Social Class in Contemporary Japan: Structures, Socialization and Strategies, Routledge 2009


Ishida Hiroshi and David H. Slater


Summary by David H. Slater


If the rise to economic prominence during the 1960’s and 70’s generated claims of uniqueness of the Japanese society and economy, where some even suggested that Japan represented an “alternative trajectory of capitalism,” the bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990’s, the fracturing of the occupational market, the general lapse into recession and the growing insecurity felt by many are hardly unique. In fact, they resemble most other capitalist societies going through neoliberal shifts around the world.  Those things we once held to be self-evident about Japan, even essential features of Japanese culture expressed through the idiom of economics—employment security, social inclusion and equality, state-managed growth, social welfare, economic nationalism—all seem like distant memories as we near the second decade of recession. One feature that seems to have died the hardest death is “middle class Japan.”


The idea of Japan as a middle class society developed quite recently. While the early post-war saw a residue of Marxist theorizing on social class, by the 1970’s more quantitative survey work on stratification with a particular focus on the shape and relevance of the “middle class” became the dominant research paradigm in Japan. As a ‘late modernizer,’ Japan was thought to have moved into the patterns of a “mass middle” class rather quickly with somewhat unpredictable results. Murakami (1977) Kishimoto (1977) and Tominaga (1977) led the debate on the relationship between socio-economic indicators, lifestyles and security. The work of Dore (1958) and Vogel (1963) had already provided a more qualitative articulation of middle class values and culture that were seen as developing along the converging trajectory with Western societies. Nakane Chie’s work (1970), not quite qualitative or quantitative, was one of the first suggest that in fact, Japan was less middle-class than “classless,” arguing that while differences in socio-economic status were obvious, social identity was more the function of intuitional membership in work firms. Be it middle-class or classless, there was scant attention paid to the issues of social class differences or the dynamics that contributed to class formation in Japanese or English.


Ishida Hiroshi’s work has been pioneering in its focus on social class, rather than stratification, where class is understood as a relational structure of identity and position. His work has shown that despite the increase in absolute growth through in the postwar period, the relative chances of social mobility—the chance that one is able to improve his life chances and social position relative to his father—has remained quite consistent over time. (Virtually all survey data is based on male respondents only.) Thus, rather than becoming a more open society where meritocratic achievement is rewarded with social mobility (as some had argued), the rates and patterns of class reproduction in Japan were very much comparable with those we see in many other industrialized countries. This brings up the question: if these rates are similar, why is there so little popular awareness and academic attention focused on the process of class differentiation and marginalization?


This question is complex, but one reason is that as long as total economic growth is evident, class differences and even endemic patterns of inequality are often obscured. There are governance issues: most patterns of social control are linked to assumption of clear and inclusive social order that was easily supported by the model of middle-class Japan. More popularly, those who are not members of the middle class are often labeled as deviants or drop outs, a pattern of pathologization that recasts systemic educational and occupational class sorting as a function of individual effort or ability (the other side of the meritocratic thesis). Since the bursting of the economy bubble in the early 1990’s and the Asian Financial Crisis in 1994, the issue of social inequality has become more prominent in the popular press, although less as an issue of marginalization than as a a question of growing insecurity over what was once considered the mass middle. Under the popular title of “kakusa shakai,” or unequal society, there has been growing concern about the unraveling of middle class Japan as it has become less evident that the Japanese economy is going to ‘bounce back’ any time soon. Even when the economy does improve, many of the structures and policies that once supported the assumptions of broad middle class security probably will not return. The use of kakusa rhetoric, the conceptualization of society as divided between “kachi-gumi” (winners) and “make-gumi” (losers), has been seen in various contexts as linked the effects of recession and policy responses to it. (See Chiavacci 2008 for an analysis of the political uses of this rhetoric.)  The series of moral panics first over freeter (serial part-time workers), then NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), and haken (temporary workers), and more recently han-hinkon (anti-poverty) movement have been regular and often sensational features of the media. Earlier this month, the Japanese government announced to the OECD that more than 20 million people were living under the poverty line in Japan. This is not a new figure, but it is the first time that it has been so widely covered in the Japanese press.


In the past 10 years, we have seen a sudden, if belated, rush to come to grips with the issues of social inequality by academics in Japan. (Some of this has been translated but so far, there has been almost nothing written in English.) There have been a number of scholarly attempts to identify the patterns of economic and social inequality, including Hashimoto 2003, Sato 2000, Yamada 2004. While much of this work is sound and even exciting, our own approach differs in two ways: First, while they use a more stratification approach in their quantitative work, we use a relational theory of social class. We thus see class position less as a point (or aggregation of points) along uni-dimensional socio-economic gradients, and more as a socially and culturally relevant position or even group that generates class identity of some kind. Second, as implied in the first, we understand social class as something that is meaningful insofar as it engages not only class structure, but also the processes of class formation, in particular, those links between the more “objective” sides of social class and the more “subjective” sides (Giddens 1973) Thus, instead of trying to speculate on the social and cultural effects of patterns of quantitative stratification data, we have provided empirical qualitative research on policy reform, classroom practice, the job search, and working life especially of young people to understand the dynamics of culture, gender and race as part of Japanese society that are always already bound up with class formation.  This approach seems particularly able to capture the shifts that many are experiencing in this recessionary period.


Social Class in Contemporary Japan begins with two chapters on class structure using survey data. Ishida’s paper sets the agenda for the whole volume by asking how socio-economic resources are mapped along class line and whether people’s mobility chances and perceptions are affected by their location on the class map in contemporary Japan. Shirahase examines the linkage between the class map and the institution of marriage in light of the falling birthrate and homogamy. Section II moves onto the changing institutional sorting mechanisms between schools and work.  Kariya analyzes the shift from the “J-mode credential” society to what he calls the “learning capitalist society” model through the analysis of curriculum, policy and survey data. Brinton examines how the breakdown of the school-to-work transition has contributed to the creation of a “lost generation” that appears to have enduring class effects. Section III is on the differential patterns of socialization for different segments of the population. Slater’s paper traces a group of working-class youth through from middle school and high school, and out into the freeter job market. Borovoy uses her ethnography of college students at an elite university, a less competitive college and a 2-year training school to outline the differences among and between different class segments as they try to enter the workforce. Finally, Section IV captures those class-specific strategies employed by adults in their effort to negotiate some durable and respectable identity when faced with difficult material circumstances. Ezawa examines the intersection between class and gender through her analysis of single mothers’ struggle to balance the conflicting demands of child care and work in a context where their marital status is often stigmatized. Takenaka examines the way that Peruvians working in Japan re-represent their compromised class position through the lens of ethnic characterizations in order to more fully make use of both economic and ethnic capital.




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