wages are 73 sen per day for ten working hours. Owing partly to night work carried on at the establishment and partly to piece work allowed occasionally, he is able to net y. 26 of monthly average income. Several years ago he bought the house he now dwells in with money left by his deceased father. The house has five rooms. His monthly expenditure is as follows:
Thus there is a monthly deficit of y. 2.10 which is covered by selling what little property his departed father left with him. We were told that in 1895 this deficit amounted to y. 15; in 1896, y. 19; in 1897, y.27 and there is every prospect that it will reach to y.40 at the end of the present year.
Fourth is an engineer in service at the government arsenal. He is 44 years old, his wife 40 and a girl 8 years old. His stipulated wages are 80 sen per day of ten working hours. With two hours overtime every day he succeeds in getting y. 25 per month. Three years ago he went to China with our army and saved considerable money with which he bought the house he now lives in, paying y.150 for it. He pays 70 sen monthly rent for the lot, y.8 for rice, y.1.30 for fuel and charcoal, y.2 for sake, 60 sen for cigarettes and tobacco and y.7.90 for fish, vegetables and other miscellaneous household expenses. The girl spends y. 1 for her daily expense, besides 40 sen monthly school fee, 80 sen for fees of music and dancing teachers and 50 sen for schooling expenses. His own incidental expense amounts to y.3 which brings his total expenditure to y.23.20, excluding 96 sen annual tax on house and 41 sen annual tax on profession. So much for the living expense of our workers. Concerning money required for clothing and footwear which found but little variance among all classes of our workers, we present below some statistics bearing on the subject. For a worker who generally dresses in European costume, (which is gaining popularity among the working classes), the following item of expenditure is a typical one:
As a rule, a Japanese wife does not spend so much for clothing and footwear as her husband. It is estimated that her expenses for those items come to about three quarters of what her husband spends for the same purpose. Expense for the same item for children varies according their ages and sexes. Generally a great deal more money is spent for a girl child than a boy. For a girl of 12 or 15 years old the amount spent for her clothing nearly approaches that of her father. Taking average family size as four, the monthly expenditure for clothing and footwear of a family averages about y.5, which is the lowest estimate that can be gotten up. Add this to the living expense above enumerated and you will find that nine-tenths of our workingmen are actually devoid of means to procure decent dresses. Little wonder then that we find a large majority of workers are in heavy debt to shop keepers, and are also best customers of pawn shops and money lenders. If Providence favors them once in a while with a chance to earn any extra money.....(in this sense the war with China was a blessing, for during that period our workers enjoyed a large remuneration for their work)......they will redeem their debts ; if not, some of them who are most hard-situated will some day skip out of the city and hide themselves in obscure towns, thus successfully eluding their creditors. Taking all in all, the lot of Japanese workers is really a pitiable one.
Special Correspondent of the American Federationist.
American Federationist,V, No. 7 (September,1898)