TOYOHASHI, Japan -- With each squeeze of the handgrip, shop worker hopeful Yasuyuki Morishita felt his chances melt away.
Like the dozens of other applicants on hand, he needed this job at Toyota Auto Body Co. making Land Cruiser SUVs, even if it was just contract work without high pay or the long-term security of a full-time job.
The half-day tryout showed once again that Japan is a buyer's market for labor.
First came the deep knee-bend appraisal. Then the timed bolt-fastening drill. Now the hand-strength assessment.
Morishita, who asked that his real name not be used, wrapped a hand around the hilt and squeezed his hardest. To make the grade, he had to push the needle on a pressure sensor past a red line with each grip.
"I thought, 'This is no use,'" Morishita recalled of that cold January day last year. "I just didn't have the hand strength."
For Japan's blue-collar class, it's a different world from the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s. These days, pay, security and benefits have stagnated as local manufacturing struggles against the yen's appreciation and the pressures of globalization.
Full-time workers at Toyota Motor Corp., including managers, earned an average salary of ¥7.4 million last year, or about $80,600 at today's exchange rate. That was down about 11 percent from about $90,300 in 2008 before the financial crisis.
Figures for the entire auto industry are unavailable. But in Japan's manufacturing sector as a whole, the number of contract workers has hovered around 2 million since 2000.
Meanwhile, the number of full-time workers shrank from 8.96 million in 2000 to 7.42 million in 2010. Temps now account for more than one in four manufacturing jobs in Japan.