Being In and Of the World

Globalisation and Social Change in Contemporary Japan

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 1, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2001). First published in ejcjs on 10 July 2001.

Clammer, John (2001) Japan and Its Others: Globalization, Difference and the Critique of Modernity, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press
ISBN 1-876843-03-9, Paperback, 272 pages with index

Eades J. S., Gill, Tom and Befu, Harumi (eds.) (2000) Globalization and Social Change in Contemporary Japan, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press
ISBN 1-876843-01-2, Paperback, 295 pages with index

Most academic observers of Japan now agree that the institutions of Japan's society, politics and economy are in a period that is perhaps most appropriately termed 'disarrangement.' Some would argue that this is simply a painful adjustment to a new set of external and internal realities while others might claim that Japan is in the midst of a genuine transformation on a scale to be compared with the Meiji or Occupation periods of reform. Moreover, these developments are not confined to the material or even organisational bases of Japanese life but appear also to be penetrating into and affecting the ways that Japanese people relate to each other as well as the ways in which they perceive themselves and their place in the world.

The principal underlying causes of this instability are most probably first, globalisation, and second, having to face up to and deal with the consequences of a continuation and intensification of indigenous dynamics that have been present and building up in the Japanese social and political economy since at least the 1950s and possibly even as far back as the late Edo period. Clearly these two processes cannot be isolated from one another and the complexity that results from this kind of intermingling is itself both important to and daunting for researchers of contemporary Japanese life.

These two books, in the Japanese Society Series from the newly established Trans Pacific Press based in Melbourne, Australia, tackle the issues of globalisation and the achievement of a modern developed society and economy and how they are impacting on Japanese society in contrasting but not uncomplimentary ways. While John Clammer's book is theoretical and even cerebral in its approach, the collection of articles edited by J. S. Eades, Tom Gill and Harumi Befu offers us a wonderful variety of empirical lenses through which the student of Japanese social life can view how continuity and change are at work in Japan on a day to day basis.

Dealing first with Clammer's monograph. It is the third and final volume in what has become a trilogy on the ideologies and practices underlying contemporary Japanese society. In the preface to this latest book he states that the first volume, Difference and Modernity: Social Theory and Contemporary Japanese Society (1995) tried to "uncover … the self images upon which notions of individual and national cultural identity were built", and the second volume, Contemporary Urban Japan: A Sociology of Consumption (1997), was an attempt "both to examine the everyday life which emerged out of the indigenous interplay of cultural ideas and practices on the one hand and the 'objective' economy of late capitalism ... and to examine the effects of this consumer society on the production and reproduction of cultural values". Japan and its Others is an exploration in how "social differences between Japan and the world, and Japan and its internal others are generated and more specifically thought." More importantly, however, Clammer takes local knowledge and a comparative, non-Western perspective seriously, places the Japanese dialogue with modernity at the book's centre and pursues the "centrality" of the emotions as a viable avenue for understanding Japanese society. All of these things the author does extremely well as he illuminates for us how the indigenisation of outside knowledge is achieved in terms that are congruent with Japanese cultural representations as well as how internal knowledge is produced and reproduced in order to create cultural representations that Japanese wish to present to themselves, each other and the outside world. In this way, the author claims, the Japanese people have been able to achieve the lofty ambition of becoming a developed country while at the same time avoiding the trap of westernisation. As such, therefore, Clammer suggests that Japan is outside History, or beyond modernity, or is the quintessential post-modern society, by its maintenance and construction of difference and separation from the Other in a spiritual and intellectual sense while embracing and overcoming the external challenge materially and technically.

Clammer is extremely ambitious in his choice of subject matter and in the range of material that he uses to justify his claims. This reveals to the reader the sheer breadth and depth of his knowledge of and genuine appreciation for Japan and its people. He deals with some of the Western discourse on globalisation and modernity and shows how, in terms of the history of Japan's development as well as Japan's intellectual traditions, these interpretations can be found to be wanting in some fundamental areas (choosing sociology and anthropology as his exemplars in this respect). He then moves on to how Japanese capitalism can and should be viewed through the prism of the emotions and how, consequently, Japan might be viewed as being non-modern or post-modern, depending on one's perspective. Included in this study of Japanese capitalism is a chapter on the place of foreign workers in Japan and how an analysis of their position illuminates the structure of class within native Japanese society. In the final one third of the book he reveals through some unusual perspectives on aspects of religion in Japan (Christianity, anti-semitism, and Shinto) how the "deep grammar" of exceptionalism and difference is constructed.

For me, the greatest area of concern might be that the author does not sufficiently problematise his use of the terms the "West," "Western" and "westernization." Curiously, though he rightly spends some time considering and criticising "Western" tendencies to orientalise the East as well as correctly identifying the heavy insistence on mind/body and self/other dualisms in Western discourse that are by comparison somewhat absent in Japan, his easy acceptance of common understandings for these terms leads him quite close (like so many Japanese scholars before him) to occidentalising the West. To juxtapose Japan and the West as two contrastable entities negates the very real diversity and fragmentation that exists among, between and within the multiple societies of the latter. That Japan can exempt itself from much of European or even world history is one thing. But to imply that European history is shared knowledge and experience between all of the peoples of Europe (or even the whole of the West) is quite another. This is important to consider because it strikes at the heart of the positioning of Japan by the Japanese (and non-Japanese scholars such as Professor Clammer) as the Other as well as Japan's Occidentalising of the West.

Furthermore, this kind of simplification has the potential for leading us down a blind alley when we begin to try to deconstruct and untangle the idea of westernisation. For what does an Irish style pub in Kyoto, owned by a Japanese couple and frequented by predominantly Japanese clientele while Japanese musicians play Irish songs, actually represent? No doubt there is some westernisation of the Japanese way of life inherent in this scenario, even though much of it may only be superficial. However, Japanese people passing by might see the sign outside and what it represents and perceive it as one more nail in the coffin of Japanese exceptionalism. To continue, what aspects of the design, production, sale, consumption and use of Toyota automobiles are Western and what aspects are Japanese? I doubt that anyone could give a satisfactory answer to this question and most probably people would have very different opinions. Thus, although one might wish to argue that Japan is neither democratic nor liberal nor capitalist, at least in the Anglo-Saxon senses of these terms, there has, within the complexity of these issues, surely been at least some westernisation of Japanese culture and spirit going on here for quite some time and, more to the point, many Japanese strongly perceive this to be the case.

To take a specific example of the author's, he spends much time and thought on Japanese people's supposed intimate and exceptional relations with and within nature (itself highly contestable terrain) and contrasts this with a Western mindset that sets up a "radical separation of the social and the natural" (page 60). While this is certainly true of the Anglo-Saxon tradition it is not so of the Scandinavian peoples. Indeed, one could make a good case for arguing that the people of Finland have for centuries believed themselves and their society to be intimately integrated with the natural order. More tellingly, throughout their history the Finns (and I don't mean just the indigenous peoples of Lapland) have to a large extent overcome the problem of culture and praxis with regard to living in harmony with the natural environment while, in the modern era at least, the Japanese have signally failed to do so. While the Finns' beliefs may not be steeped in ancient Christianity, as Clammer claims for the role of Shinto in Japan, they are certainly more effective at preserving the natural environment. Which leads us to the conclusion, therefore, that when it comes to theorising about the position that humanity has within the natural order and the role that culture plays therein the Japanese may actually have been labouring for at least a century and a half under an enormous national self-delusion.

And this brings me to another area of discourse on which Clammer concentrates his thoughts: religion and intellectual tradition. The author implies that what he calls the "basically Western positivist methodology" of the social sciences (once more highly contestable terrain) is derived from the "Judeo-Christian tradition." This is somewhat of a simplification. First, Western intellectual discourse has its origins in the Socratic and Aristotelian heritage and, as a result, the methodologies of the social sciences, themselves based in those of the natural sciences, in many ways are historically as well as philosophically at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Second, Professor Clammer could give more credence to academic scholars of Japanese social life from the West who are themselves critical of Western positivism and who do not practice the "positivist" methods and methodologies that he claims dominate the social science discourse. This may have been the case until the 1980s, but since then many Western sociologists and anthropologists have made strenuous efforts to avoid the pitfalls that Clammer points out and, indeed in comparison with many Japanese scholars, it has been Western sociologists and anthropologists of Japan that have been some of the most successful in these efforts. Authors that come immediately to mind from my own field are David Plath (1980 and 1983), being a forerunner of this trend, with Dorinne Kondo's Crafting Selves (1990) and Gordon Matthews's (1996) What Makes Life Worth Living? being more recent additions. On the other hand, it is often Japanese scholars who continue to rely on crunching together large sets of quantitative government data and accepting their validity with little question. Too much sociology that is produced by Japanese researchers is often a regurgitation and description of data that has been collated elsewhere for other purposes and which lacks analytical or qualitative depth or, more seriously, cultural and human sensitivity.

After working in a Japanese university myself I can understand now why this problem exists and I certainly sympathise with those Japanese scholars (a substantial proportion of the Japanese social science academy) who despair at their own system. At their base, many of these problems are institutional and organisational rather than being necessarily rooted in culture and religion. The problem begins with research students and practitioners not being supplied at the beginning of their careers with the methodological tools to pursue independent research of a sufficient depth and quality. Simply put, they are not systematically trained in social science method and methodology (whatever that method is and wherever it may come from) and all too often have to work it out on the hoof through trial and error. For example, although there are no written directives to this effect, while it is made practically impossible in the national university system for foreign faculty members who possess a doctorate to supervise a doctoral candidate, it is still the case that many Japanese supervisors of doctoral candidates do not have a doctorate themselves. The problems of self-esteem and research management that this may cause are sometimes very damaging not just to the research project but also to the long-term careers of the participants. Moreover, the research infrastructure of particularly the national university system tends to mitigate against long-term qualitative empirical research projects such as ethnographic participant observation. Time and again it is Western (read American: with the University of Chicago being one of the most prominent institutions) scholars who have had the time and resources to be able to work long term in a hostess bar (Allison, 1994), or a Japanese garment factory (Roberts, 1994), or in a small metal products manufacturer (Roberson, 1998) and present to the rest of the world in the respondents' own words how Japanese people make sense of themselves and their place in their communities, as well as give us cogent, insightful and critical analyses of the social phenomena they observe. The Japanese university system hinders its scholars from conducting these kinds of studies by requiring them to be present at numerous and frequent faculty board meetings and to fill in mountains of often unnecessary documents that the bureaucrat administrators require on an almost daily basis. Besides, because the Ministry of Education controls most of the research funds distributed through the national university system, it can easily and effectively squelch ambitious and important (not to mention critical: in both senses of the word) projects before they see the light of day.

Thus, while Clammer talks at length about an "indigenous" sociology and correctly emphasises the role of the emotions and aesthetics in Japanese social life, castigating Western scholars who omit mention of these things from their work, virtually the only indigenous sociology that is going on in Japanese universities is theoretical and abstract and is rarely tested in empirical studies that might reveal either its weaknesses or its strengths. Thus, although sociology is informed by philosophy, the two are not to be confused. Accordingly, I would respectfully like to challenge Professor Clammer and these scholars that do (or rather philosophise about) Japanese social life and social science to go into the field and show the rest of the world how Japanese indigenous sociology can be done in practice, how methodologically (in the sense of actual field work studies) it is different and superior (in terms of Japan) to current methods in qualitative social science coming out of Western (American, Australian and British) universities, and what it reveals to us about Japan (empirically) that studies by Western scholars have failed to unearth. For whatever sociology is or is not, it is grounded in the empirical study of social phenomena. Theory is but an outgrowth from there.

Beyond this, another worry concerns the number of technical flaws. There are many typographical errors, unsubstantiated normative judgments, and footnoting concerns for the reader to be able to tolerate without being distracted from trying to understand the book's important and valid arguments. Unfortunately, many of the errors appear to be editorial. An example is page 189, eight lines from the bottom, where it should read "with the two synagogues" instead of "with he two synagogues". Moreover, there is a short discussion of a book by Yamazaki Masakazu on pages 70-71, a reference to the book and then no mention of this work (as far as I can see) in the list of references at the end. A second and similar example is on page 190 where the author mentions a title by Uno Masami as an anti-semitic book widely read by Japanese bureaucrats and businesspeople but does not tell us the title of the work so that interested scholars might then pursue independent research. Turning to another example, although the book maintains consistency throughout, whenever the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's name is mentioned it is spelt "Zygmut".

Importantly, there are no footnotes or endnotes, yet the author often makes contestable claims without providing a note as to how these might be substantiated. An example is on page 117 where he writes that female sex workers "are all coming from former Japanese colonies or countries invaded or heavily influenced by Japan during the war, and all are societies receiving large amounts of Japanese investment and/or aid." I would like to see a note telling us where he gets this information and what it tells us. For a night-visit to Kabukicho in Tokyo's Shinjuku will tell one that, while this is true for most foreign sex workers, it is not true for all. To link back to previous paragraphs, this is what I mean by the functional validity and effectiveness of good field research. It not only tells us what we need to know but it provides us with a valuable check on data that others purport to be accurate.

To sum up, this is clearly a very challenging work both for the author and the reader and, consequently, I could not agree with all that the author says. Nevertheless, he does present the wider academic community with some interesting, important and potentially fruitful food for thought. More concretely, I feel that this book provides a sound philosophical and methodological basis for a more sympathetic empirical study of Japanese social life. In addition, and as the author intends, this might then have an impact on the nature of social scientific discourse beyond the rather narrow arena of Japanese studies. Japan is a major challenge to the dominant Western epistemology in theoretical as well as empirical terms. Japan's modernity, if that is what it can be called, is strikingly different in many respects from the West in terms of the circumstances of its historical development and, thus, in its contemporary manifestations. And finally, Japan's development and globalisation present us with a challenging, though complex, difficult and all too often neglected, opportunity to make Western theory more applicable to the totality of human experience.

Complementary to Professor Clammer's book, J. S. Eades's, Tom Gill's and Harumi Befu's edited collection is an impressive new addition to the empirical sociology and anthropology of contemporary Japan. As such it presents descriptions and analyses of a broad range of issues in Japan that are undergoing change due to the two dynamic processes mentioned at the start of this review. The book began as a symposium on "Recent Social and Cultural Change in Japan" in March 1998 and gradually took its form with the inclusion of additional articles.

In his introduction Jerry Eades sets the scene with an overview of the subjects covered. Using, among other works, Manuel Castells's trilogy The Information Age as a guide, he first presents us with a good working definition of globalisation as that of "the world economy: the increasing dominance of the multinational companies at the expense of the nation-state, the speeding up of flows of capital both within and across international boundaries, and the consequent movement of labor across the globe." He then adds a cultural dimension to this economic definition by describing globalisation as "the global diffusion and 'creolization' of cultural forms and meanings, manifested in phenomena such as the 'McDonalidization' of eating habits, the proliferation of theme parks, or the popularity of international brand name goods." Eades goes on to describe briefly what effects these processes might have for Japan in particular by outlining the general themes of each article contained in the volume.

The themes covered are, in order; a long-wave historical description and analysis of the expansion of Japanese capital and the global dispersal of the Japanese people (Harumi Befu); the intermingling of competing working cultures at Japanese subsidiaries overseas and the resulting globalisation or hybridisation of the Japanese management and production system (Mitchell W. Sedgwick); inter- and intra-generational developments in and changes to the Japanese system of values (Ulrich Mohwald); education reform and the ideologies of identity (Brian McVeigh); segmentation and flexibilisation of the Japanese female workforce (Beverley Bishop); recent developments in the ambiguous nature of the boundaries that are believed to separate the Burakumin from other Japanese (John H. Davis, Jr.); changing patterns of employment among day labourers on the fringes of the economy (Tom Gill); recent developments in and changes to the nature of the uneasy relationship that exists between the criminal justice system and organised crime (Wolfgang Herbert); the effects of globalisation and recession on the traditional craft industry of Buddhist altar production in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture (Carla and Jerry Eades, Yuriko Nishiyama, and Hiroko Yanase), the consequences for a local mountain community of the uncovering, mixing and stirring of history, religion, development and politics (Andreas Riessland); and a concluding chapter that calls for greater attention among scholars to the role of the emotions in Japanese society (John Clammer).

All in all the book covers a broad and interesting range of issues that point to the significant macro and microscopic factors involved in globalisation and social change in contemporary Japan and, as a subsidiary but no less important issue, the research shows that Japan is not the static, monolithic and homogeneous society of popular myth. Indeed, as the book skillfully reveals, when one seeks to penetrate into, understand and analyse the detail of Japanese social life, it becomes increasingly apparent that Japanese society is diverse and dynamic and has been so for much of its history and, probably, is becoming progressively more diverse and dynamic with the passage of time.

Nevertheless, I would like to add a word of caution here. It is sometimes the case that, in their efforts to dispel the essentialist myths of homogeneity and constancy created largely by the nihonjinron (theories of Japanese uniqueness) school of thought, foreign researchers may fall into the trap of over-emphasising Japan's diversity and dynamism while forgetting to state clearly that, for all this, Japanese society is still more uniform, seeks to be more uniform and most certainly feels less dynamic than do many contemporary Western societies. While this book does not go too far in this respect, however, I feel that it could perhaps have established a more even balance by making this more explicitly understood. An extra chapter that presents empirical research in one or more of the areas of Japanese social life which show great continuity, such as aspects of central or local government bureaucracy or an ethnography of a university Judo club, might not have been amiss for this reason.

By way of example, as Beverley Bishop and Tom Gill point out in their articles, we must agree that structural changes are occurring in the Japanese labour force, with unemployment rising and flexibilisation and fragmentation (read insecurity and instability) increasing. Nevertheless, even if we take into account that unemployment is now higher in Japan than it is in the USA and we assume that government statistics underestimate the true picture, the present situation in Japan is not anything like what happened in the United Kingdom between the 1970s and 1990s as the British people endured the ideologically inspired restructuring and globalisation of their economy and society. There, shipbuilding, coal mining, and steel manufacturing centres were forcibly eliminated, and the motor and electronics industries (save for a few private manufacturers of specialist luxury products) have now virtually disappeared to be taken over and replaced by foreign competitors from Japan, the United States, Germany, France, Korea and so on. The financial services industry is now almost completely foreign owned (people in Japan speak of "Wimbledonisation" when they fear for the loss of domestic control over their own financial institutions). And so on and so on. We must remember that, in the dark days of 1982, national unemployment rates reached more than 10 percent nationwide (with rates in some regions being much greater) with these also being underestimated by Mrs. Thatcher's government as it desperately clung to power. Moreover, Britain's experience is neither unique nor an extreme example when compared to other European countries' experiences within recent memory.

Be that as it may, the book is a significant and important contribution to our understanding of how globalisation and social change are played out in Japan and will, I am sure, stimulate researchers in these fields to produce work of an even greater quality and resonance than hitherto. The book feels as if it is aimed primarily at academics and graduate students but would work very neatly, with appropriate teaching and back-up materials, as a third or fourth year undergraduate seminar text on contemporary Japanese society.

In making a short final comment on the two books reviewed here, due to the breadth of their scope and the depth of their content and analysis both Professor Clammer's monograph and this edited collection of articles are likely to become widely quoted sources on contemporary Japanese society. I certainly thoroughly enjoyed reading them and was impressed by the authors' knowledge and sensitivity. I know that before long they will be on my students' reading lists and, in addition, I will be referring to both of them in my own research. I encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary Japanese society, whether professional or otherwise, to read both of these two titles.


Allison, Anne (1994), Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clammer, John (1995), Difference and Modernity: Social Theory and Contemporary Japanese Society, London: Kegan Paul International.

Clammer, John (1997), Contemporary Urban Japan: A Sociology of Consumption, Oxford: Blackwell.

Kondo, Dorinne (1990), Crafting Selves, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mathews, Gordon (1996), What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of their Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Plath, David (1980), Long Engagements: Maturity in Modern Japan, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Plath, David W. (ed.) (1983), Work and Lifecourse in Japan, Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

Roberson, James E. (1998), Japanese Working Class Lives: An Ethnographic Study of Factory Workers, London: Routledge.

Roberts, Glenda S. (1994), Staying on the Line: Blue Collar Women in Contemporary Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

About the Author

Peter Matanle studied for his undergraduate degree in History at St. John's College in the University of Cambridge before embarking on a short career teaching English in Spain and Japan. He then worked as an ALT on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme in Tokushima Prefecture and as a Programme Coordinator for CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations), the organisation which overseas and implements JET on behalf of the Japanese government. More recently he completed a Master's degree in Japanese Studies at the Contemporary Japan Centre, University of Essex in Britain and received his doctorate from the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield in 2001. From 2000 to 2001 he was teaching English language and comparative social studies as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law, Niigata University. He is now Lecturer in Japanese Studies at SEAS.

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