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Finding unemployment numbers that work

So how many people are looking for work in Japan - really?

The official answer is 4.3 percent of the working population, a record-setter that has politicians wringing their hands. But ask around, and you'll hear a different, much higher assessments.

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Many experts believe Japan underestimates the true unemployment rate, perhaps by more than half.

Each month, the government asks about 100,000 people if they worked in the last week of the previous month or tried to find a job.

But there are catches.

If you don't have a job and aren't looking for one, you are not considered unemployed. Or if your company temporarily lays you off with pay, you are not counted as unemployed.

The result is that the figures tend to underrate the number of job seekers. "There's often a bias built into statistics," says economist Haruo Shimada. "In Japan, the statistics tend to play down unemployment, and in the US the statistics exaggerate unemployment slightly."

In the US, surveyors ask if you worked in the last month or not. If not, you are considered unemployed. "If we introduced US methods of counting unemployment here, the figure would be twice as high," Mr. Shimada says.

Companies also go to great lengths to disguise unemployment.

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Unwilling to lay workers off for cultural or strategic concerns - layoffs could mean a firm isn't doing well - many corporations shuffle employees within departments or subsidiaries.

"Many firms hide unemployed workers within their companies, the invisible unemployment we call them," says Tadao Otsuki of Drake Beam Morin, a Chicago-based executive placement firm.

"We estimate Japan's invisible unemployment is as high as 6 percent, which means our real unemployment rate is like Europe's - around 10 percent."

All of which means that when estimating Japan's joblessness, your guess if often as good as theirs.

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