Monday, January 16, 2006

The Japanese word "freeter"

In the Japanese language there is a category of words called Wasei Eigo—made-in-Japan English. These words seem like English but were actually coined in Japan, usually to fill some void in Japanese.

Sometimes these words even combine part of an English word with part of a word from a third language. One example is the word freeter, which was made by combining the English word "free" with the t-e-r ending from the German word Arbeiter (worker).

The word is close in meaning to "job-hopper" in that it refers to a young person who, instead of finding steady work after high school or college, bounces around from one low-paying, low-skill (and often temporary) job to the next, such as handing out pamphlets on a street corner.

According to the Japanese version of Wikipedia, the word was coined in 1987 by the editor-in-chief of a popular part-time job listing but has since entered the public lexicon. It's even used in government statistics, in which (according to Sanseido's "Daily Dictionary of New Words" at a freeter is defined as "a part-time worker between 15 and 34 years old who, in the case of a man, has worked less than 5 years in continuous employment, or, in the case of a woman, is unmarried and for whom work is her primary endeavor." (It's telling that the definition distinguishes between men and women.)

Some pundits try to put a positive spin on the term, saying that the recent rise in the freeter population is a result of the "diversification" of employment, and suggesting that young people are becoming "freeters" voluntarily as a way to have more time to pursue music, art, or other interests. (Remember, the term was coined by a job-listing magazine, and the word "free" has a much rosier connotation than "dead-end job.")

But the reality is that freeters are the product of a Japanese economy that isn't nearly the powerhouse it was during the high-growth period that began shortly after the war and lasted all the way through the 1980s. (Only now is Japan's economy finally beginning to emerge from a decade of stagnation ushered in by the popping of the inflated-asset bubble in 1990.) In those heady days, not only did most graduates find work right out of school, but many of those young people would stay with their first employer for life. But the days of nearly universal lifetime employment—and finding it right out of school, yet!—are gone.

—Mellow Monk

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