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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Toward differentiation and uncertainty

As we look back to the earlier postwar period of the 1960s and 1970s, we can describe the changes Japan has gone through by the 2000s as an objective and subjective shift toward differentiation and uncertainty.2 immediately after world war ii came years of recovery, but from the late 1950s until the oil shocks of 1973–1974, the Japanese experienced an “economic miracle,” with double-digit growth for much of that period, enabling the country to rapidly recover from the war and even thrive. While the oil shocks caused a slowing of growth, the economy revived and then barreled into the investment and consumption craze known as “the bubble” from the mid-1980s until the bubble collapsed in 1991. By the 1970s, backed by the strong economy, the whitecollar middle-class urban model had taken a strong hold. For a man, rather than working on a family farm or in a family business, obtaining a diploma (preferably a university degree) and becoming a salaryman was the course leading to a stable lifestyle. For a woman, marrying such a man and becoming a full-time homemaker and mother of two children was seen as more desirable than joining a family farm or small business as an unpaid worker. Of course, not everyone was able to achieve such a goal, but it was the taken-for-granted standard in the mainstream society. Because of the nation's strong economy until the 1990s, the differences among classes did not become a major social issue; it was possible for blue-collar families to emulate a middle-class lifestyle, particularly if wives supplemented their husbands' incomes. The class ideology during the postwar period was that Japan was an “all-middle-class” society, And it reflected not only the society's improving economic conditions, but also minimized the differences in income, prestige, and power in pre-bubble Japan. In contrast, present conditions in Japan can be understood in terms of

The shift toward differentiation and uncertainty. The recession during and after the 1990s and the outsourcing of many manufacturing jobs decreased the number of regular jobs and replaced them with more irregular positions. It is no longer sufficient to obtain a degree from a university to find a regular job. A large number of young people cannot secure lifelong employment, thereby making it harder for them to realize the postwar ideal of salaryman or fulltime homemaker. Since a stable job and a two-parent family remain desirable conditions for child rearing in Japan, lower incomes and unstable working conditions raise the bar for marriage and children. Meanwhile, the once taken-for-granted middle-class standard is increasingly being questioned. Do i really want to be a salaryman or a homemaker? What do i want to do with my life? What suits me or makes me happy? Such questions should not be dismissed as sour grapes but should be examined as emerging alternatives to the former ideals. In the current economic climate, a regular employee might be dismissed or a reputable company might go bankrupt. A homemaker might have to get a job if her husband's income is reduced. Divorce rates have risen, and marriage no longer provides “lifetime employment” to women. The middle class, which used to be backed by the thriving economy, is no longer as attainable, secure, or predictable, and this change certainly provides a context in which people have begun to reevaluate the postwar ideals. Moreover, as in other postindustrial societies (see Giddens 1991), self-realization and individuality have become much more important in today's Japan.

As noted, the growing socioeconomic disparities are commonly expressed in the discourse on kakusa shakai, a term that was coined during the 1990s and that had become one of the most popular expressions by 2006. Kakusa shakai indicates a shift in the way people think about their society, rather than strictly referring to objective structural shifts alone. In other words, as a postindustrial capitalist society, Japan has always had class stratification based upon differences in income and assets. Yet in postwar Japan, the dominant theme was that everyone belonged to the mainstream, or ichioku sōchūryū (Kelly 2002). Toward the end of the decade-long recession of the 1990s, there developed a recognition that the all-middle-class society had ended. Kakusa shakai thus conveys an amplified sense of uncertainty and insecurity.

This volume explores the diverse voices and experiences of men and women in contemporary Japan, where postwar middle-class ideals have become Increasingly contested or inaccessible. The contributors draw on their rich fieldwork data to examine work, schooling, family and marital relations, child rearing, entertainment, lifestyle choices, community support, volunteering, consumption and waste, material culture, driving manners, well-being, aging, death and memorial rituals, divination, and sexuality. These topics are explored through the eyes of various social actors positioned differently in the Japanese social world, including schoolgirls, teachers, single women, career women, organic women farmers, mothers of young children, small business owners, middle-aged and older men and women, people with disabilities, and the frail elderly.

 
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