Social Class in Contemporary Japan

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

Volume 11, Issue 3 (Book review 5 in 2011). First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2011.

Ishida, H. and Slater, D. H. (Eds.) (2010) Social Class in Contemporary Japan: Structures, Sorting and Strategies, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Hardcover, ISBN13: 978-0-415-47475-7, xviii and 243, Index.

It is perhaps trite to state that Japanese society has undergone huge transformations over the course of its 150 years of modern development; from being a semi-feudal, predominantly agricultural and closed society in the 19th century, through the 20th century urbanization, democratization and expansion of manufacturing industry, towards a globalizing and ageing society in the 21st century and an economy based in high value added technologies and services. Alongside these changes have come massive advances in average material standards of living, almost universal access to advanced education and healthcare services, enormous leaps in average life-expectancy, increased opportunities for self-determination in identity formation, and the development of a pluralistic and tolerant polity. For these things to have taken place on the fringes of East Asia and over such a comparatively short period of time represents one of the seminal events in human history, and the Japanese people can be justly proud of the example that their society provides today as the world's first successfully developed developing country.

Nevertheless, as the editors of this excellent volume point out in their introductory chapter, the fruits of Japan's successful modernization have not always been shared equally or fairly among its people. Moreover, the spectacular economic expansion of the mid- to late 20th century has itself at times hindered calm and detailed examination of the processes of social change that have been so much a part of Japan's remarkable transformations. Principle among these lacunae is social class. Thus, although quantitative studies undertaken by Japanese (often Marxist) scholars have repeatedly emphasized class and social mobility as important constructs in their critiques of Japan's capitalist development, among foreign observers in particular, qualitative ethnography has sometimes obscured the presence of class as a factor in Japan's social dynamics, preferring to focus on whole culture patterns for ease of explaining Japan to the outside world.

These earlier ethnographies were, on the whole, excellent windows for the West to get to know a chronically misunderstood society and culture, and a necessary counterbalance to hegemonic Anglo-Saxon meta-narratives. In the 21st century however class is becoming more important as a category or dimension in urgent need of sociological research in the Japanese context, as inequalities widen under the disruptions of the neo-liberal reform agenda. Hence, since the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy, and with it the enduring myth that Japan is a homogeneous consensus-based middle-class society founded on the principle of equality of outcome, from the mid-1990s there has emerged a re-articulation of class in Japan around the phrase kakusa shakai, or a society of gaps; a notion which is itself reductionist in its presupposition of the presence of dichotomous heterogeneity and conflict — symbolised by the use of kachigumi and makegumi (winners and losers) to describe those who have either benefitted from or lost out in the drive to reform and deregulate.

Despite the disorder being brought about by the globalization of the economy and, to a lesser extent, society and politics, class continues to be important as a general object of study mainly because of its role in producing particular life course patterns as well as in its reproduction of inequality and restriction of life chances, particular those of children. It is also important because of the way it intersects with, for example, ethnicity, gender, physiology, and place, serving to widen socio-economic and political disparities and to entrench complex patterns of inequality over many generations of life experience. Japan is also particularly interesting as a site for the examination of class and its impacts in society by both serving as a mirror for examination of many of the fundamentals of western sociological research as well as in illuminating some of the weaknesses lurking in over-generalised assumptions of universal truths.

This volume is, therefore, a very timely addition to the sociological analysis of class and how it is manifest in Japan, presenting as it does eight discrete chapters by leading scholars, led off by an introduction written by the two editors, Hiroshi Ishida of the University of Tokyo's Institute of Social Science and David Slater of Sophia University, also in Tokyo. Adopting as its frame of reference Katznelson's (1986) theoretical model comprised of four levels of analysis, these being the 'motion' of capitalism (Level 1), social organization, lived experience, and class consciousness, the chapters are arranged in four parts and investigate class through the lenses of structure, sorting, socialization and strategies, and with each part being made up of two chapters exploring each respective level of analysis.

Hiroshi Ishida and Sawako Shirahase lead off with Part One, which considers class structure via the demographics of resource access and marriage respectively. Ishida's chapter asks the simple question of whether class matters, and he (not unexpectedly) answers this with a resounding yes via a comparative analysis with the USA and Germany, showing that inter-generational class reproduction remains a powerful factor affecting people's life chances and how they are able to mobilize their resources for the purposes of social mobility. Shirahase deepens this structural analysis with a fascinating chapter which investigates who marries who, arguing that people's life chances are constrained in terms of their choice of life partner, showing clear evidence that Japanese have a strong tendency to marry partners from the same class and educational background and that, for men especially, employment status is also very important. These factors then impact upon the nation's ability to reproduce itself biologically, as very few children are born outside of marriage in Japan, fewer marriages are taking place, and fewer children are being born to married couples.

Ishida's and Shirahase's chapters lead neatly into Part Two where Takehiko Kariya and Mary Brinton consider whether and how sorting mechanisms may reproduce or modify class structure by investigating the school system and education to work transition. Kariya's chapter shows how changes in educational delivery and emphasis, designed to mitigate the negative impacts of the competitive entrance examination system and credential-based society, have tended to maintain class reproduction processes. The new pedagogy has led to the creation of a learning competency based education system, but there are clear signs that learning competency itself depends to a large degree on family background and resources. Brinton then uses the term 'lost generation' to describe the differential impacts on high school graduates of the reduced hiring of permanent staff in the recessionary environment. She demonstrates that it is those who graduate from low ranked schools who are most at risk of social class being a determinant in not finding stable employment once they leave education.

In Part Three David Slater and Ann Borovoy then assess how socialization processes interact with and complicate class sorting mechanisms, with Slater's chapter focusing on Middle and Senior High School socialization, and Borovoy's on tertiary educational institutions' preparation of so-called 'valued human capital'. Both of these chapters demonstrate that personal background matters in the way in which young people adapt to their institutional environment and reproduce social class in their passage into adulthood. In Part Four Aya Ezawa and Ayumi Takenaka then tackle the intersection of class interests with gender and ethnicity, and the strategies adopted by competing social groups in the reproduction of particular outcomes according to individuals' locations on the class 'map' of Japan, which itself is produced by the structural, sorting and socialization process already described. Of particular interest to me was the description of Peruvian Japanese who emigrated to Japan because they were attracted by the rhetoric of being 'ethnic kin', only to discover that, like most immigrant groups, their status resolves to becoming members of marginalized groups with limited access to the resources necessary for social mobility in their new society.

This book is an excellent examination of a subject that deserves more attention from scholars familiar with Japanese society. For students of Japanese studies it opens a window onto a rarely taught or discussed topic. For scholars and experts it offers a vital counterbalance to the tendency in sociological and cultural studies of Japan towards somewhat essentialist whole society totalizing explanations of what are actually highly complex and shifting phenomena. Moreover, the theoretical structure of the book also provides a fresh lens through which one can consider the extent to which social and cultural phenomena in Japan are similar to or different from elsewhere, thus throwing light on and refining sociological analysis of class as a general phenomenon in industrial and post-industrial society. Importantly, therefore, the book gives us a basis for locating the processes of socio-economic change in Japan alongside and within our understanding of the overall trajectory of world development. For this, the editors and authors should be warmly congratulated.

About the Author

Peter Matanle is Lecturer in Japanese studies at the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield. He is the author of several publications in the sociology and geography of Japan, including Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era (Routledge, 2003), Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan (Co-edited with Wim Lunsing, Palgrave, 2006), and Japan's Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century (Co-authored with Anthony S. Rausch and the Shrinking Regions Research Group). He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

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