Understanding Japan’s inequality amid affluence

Ross Mouer, Graduate School of Business Administration, Meiji University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Book review 3 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.

Hara, Junsuke and Seiyama, Kazuo (2005) Inequality amid Affluence: Social Stratification in Japan, translated from the 1999 original by Brad Williams, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, ISBN 978-1-920901-82-0, paperback, 181 pages.

This volume is for several reasons a must read for those seriously interested in understanding contemporary Japanese society. First, it provides a sweeping social history of how inequality has changed in postwar Japan. Even for those not directly concerned with social stratification per se, the volume provides one context in which studies of other social phenomena in contemporary Japan must be set. Obviously the patterns of inequality highlight the significant demographic variables for researchers in any area of social research. Many of those same variables also delineate ways in which Japan’s labour markets are segmented so as to institutionalise the reproduction of social class in Japan.

Second, Inequality amid Affluence introduces readers to the longitudinal studies known as the ‘Social Stratification and Social Mobility’ (SSM) surveys which have been run every ten years since 1955 when the survey was initiated by the Japanese Sociological Association as a means of assessing the relative amount of occupational mobility occurring among Japanese males in postwar Japan. Over the years the survey grew and became more complex, and is today is a rich source of empirical data on various aspects of social stratification and inequality in Japan. Although the analysis focuses on the results of the fifth survey in 1995, findings from the earlier surveys are incorporated to provide an overview of how the stratification mosaic has changed over that 40-year period. Both authors have been intimately involved in the design, administration and reporting of the survey—a complex process that is now run out of the Center for the Study of Social Stratification and Inequality (CSSI) at Tohoku University and involves many individuals from various universities in Japan. The 1995 findings are analysed in six volumes published by the University of Tokyo Press in 2000. This volume lies outside that series and provides a general overview. A nine-page appendix provides technical information on how the data was assembled and analysed.

Third, the volume presents an overview of stratification theory and indicates the complexity of arguments found in debates on the nature of social inequality in an evolving Japan. It addresses three major issues of debate arising at the end of the 1990s: assertions that income inequality in Japan was increasing significantly since the 1980s; that Japanese are losing their motivation for striving to be upwardly mobile; and that inter-generational mobility through education is diminishing. Following on from such claims is the view that inequalities have become more institutionalised. When assessing such arguments, the authors dissect some of the subtleties of nuance and the intricate logic that underpins many such arguments.

Overall, the book’s argument seems to be that the new equalities are neither new nor as aggravated as is often made out in the media. The authors argued further that traditional notions of class and strata have diminished in importance in Japanese society (and perhaps in most other similarly positioned societies) as nearly all basic necessities became widely available over the preceding two or three decades. Although the rich may be set apart by the conspicuousness of the brand items they purchase, the overall social value attached to those ‘upper goods’ is seen as being too subjective for class or strata-congealing sentiments to emerge. The quantitative SSM data is marshalled to support such conclusions.

A major theoretical contribution lies in noting the diminished usefulness of relying solely on the household as the major consolidating unit for analysis in studies of stratification. As the authors note, in modern advanced economies, the role of women has evolved considerably and families or households often now consist of individuals whose statuses do not align, undermining somewhat the common assumption being that the household, as the unit for analysis, continues to be characterised by domestic stability and a rather uniform structure (e.g., the stem family in many cases). On page 165 is an interesting diagram setting out various units of analysis, with the household and the individual being values on one axis and the extent of gendering represented on the other. This opens up new avenues, and challenges, for those designing research on social mobility and stratification. The other interesting idea is the distinction between inequalities in the distribution of basic goods and those in the distribution of ‘upper goods’. This distinction is presented on the first page of the volume and then touched upon at the end, but is not fully developed. Readers are thus left with the untested hypothesis that each distribution functions independently in terms of its interplay with the way class or strata consciousnesses emerge and solidify.

Dealing with issues of inequality and class in a purely quantitative manner tends to overlook some of the subjective aspects regarding how social justice is conceived or defined. One key to using class as a heuristic concept lies in understanding how statistical groupings sometimes give way to differing appraisals of which groupings matter. The tenor of the prose tends to point to a dismissal of conflict-oriented analysis. This comment relates to a broader issue not adequately addressed by quantitative studies: the way in which a given stratification mosaic is experienced emotionally by those whose juxtaposition it produces, especially those who are allocated positions that become invisible at the bottom of the social ladder. To grasp such realities more fully, one needs more naturalistic approaches with in-depth interviews among the furiitā, part-timers, the ‘NEETs’, the ‘nuclear gypsies’, and others who make up the strata sometimes referred to as ‘the working poor’. There are also the stories of those who experience karōshi (pathologically high levels of stress from overwork, leading to death). A new literature on these groupings is starting to emerge as part of the larger enterprise that is seeking to provide a social history of Japan over the two decades since the breaking of the economic bubble in the early 1990s.

The efforts of the translator and the publisher in bringing this important study to readers of English should be appreciated. Although the English prose is stiff in places and difficult to follow when the more abstract discussions or theoretical arguments are presented (perhaps the result of trying too hard to get a word-for-word translation), the overall text is a good read and the major empirical findings are easy to grasp. As the first in a series of English-language volumes to be published by the CSSI, Inequality amid Affluence can only whet the reader’s appetite for the next volume in the series. While the jury is still out on many of the issues raised in this volume, readers will readily anticipate a further publication focused on findings from the 2005 survey.

Further Reading

Brinton, Mary C. (2011) Lost in Transition: Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Genda, Yuji (2005) A Nagging Sense of Job Insecurity, translated by Jean Connell Hoff from 2001 original, Tokyo: LTCB International Library Trust/International House of Japan.

Goodman, Roger, Imoto, Yuki, and Toivonen, Tuukka (2012) A Sociology of Japanese Youth: From returnees to NEETs, New York: Routledge.

Huiyan, Fu (2012) An Emerging Non-Regular Labour Force in Japan, New York: Routledge.

Imai, Jun (2011) The Transformation of Japanese Employment Relations: Reform without Labor, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kosugi, Reiko (2008) Escape from Work: Freelancing Youth and the Challenge to Corporate Japan. translated by Ross Mouer from 2001 original, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

About the Author

Ross Mouer is Emeritus Professor of Japanese Studies at Monash University, Australia, and Professor in the Graduate School of Business Administration at Meiji University. Previously, he served as Director of the Japanese Studies Centre at Monash. He has written widely about the organisation of work in Japan, the nature of nihonjinron/nihonshakairon (theories of Japanese Society and Culture), images of Japan, and Japan’s globalisation. His best known works are the co-authored Images of Japanese Society: A Study in the Construction of Social Reality (1986) and The Sociology of Work in Japan: A Meso-Level Approach to Labor Process (2005). He is currently researching popular responses to renewed pressures for the further globalisation of Japan.

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