An Affective Reading of Precarious Japan

Michelle H. S. Ho, Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory, Stony Brook University [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 2 (Book review 4 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 28 August 2016.

Allison, Anne (2013), Precarious Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press, paperback, ISBN 978-0-8223-5562-5, 248 pages plus index.

Published after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its ensuing tsunami and nuclear accidents, Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan is timely for engaging with the complex and slippery topics of precarity, the specific state of having no job security, and precariousness, a social condition lacking predictability in life (page 66). However, the book is, in my opinion, more significant for capturing how precarious lives are lived out in the historical present, both pre- and post-3/11, using an affective lens. In Precarious Japan, Allison wants (us) to “[go] into the mud” (page 13). To stay in the mud is to face uncertainty through the messiness of precarity and precariousness, not necessarily offering a clear solution because there is no such thing (page 205). Readers hoping to find a way out of precarious conditions in Japan just by reading the book will be sorely disappointed. As Allison herself admits, the book is not an attempt to dictate how one should define and approach precarity and precariousness (page 17). Rather, she wants to trace the precaritisation of life by feeling her way through the mud (page 191). For instance, Allison accesses how her subjects feel in the moment, following instead of intervening in their pain, such as ikizurasa (the pain of living or life) and pain symptomatic of subjects living in muen shakai (relationless society) (page 17).

Following the recent ‘affective turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, Precarious Japan is an important contribution to affect studies—the study of affects, or mental and bodily encounters with feelings or emotions. Notably, Allison negotiates affect in a transnational context, on which there is an emergent body of scholarship (Ahmed 2004; Gunew 2009), especially on Japan (Arai 2013; Galbraith 2013; Lukács 2010; Takeyama 2010). Furthermore, as Allison herself notes (page 208), the book is in dialogue with burgeoning studies on affect and precarious conditions in everyday life, including those by fellow anthropologists (Stewart 2007; Navaro-Yasmin 2012; Povinelli 2011). She informs this conversation through what she calls “social precarity” (more on this later). Within Japanese studies, and arguably, anthropology, Precarious Japan is an ambitious attempt to bring theories of affect to the forefront, which, when present, are usually subordinated to ethnographic data or subject matter. As compared to past research exploring affect in contemporary Japan, this is a rare book that deals entirely with the affect of precarity by tracking affects throughout its circular narratives.

In the book, Allison seamlessly merges sociocultural theories with field data and media coverage to assemble meditative accounts of multiple precarities. Appearing to defy any authorial voice, linearity—the chapters blend into one another—or conclusiveness, this kind of writing, combined with the elusive nature of the subject, may be unfamiliar and disconcerting for many readers. At first, Precarious Japan appears to cover story after story painting a depressing picture of desperate citizens trying to survive in Japan, which does not seem to be in any rational order, at least from a ‘paranoid’ form of reading.1 Spanning across chapters are also drawn-out, recurring stories of certain figures, such as activists Amamiya Karin and Yuasa Makoto. On a closer read, however, one can see that it is hope, not hopelessness, that Allison wants to express. Moreover, the lengthy narratives of scholars studying hope, such as labour historian Genda Yuji and his ‘Hopology’ project, activists organising projects, such as Moyai, the non-profit organisation that offers help with life in general, and pockets of hope conveyed by ordinary people are far from random but are carefully chosen. Indeed, Allison’s “reparative” reading of these examples illustrates how individuals might remain positive while grappling with precarity.2

Perhaps Allison’s most influential idea in Precarious Japan is what she terms “social precarity,” or a condition of uncertainty and feeling of being disconnected or lack of sociality in the banality of life (pages 14, 17). Here, she builds on Judith Butler’s (2009, 14) understanding of “living socially,” or the shared sense and responsibility that one’s life depends on another, and anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s (2007, 4) notion of “ordinary affects,” or the sensing of “public feelings” circulating in and shaped by day-to-day life. While related, social precarity is distinct from economic precarity, which is specifically tied to one’s employment and financial status. Social precarity may derive from economic precarity and individuals can certainly experience both conditions. However, social precarity pays close attention to the spread of alienation, loss of human connection, signs of fuan (uneasiness) and fuantei (insecurity), and feelings of ibasho ga nai (no sense of belonging) (pages 14, 124)—something scholars working on (economic) precarity have tended to ignore. By signaling out social precarity, Allison acknowledges diverse forms of precarities, which not all individuals experience or encounter in the same way (page 9).

That said, Allison is careful to show how it is not so simple to distinguish the precariat, or working poor, from individuals who may be precarious in other ways as the two often overlap. By bringing together examples of Internet cafe dwellers and hikikomori (the socially withdrawn), Allison asserts that they are more similar than different. Both are typically blamed for their inability to connect with other humans and survive by themselves, being what Allison calls “ordinary refugees” (page 73). “Ordinary refugeeism” describes both the physical state of average individuals being displaced from, and the psychological sense of not belonging to, what they would normally consider home (page 47). While Internet cafe dwellers are homeless, sleeping in cubicles at night only if they have made enough money, hikikomori are also homeless in a different sense, retreating into the home for safety instead of fleeing elsewhere. For ordinary refugees to get by, instead of trying to mold them to fit society, Allison, drawing on psychiatrist Serizawa Shunsuke, suggests that society needs to start recognising “alternative modes of being and belonging” (page 74). What this means is that society and the social values it upholds need to change in order to accommodate more diverse forms of existence. In another example later in the book, Allison reiterates this argument when she relates her account of a “stop hydrogen sulfide suicide” event she attends (page 129). At this event held in Shinjuku, strangers come together to discuss (their) precarious conditions and encourage one another to continue living—an instance of “[precarity] from below” (page 132) that provides support and acceptance for ordinary refugees. Although this gathering does not necessarily advocate social transformation per se, it exemplifies how other kinds of socialities, especially those that may not be socially accepted, can be formed among people.

Embedded in the everyday, Precarious Japan sutures the voices, feelings, and experiences of ordinary people, not just experts, to communicate their perspectives on the subject of precarity and precariousness. This reflects Allison’s experimental methods of gathering data from interviews and participant observation and interlacing them with her analyses of media and cultural texts, including anime and manga. An anthropologist by training, Allison’s methods may perhaps be considered somewhat unconventional, and yet, these are approaches we have seen before and that she has long explored in earlier work (Allison 2000; Allison 2006).3 Moving back and forth between the ethnographer’s field experiences and textual interpretations, or staying “in the mud” (page 205), Allison’s approaches are particularly useful for encountering the affects of precarious subjects emerging in the ongoing present and for retroactively dealing with past experiences still haunting them.

Readers may question the suitability of the book’s title or whether or not Japan is really precarious, but must an exploration of the subject involve strategies to pinpoint its causes and recommend logical solutions? Such questions assume that precarity and precariousness can and need to be fixed, but this may not be the case and is probably not the aim of the book. Instead of the traditional methods we are accustomed to, perhaps it might be more productive for us to seek how alternative ways of seeing, knowing, and thinking about precarious lives can enrich and shape research. In this sense, Precarious Japan is provocative as one of the first forays into the unknown of immersing oneself in precarious conditions and looking for new modes of understanding contemporary Japan. After Allison’s opening act, I would be interested to see how other scholars might follow up on these ideas and approaches in their research.


Ahmed, Sara (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion, New York: Routledge.

Allison, Anne (2000) Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Allison, Anne (2006) Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

Arai, Andrea (2013) ‘Notes to the Heart: New Lessons in National Sentiment and Sacrifice from Recessionary Japan’, in Ann Anagnost, Andrea Arai and Hai Ren (eds) Global Futures in East Asia: Youth, Nation, and the New Economy in Uncertain Times, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 174–96.

Butler, Judith (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York: Verso.

Galbraith, Patrick W. (2013) ‘Maid Cafés: The Affect of Fictional Characters in Akihabara, Japan’,  Asian Anthropology, 12 (2):104–25.

Gunew, Sneja (2009) ‘Subaltern Empathy: Beyond European Categories in Affect Theory’,  Concentric: Literary & Cultural Studies, 35 (1):11–30.

Lukács, Gabriella (2010) Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael (2012) The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. (2011) Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stewart, Kathleen (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Takeyama, Akiko (2010) ‘Intimacy for Sale: Masculinity, Entrepreneurship, and Commodity Self in Japan's Neoliberal Situation’,  Japanese Studies, 30 (2): 231–46.


[1] ‘Paranoid’ reading refers to the production of knowledge through diagnosis, ‘suspicion’, and by making visible what is concealed, whereas ‘reparative’ reading is an alternative form of knowing, underscoring affect, discovery, and description by refusing to seek a final resolution (Sedgwick 2003, 124–26).

[2] See previous note.

[3] Allison’s (2000, xxix) Permitted and Prohibited Desires has emphasised the overlaps between labour, performance, desire, and fantasy located in daily life.

About the Author

Michelle H. S. Ho is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University. She holds an MAS from the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo. Michelle’s teaching and research interests include affect theory, queer theory, transnational feminisms, and Japanese popular culture and gender-based subcultures. Her article, ‘Tracing Tears and Triple Axels: Media Representations of Japan’s Women Figure Skaters’, recently appeared in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

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