Japan at the Millenium

Changes and Constants in Culture and Society

Cherylynn Bassani, Centre for Community Child Health Research, University of British Columbia [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 2 (Book review 4 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 31 October 2005.

Edgington, David (ed) (2003), Japan at the Millennium: Joining Past and Future, Vancouver: UBC Press, includes bibliographies and index, ISBN 0774808985, 273 pages.

David Edgington, director of the Centre for Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia, has edited a stimulating and informative book on Japanese culture at the turn of the new millennium. Within academic discourse, Japan is typically identified as a unique culture that is bound by a 'special glue', surviving both the Occupation and Westernization. Many researchers and policy makers have posed a number of ardent questions as to the next step for Japan in the new millennium, especially on how ensuing radical social changes will reform the country's culture. Edgington integrates 11 chapters in the book around Japan's underlying economic, political and social continuity despite the complexity of changes that are occurring in the land of the rising sun.

Separated into three sections, Japan at the Millennium brings together an assortment of scholars to discuss macro changes in the areas of economics and politics, identity and urban living. In the first section, the book discusses the underlying structural challenges attributed to Japan's maturing economy. The authors raise many important issues, such as how Japan will restructure its economy—along Western lines using Anglo-American models or along its own unique path. What becomes apparent early on in Japan at the Millennium are the major issues that political leaders must face, such as Japan's dependency on energy and food imports, not to mention military support and the aging work force. Edgington (pages 3–18) rightly addresses the issue of ageism and asserts that the creation of an 'age discrimination employment act' is essential due to the aging of the country's labour force. This is in fact a long needed move, for ageism in Japan is a major social problem. One criticism I have of this section, however, is its focus on how political change enables economic change. With the exception of Smith (pages 67–90), none of the contributors acknowledge social and cultural roles in the creation of values that enable political and thus economic change. Because it is the people who make changes, and not the institutions per se, this is a limitation in the book's economic-political discussions.

In the second section, Japan at the Millennium looks at Japanese identity. Examining both traditional and modern identities, the authors illustrate how these two spheres are interconnected. By examining a national identity that has been formed from Sino-Japanese conflict and Westernization, Sewell (pages 97–119) rightly argues that the national Japanese identity must go beyond the goals of fast economic growth and 'catching up' with the West. Creighton (pages 120–43) argues that, within the country, the Japanese need to incorporate ethnic minorities into national and local agendas. This is a heavy though necessary task to undertake. As scholars such as Lie (2001) and Hicks (1998) have pointed out, the government has been reluctant to accept, or rather has directly opposed, a multicultural Japan, instead promoting the concept of homogeneity, despite the existence of minority and ethnic groups, such as the Burakumin, not to mention the indigenous Ainu and Okinawan populations and the various immigrant groups that can be found throughout the nation. Youth culture, a dramatically changing sphere in Japanese society, is also discussed. Both Aoyagi (pages 144–67) and Salzberg (pages 168–88) make important distinctions as to the changing shape of youth culture, respectively addressing the inculcation of pre-modern images of femininity in the entertainment industry and the changes in youth gangs over the last century. These developments in youth culture mark the profound social changes that have been occurring within Japan, and they have increasingly become the focus of government ministries, social researchers and the media (e.g., see The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology 2003).

In the final section, the authors examine changes that have occurred socially and culturally due to post-war modernization which has, in turn, contributed to urban migration. Edgington's (pages 245–63) argument of 'rich country but poor people' is all too familiar to those who live in or have experienced life in Japan. Sadly, the post-modern absurdity of beautiful, luxurious buildings that line elegant and fashionable city streets are contrasted to the poor conditions of those living in the suburbs and working in the urban metropolis. Related to this is the rise of furusato, the home/old town, which has important social meaning for the Japanese, since it represents an idealized Japanese past and is a form of national pride. In an attempt to sustain a Japanese identity the historic is becoming revitalized.

Japan at the Millennium is an extremely interesting book that provides valid and critical commentary on the changing and unchanging aspects of Japanese culture. Addressing important issues surrounding the development of national, group, and individual identity, Edgington envisions how Japan will change in the coming years, especially in view of the restructuring that has been brought about by the Koizumi government. Although top-down changes are fundamental in creating and redefining national agendas and the promotion of inward-focused change, it is important not to neglect the agency that individuals themselves hold. As Creighton (pages 120–43) notes, grass-root and group collectives with the goal of social change are scant in Japan—not only in modern times but also historically. Throughout the book, the authors discuss a fundamentally structural approach to change. This has the effect of limiting the conceptualization of the amount of change that can theoretically occur. Although cultural change can be examined through a top-down approach, our understanding of change should aim to be more holistic, for structure and agency are, necessarily, intimately linked.

List of Contributors


Edgington, David W. 'Joining the Past and Present in Japan', pp. 3–24.

Part 1: Economic and Political Systems

Nagatani, Keizo. 'Japanese Economics: An Interpretative Essay', pp. 25–48.

Carlile, Lonny E. 'The Japanese Labour Movement's Road to the Millennium', pp. 49–66.

Smith, Roger. 'Japan's High Seas Fisheries in the North Pacific Ocean: Food Security and Foreign Policy', pp. 67–90.

Part 2: Japan's Identity and Youth

Sewell, Bill. 'Postwar Japan and Manchuria', pp. 97–119.

Creighton, Millie. 'May the Saru River Flow: The Nibutani Dam and the Resurging Tide of the Ainu Identity Movement', pp. 120–43.

Aoyagi, Hiroshi. 'Pop Idols and Gender Contestation', pp. 144–67.

Salzberg, Stephan M. 'A Century of Juvenile Law in Japan', pp. 168–87.

Part 3: Urban Living and Beauty

Edgington, David W. 'Japan Ponders the Good Life: Improving the Quality of Japanese Cities', pp. 193–221.

Mostow, Joshua S. 'Museum as Hometown: What Is 'Japanese Beauty'?', pp.222–44.


Edgington, David W. 'Continuity and Change in Japan', pp. 245–63.


Hicks, George (1998), Japan's Hidden Apartheid: the Korean Minority and the Japanese, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Lie, John (2001), Multi-Ethnic Japan, London: Harvard University Press.

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2003), White Paper on Science and Technology, accessed on 20 October 2005.

About the Author

Cherylynn Bassani is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Community Child Health Research at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She has an MA from California State University, where she examined the role of the English language in the formation of cultural capital in Japan. Her PhD is from the University of Calgary, where she looked at the importance of social capital in explaining academic achievement disparities between Japanese, Canadian and US youths. Currently, she is researching the influence of social capital on immigrant youths' health and well-being in Canada. In addition to Canadian immigrant youths, she continues to examine Japanese family and youth well-being. Her most recent publication was on the Japanese tanshin funin family, where the salaryman/husband/father may spend long periods located away from home on work assignments in distant regions.

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