Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Structural Changes in the Japanese Economy

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the January 8th, 2010

The last two decades have seen dizzying changes in Japanese society and culture. The truisms that I was taught about Japan in the 1970s and 80s largely no longer hold in the wake of the economic dislocation and the neo-liberal government responses to them that have taken hold since about 1991. The lifetime employment system is now largely a thing of the past, the celebrated education system has broken down, and it is no longer true that everyone in Japan considers themselves middle class. New lifestyles and new cultural forms have emerged in response to these changed circumstances, and the changes in the way people imagine their community are palpable to anyone who has spent time there.

Yesterday, my colleague Norma Field gave an interesting talk here on “From Literature to Labor in Contemporary Japan and Other Nonprofessional Reflections.” She connected her own scholarly work on proletarian literature author Kobayashi Takiji (1903-33) and the recent boom in interest in his writings in Japan with the drastic alterations in Japanese labor conditions, as well as with recent work by activists trying to respond creatively and effectively to the new harsher conditions. She also reflected on her own efforts to relate academic work to political activism.

These questions are being addressed by a variety of scholars from a variety of positions. Last September at the British Association of Japanese Studies annual meeting, University of Tokyo economist Genda Yuji gave an interesting talk on “Japanese Youth, Employment, and Hope.” While I had some qualms about the prescriptions for action that he proposed, Professor Genda pointed out some interesting structural factors in the economic changes Japan has faced. I’m doing this from memory and may have some of the facts off, but as I recall, he argued that the origins of the structural changes should be located not in the bubble burst of 1991, but rather in the decade before. Already by 1984, the single-person household had become the dominant domestic form in Japan, meaning that older familial support networks had largely disappeared by that time. Moreover, he argued, at around the same time the non-elite track for achieving economic security had disappeared: previously, large numbers of students dropped out of formal education after middle school and pursued apprenticeship-like positions in their late teens before moving on to establish their own independent small businesses in their twenties, but by the mid 1980s that pattern had entered into a decisive decline. Instead, such persons are now likely to end up in the precarious situation of being “freeters.”

Radical restructuring of the education system in Japan is both a cause and a result of these economic and cultural changes. Anthropologist David H. Slater has a fascinating article this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus on “The Making of Japan’s New Working Class: “Freeters” and the Progression From Middle School to the Labor Market.” He explores how students in the lower rungs of the educational system get trapped into work roles that provide no security and little future. He also explicates the mechanisms that hinder the rise of a new sense of class identity among these workers.

In Japan, the educational system has probably been the primary institution most responsible for both of these functions. That is, schooling is the primary site for the development of shared patterns of representation and whole-culture forms so central to the integrity of adult culture and social cohesion, and at the same time, it is the primary mechanism for the social and cultural differentiation of different segments of the population into distinct class trajectories which is central to the reallocation of young people into a highly diversified labor market.

Change is bad: it’s one of the governing motifs of this blog. The last two decades of life in Japan provide a prime example. Structural changes also, however, create opportunities for creating new forms of community and new networks of mutual support (this was one of the main points of Professor Field’s talk yesterday). In other words, the process of change hasn’t yet reached any stopping point. I’m hardly the only one who feels simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic about the future in Japan–and elsewhere.

One Response to 'Structural Changes in the Japanese Economy'

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  1. Linda said,

    on January 8th, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Interesting post. Thanks for the Slater link–eye opening article.