The term freeter started up in Japan in the late 80's as a combination of "free" or "freelance" and the German word for "worker", or arbeiter. At first those dubbed freeters were people who freely chose to avoid the regular 9 to 5 day jobs of so many Japanese in order to focus on personal pursuits, but once the Bubble Economy burst in the early 90's the low-paying part-time jobs favoured by these young men and women became less a matter of choice than of necessity and freeter became the blanket term for a whole generation of young people who could no longer share in the Japan's Economic Miracle of the previous decades. While the economy did end up rebounding for a time (only to take another beating during the recent global economic downturn) deregulation of labour laws by the Koizumi government led to more and more employers saving money by hiring temp and contract staff instead of full-time employees. Of course this phenomena has gone global in the past decade or so, but the number of workers categorized as freeters in Japan is astounding: 1.6 million, or 1 out of 5 of Japan's able-bodied workforce, are forced to take jobs without benefits, sick leave, consistent pay raises, and hourly wages that are just above the poverty line. If you're Japanese and below the age of 24 the situation is even more bleak: 1 out of 2 are forced into these jobs and have become the working poor of today's Japan. The idea of putting a face to those 1.6 million individuals would seem nearly impossible, but 25-year-old Hiroki Iwabuchi did just that by picking up a digital camcorder and chronicling his life in the documentary "Freeter's Distress".
Iwabuchi, a University graduate from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture moved to Saitama to be closer to the city of his boyhood and teenage dreams - Tokyo. The only thing is that life isn't as easy in the big city as he had imagined. Iwabuchi signed on with an employment agency that got him a job at the Canon factory in suburban Saitama where he does work that he describes as something "a smart monkey could be trained to do", fixing plastic lids on printer ink cartridges for ¥1,250 (roughly $14.85 CAD) per hour. Not great pay, but not bad either; but when you consider that Tokyo is the second most expensive city to live in in the world (right behind Moscow) Iwabuchi's situation becomes very grim. Even though Canon has set him up in a subsidized company dorm Iwabuchi is only left with ¥6,000 ($71.60 CAD) a month after he pays his rent, bills and student loan payments. It's beyond a tight squeeze and he's left living off plain noodles and junk food while he rides to and from work on a bike owned by his employment agency. The daily round of sleep, eat, work with nearly nothing to show for it leaves him depressed and questioning exactly what he's doing with his life. For a time he joins demonstrations put on by other disenfranchised workers, and while he's momentarily energized by the crowds and the chaos he doubts if these marches will change anything for him. They don't actually and Iwabuchi ends up taking a series of quick, one-off jobs (sign holder, book packer, mover) just to try and make a bit more money to eat. All the while he has his camcorder recording and it's the making of this film that makes his dismal existence, and our witnessing of it, bearable.
A casual viewer of "Freeter's Distress" might easily dismiss it as the moaning of a young man who refuses to just pull himself up by his boot straps and land himself a better job. The daily grind has definitely demoralized and disillusioned Iwabuchi and he's not going to win any "glass is half full" awards. It's his camcorder though, which he ingeniously uses to capture the minutia of his day to day existence (balancing on the handle bars of his bike, setting it to record himself appearing on the news, placing it at his feet while he ties his shoes), that belies Iwabuchi's true idealism and desire to transform his life. A truly hopeless person would give up and give in and never attempt anything as ambitious as making a film. This film is Iwabuchi pulling himself up by his boot straps. It's a work of hope.
Some credit for "Freeter's Distress" does have to be given to producer Yutaka Tsuchiya and advisor Karin Amamiya, both of the politically-motivated Video Act collective and creative collaboraters on such documentaries as "The New God" and "Peep 'TV' Show", for assisting Iwabuchi in the making of his film, but at no point during "Freeter's Distress" do we get the feeling that Iwabuchi is parroting any of Tsuchiya's and Amamiya's left-leaning rhetoric. His attitude, while often confused as to how to proceed, is fairly pragmatic. With his hand to mouth existence he doesn't have the luxury of pointless pontification. Iwabuchi's situation isn't that different from the plight of working poor in any developed nation: he wants something more, wants to feel valued and respected, and hates the fact that his situation denies him both, or should I say denied him both. Since the filming of "Freeter's Distress" Iwabuchi has taken his cinematic self portrait to film festivals around the world, had it released domestically earlier this year in Japan, and has now proven himself to be a keen and creative documentary filmmaker. Maybe this is the opportunity that he has waited so long for. I certainly think so.