Introduction Differentiation and uncertainty

SatSuki kawano, glenda S. RobertS, and SuSan orpett long

How have people in Japan lived with the nation's growing instability and widening disparity during the 2000s? Japan was only beginning to recover from the economic recession of the 1990s and the effects of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 when it was hit with the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear Power Plant of March 2011. The tragedies of the tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown heightened the anxiety surrounding not only the status quo but also future directions the country might take. Politically the influence of the long-standing Liberal Democratic Party had waned, and the Democratic Party came into power, although it was unable to provide consistent leadership to guide the nation back toward prosperity. Economically Japan has seen a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and the emerging discourse of kakusa shakai (disparity society) has redefined the ways in which people understand their place in society. The worldwide recession has further challenged certain practices and patterns of employment that were once considered legendary of Japan during the postwar period (1945–1989). Among these, for example, were the security of life-time employment; seniority-based wages; “corporate welfarism,” such as the provision of spousal, child, and housing allowances; and bonuses and other benefits.1 such benefits used to be taken for granted in large firms, but in the aftermath of the economic bubble, even many large firms, which had been assumed to be unassailable, retrenched and reduced their workforces, bonuses, and benefits and drastically cut the numbers of new hires for regular employment. Furthermore, there was a shift toward performance-based evaluations rather than strictly seniority-based wages (Osawa 2011), which we can see as a variant of the “self-responsibility” trend favored by government and business since the 1990s (Hook and takeda 2007). Many firms increasingly globalized their operations, shifting production offshore to take advantage of cost savings. Employment and livelihood insecurities have hence increased steadily over the past two decades.

Recent decades have also seen a sharp increase in more precarious forms of employment, with many young people left out of stable jobs altogether and instead entering short-term contracts, dispatch work, or part-time work, none of which offer a stable livelihood (Fu 2012). These short-term, contract, dispatch, or temporary jobs—defined here as irregular or non-regular work— are characterized by low salaries, limited or no benefits, and almost no chances for advancement. Osawa (2011, 72) notes that among women, the ratio of non-regular workers to all workers rose from 32.1 percent in 1985 to

46.4 percent in 2002 to 54.2 percent in 2008. In 2011 it stood at 54.7 percent (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2011b). For men, who have long been expected to be the main breadwinners in families, the proportion of those engaged in irregular jobs also rose, from 7.4 percent in 1985 to 11.7 percent in 2002 to 18.7 percent in 2008 (Osawa 2011). The 2011 share was 19.9 percent (Ministry of Health, Labor, and welfare 2011b). The worldwide recession in financial markets (the so-called “Lehman shock” in Japan) of 2008 only exacerbated these trends.

Japan's demographic decline, characterized by rapid aging and a birthrate well below replacement level, poses further challenges, such as the hollowing out of regional communities, strains on the pension system, and the looming question of health care for the growing numbers of senior citizens, including the extremely old (chōkōrei) (Coulmas 2007). The middle-class model of family in postwar Japan, consisting of a salaried white-collar worker/husband, a homemaker/wife, and two children, is neither easily attained nor necessarily ideal. Life courses have become increasingly diverse.

Recession, unemployment, the proliferation of precarious work, and demographic decline are problems shared by most advanced industrial societies today. But how have Japanese people in particular experienced and responded to such conditions? What opportunities and options have become available? What new identities or lifestyles have people created in an increasingly globalized Japan? What old themes and conceptions have been revived or persist in a new context? While many societies share the same challenges under Globalization, one might argue that Japan's situation is more acute because of the rapid pace at which the society is aging, coupled with the fact that Japan is not a country of substantial immigration and so cannot expect an immigrant population to shore up birthrates or assist in economic revitalization or caregiving for the elderly (roberts 2012; vogt and roberts 2011). All humans respond to situations based on some combination of new information, rational calculation, social relationships, and habits and values that carry symbolic meanings in their culture. Japanese today thus respond with a range of tools that incorporate past ideas and values as well as new concepts absorbed through globalization and subsequently modified to fit Japan's social and increasingly neoliberal economic environment. This book provides lively accounts of people's responses and experiences by featuring recent ethnographic research conducted during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

 
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