Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Will the seniority rule wreck Abe’s wage rise?

Reading Time: 4 mins
Members of the workers' union of Toyota Motor Corp. raise their fists as they shout slogans during a rally for the annual 'shunto' wage negotiations at the company headquarters in Toyota, central Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo 8 March, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

In Brief

‘Shunto’ is a nation-wide wage negotiation called every spring between companies and enterprise-based labour unions in Japan. Shunto attracted special attention this year after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged the top leader of the Keidanren (the association of Japan’s CEOs) to target a 3 per cent wage increase. Companies that successfully achieve this target are granted a corporate tax reduction of 5 per cent.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Abe’s latest move is the opposite of a traditional incomes policy, where the government tries to incentivise wage restraint in order to avoid inflation.

Prime Minister Abe has been criticised domestically because average workers have not benefited from ‘Abenomics’. This disappointing result for the average worker comes despite the fact that share prices have increased to highs not seen since the bursting of the bubble in the early 1990s (mainly due to a significant monetary easing policy). The Prime Minister is therefore forcing large firms to use their accumulated corporate savings to stimulate consumption by raising the wages of their employees.

The increase in the wage costs of large firms can be partly offset by a reduction in corporate tax. But this tax incentive would likely only be applied to large firms: 70 per cent of Japanese firms, most of which are small- and medium-sized, run at a loss and do not pay any corporate tax.

The Japanese public welcomes wage increases, since they have suffered from long-run deflation. But one should ask: given tightening labour market conditions, why have Japanese wages not risen automatically? The Japanese unemployment rate declined to 2.8 per cent in 2017, but the average nominal wage (including bonus payments) increased by just 0.4 per cent and negative 0.2 per cent in real term.

A simple explanation for this is that both employers and labour unions prefer long-run stability of employment to short-run wage increases. The same groups are also uncertain about whether or not the Japanese economy will continue to grow through monetary and fiscal stimulus alone.

The Prime Minister’s target of a 3 per cent wage increase may seem too ambitious under such conditions, but the market wage need not carry all the weight of Abe’s urgings. The Shunto wage increase includes not only the average market wage increase but also the average seniority wage increase, which is based on a worker’s length of service to their firm. Even if the average wage level is held constant, the seniority wage can still increase as workers move ‘up in seniority’ in the firm.

This happens to a greater extent in large firms. Labour unions deem the seniority component of the Shunto wage to be top priority even in recessions, which reflects their particular interest in the full-time, permanent workers of large firms.

Shunto wage increases increased by 2.1 per cent in 2017, and while average market wages also increased (which reflects tightening labour market conditions), they were a small component of the overall Shunto wage rise. Instead, an increase in average seniority wages accounted for over 70 per cent of the wage increase.

Seniority wages are becoming less important over time: their share of the Shunto wage has decreased by 10 per cent over the last five years, which has been partly offset in terms of overall wages by the increase in the average market wage component. The decline in the seniority wage component is clearer when comparing the seniority wage paid to male employees in large firms over the last decade. The average wage of such workers actually declined between 2006 and 2016, which reflects the increased percentage that middle-aged workers constitute of all workers in the firm. Under the seniority-based labour market in Japan, the jobs of middle-aged workers are different from younger workers, which becomes poor business practice when there are many more middle-aged than younger workers despite of the economic circumstances that firms are not growing as fast as they were during the high economic growth phases of the past.

There will consequently be a flattening of the seniority wage that is paid to middle-aged workers in particular. This long-run trend is the major force that is lowering the seniority component of the Shunto wage, and it is one of the forces behind the downward pressure on average wage increases.

The public may welcome Prime Minister Abe’s intervention in Shunto wage determination, but this intervention may soon have a negative impact on the labour market’s adjustment and on decreases in the seniority-based wage’s contribution to Shunto wage rises.

Abe’s intervention goes deeply against the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ — a key basis for labour market reform to reduce the current large wage difference between permanent and temporary workers as well as to enhance labour mobility under ‘Abenomics’. Hence, barring the minimum wage, the Japanese government’s intervention in the setting of wages should be avoided even though it appeases the Japanese public .

Naohiro Yashiro is a Professor at the Showa Women’s University. He specialises in labour economics, social security and Japanese economics.

2 responses to “Will the seniority rule wreck Abe’s wage rise?”

  1. “The Japanese public welcomes wage increases, since they have suffered from long-run deflation.”

    I don’t understand this sentence. Deflation is fine if your salary is constant or increasing, the case for me in Japanese academic employment. Deflation is bad if your income goes down faster than the cost of living. Otherwise, it’s a wash.

    The argument against higher pay for middle-aged workers seems to neglect an important point. Even if they are overpaid now, they were almost certainly underpaid earlier in their employment. In other words, they are now receiving deferred compensation.

    “[T]he Japanese government’s intervention in the setting of wages should be avoided even though it appeases the Japanese public.”

    I would have thought that it is a basic principle of representative government that the government delivers what the (voting) public wants.

    If anything the much more common criticism of governance in Japan both by Japanese and foreign observers is that the government does what the bureaucrats (and their academic advisors) think best, not what the voters want.

  2. The author finally gets to what some consider to be the most important part of this issue at the very end of the analysis: the issue of so called part time, temporary vs full time, permanent employment. The former make about 60% of what the latter make without the same benefits and/or job security. The percentage of people working at part time jobs has increased tremendously in the last 30 years in Japan. Corporations, large and small, have been exploiting workers this way for a long time now.

    I fail to see how Abe’s intervention would undermine his so called ‘equal pay for equal work’ policies (which are deeply flawed by the way but the subject for another time). A 3% wage hike for the part time folks would still be significantly less in actual take home pay than one for those working full time. What would be MORE equal and fair would be if part time workers got a bigger wage increase than full time workers. Eg, give them a 5% pay increase while give full timers a 3% (or less) increase. The latter already make very comfortable salaries and have better benefits. Maybe they should ‘contribute’ to the welfare of their younger, part time co workers by agreeing for them to get the lion’s share of wage increases over the next few years. Try getting Abe or corporations to do that one!

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.