Japan’s unemployment rate at 5.1%: why is this number not believable?

I caught the monthly release on Japan Today.

I have been seeing numbers like 5+ percent for years now, and am finally convinced that the number is complete bullsh*t. The last two years have been particularly difficult for job seekers–witness my being here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and not Tokyo. Now, I think expats are their own unique category, but I still feel the rate must be a lot higher for native Japanese.

what is the 5.1% including, that other countries don’t count? I have a feeling that people who even work three hours a week are counted as “employed”. People who collected unemployment until it ran out are presumed to be “employed” after that. People who are receiving any kind of pension or sustenance from their former company, no matter how young they are, are defined to be “out of the workforce”, even though they are hunting consulting gigs.

Here at home, a unemployment measurement called “U-6” has become popular in the Great Recession. The U-6 is meant to count not just unemployed workers, but people who would like to work full time but can’t find work. The U-6 unemployment rate is something like 17%, matching a high from the 1982 recession.

Last year, I thought the current bad times were going to track the ’82 one, which had a great amount of layoffs and job destruction, followed by a big recovery in 1983 and ’84, which took unemployment down a few points. But here we are, days away from 2011, and there is no sign of jobs coming back. Lancaster itself has a 7.8% rate, so maybe I should consider myself lucky.

But 5.1? That’s got to be some kind of tatemae nonsense, defined so that the real problem of chronic underemployment in Japan is never addressed.