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.

Happy 75th (and a Lesson Learned)

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 7th, 2010

This Friday would have been the 75th birthday for one Elvis Aaron Presley. It’s an amazingly young age, given that he died more than thirty years ago.

It took me a while to figure out how great Elvis was. When I was a teenager, he was mainly the butt of jokes. But the twin girls who lived behind us and who were four years younger than me were huge Elvis fans. This was in the mid 1970s, when the King was in his most bloated, glitzy phase. They were thrilled when their parents bought them tickets to see him in concert at the St. Paul Civic Center in April, 1977. We teased them mercilessly about the bad taste of it all. Now, of course, I’d happily surrender my opposable thumbs in exchange for a chance to see Elvis perform. So, the lesson Elvis (and others) taught me: when other people tell you about their musical passions, no matter how seemingly bizarre, don’t laugh. Shut up and listen. Otherwise, you might miss something you’ll later regret.

The King is dead. Long live the King!

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J-Drama Update

Posted in J-Drama by bourdaghs on the January 6th, 2010

Before the crush of Winter quarter really takes over, we’ve been trying to finish watching “Ryusei no kizuna,” a Japanese television series originally broadcast on the TBS network in autumn ’08 and rebroadcast here late last year on the TV Japan network. The original Japanese-language homepage for the series is here.

Based on a mystery novel by Higashino Keigo, the series won a number of Television Drama Academy Awards last year, including Best Drama. It’s a bit of an odd duck, a hybrid bricolage of every popular J-Drama genre. In the first episode it started out as a mystery, then spent several episodes as a con-game yarn in the mode of the J-Drama series Trick, and now (I’m up to episode seven of ten) it has morphed into the always popular romantic-tensions-among-attractive-young-people-who-live-together mode. The children of a restaurant owner sneak out one night to watch a meteor shower; when they return home they find their parents brutally murdered. Flash forward to fifteen years later: the grown children devote their lives to finding the true murderer and along the way realize that they aren’t actually blood relatives, setting in play unexpected romantic tensions.

The oddest touch of all is the appearance of singer Nakashima Mika in a recurring role. She plays a mysterious girl obsessed with the oldest brother in the family. Nakashima sings “Orion,” the show’s closing credits theme, and it’s not unusual for a musician performing a series’ theme song to make an appearance in it as an actor. After all, the role of the oldest brother here is played by Ninomiya Kazunari, a member of the idol band Arashi who provide the show’s opening theme, “Beautiful Days.”

What makes Nakashima’s appearance so striking is the strange role she plays. She shows up at the oddest moments, bearing in hand precisely what the main characters need at that point and accepting only one thousand yen (about ten dollars) in payment for her services. Whereupon she goes and throws herself into the ocean — literally. Moreover, in episode six, she breaks through the fourth wall of tv drama realism: the two brothers are having an argument outside on the street when the camera cuts to Nakashima sitting on a staircase inside. She is singing the closing theme, at times looking straight into the camera. No narrative explanation is given. When the quarreling brothers burst in on her at the end of the song, she tells them she couldn’t hear what they were arguing about because she was singing. For a brief moment, this very commercial series crosses over into the realm of surrealism.

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How I Spent My Winter Break

Posted in Current Events,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 3rd, 2010

504 pieces in all, it took Sonia and me four days to complete. I love doing jigsaw puzzles over the holidays: it gives me this luxurious feeling of burning time, like a millionaire torching twenty-dollar bills to light his cigars.

But do I really have to go back to work tomorrow? I love teaching, but would another week of winter break really cripple the university? My biggest complaint about the quarter system (as opposed to the morally superior semester system) is the short winter break. Sigh.

In the meanwhile, the NY Times reports that even old decrepit types like myself can learn new tricks, if we approach our neurons and synapses from the proper angle. “Disorienting dilemma” is the trick, they tell us. That should be a snap, since I spend most of my time in that state these days anyhow.

Anime god Miyazaki Hayao has granted a rare interview, prior to the opening of his latest work, Ponyo, in the UK next month.

Finally, a ray of hope from Kichijoji, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo: a new campaign to save the neighborhood sento (public bath) by way of rock music. It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it, and you can get your back scrubbed at the same time. Brilliant!

(Image source)

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1Q84: The Neverending Story

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the January 2nd, 2010

A few days ago, I finally managed to drag myself across the final page of the second volume of Murakami Haruki’s latest magnum opus, 1Q84. 1100 pages long, the story of budding novelist Tengo and female assassin Aomame starts out strong, but after a couple hundred pages, it felt like the fizz drained out of the tale. Even Murakami’s usual skill at polishing up gems of sentences seem to fade. I generally like Murakami’s works (I’ll be teaching the brilliant Sputnik Sweetheart this coming quarter, for example), but this one just didn’t do it for me. In particular, the second volume dragged on. And on. And on.

Now word comes that a third volume of the saga will be published in a couple of months. Granted, there are all sorts of loose plot ends to resolve (whatever happened to Komatsu, the editor, for example), but having only just escaped from the tome, I feel little real need to trace those through to some sort of conclusion. On the other hand, with 1100 pages of reading labor already invested in the narrative, can I afford not to read the conclusion when it appears? What is a harried professor of Japanese literature to do?

Maybe I’ll just go back and read 1973-nen no Pinball again. It’s shorter, for starters.

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Welcome 2010, Go Away 2009

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 1st, 2010

Can a decade really have passed since we were all in a panic over Y2K? I remember the turn of the century well: we took our children (aged eight and three then) to a friend’s house in St. Paul to observe the moment with a massive balloon drop down the stairwell, after which we returned to my mother’s and roasted sausages and marshmallows over the fireplace into the wee hours. I was still teaching at UCLA, and we were preparing then to move to Japan the following March, when I began a year-long stint as a visiting research at Tohoku University.

What a decade it was: stolen elections, terrorist attacks, evil wars, brutal politics. Somehow, we survived. It was a tumultuous time personally, as well. I’ve just calculated that my family had seven different addresses over those ten years. That’s too much moving, no? My resolution for the new decade: stay away from moving trucks.

I begin 2010 with too many other resolutions to list here. One very small one: I’m going to spend some time tidying up my homepage (, so stop by there if you haven’t lately.

We greeted the arrival of the new year last night by watching the “Kohaku Utaggasen” musical spectacular on NHK. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the annual holiday show. Highlights included a very nervous-looking Susan Boyle, a reunited Alice, Mori Shin’ichi looking quite old but delivering a powerhouse performance, SMAP providing a tribute in dance to Michael Jackson, and of course Wada Akiko. There’s always Wada Akiko: a sign of hope, I think, that we’ll survive the next decade, too.

Thanks for visiting this blog in 2009, and best wishes to you in 2010. I hope you don’t have to move during the year.

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