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Parenting, Cultural Capital, and Human Capital: Reproduction of Social Class in the Next Generation

Japan has been known as an education-credentialist society (gakureki shakai) but according to Kariya (2010), it is increasingly shifting to a “high-skill society,” where workers need to train themselves and market their skills rather than to expect that a degree from a highly regarded university alone will set them up for life. People now, he stresses, need the ability to continually learn. This is called “learning competency,” a kind of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1977), learned from a very young age through one's parents' attitudes toward learning, as well as from the setting they provide conducive to learning. Those whose upbringings do not provide them with either recognized educational credentials or learning competency are at a large disadvantage in the labor market.

While the Fujii children grew up in a very loving and indulgent environment, their learning competencies were not fostered. Using the terminology of Lareau (2003, 238), whose study was strongly influenced by Pierre Bourdieu's Theory of habitus (1977), one could say the Fujiis did not “concertedly cultivate” their children's talents, as do parents of higher social class backgrounds. Lareau defines habitus as “the set of dispositions toward culture, society and one's future that the individual generally learns at home and then takes for granted” (2003, 276). In Japan, the tests to enter high school assume an extremely important place in determining one's chances for upward social mobility. These tests demand a great deal of concentrated preparation by rote memorization, a task the Fujii children were not prepared to undertake. The Fujiis wanted their children to grow nobi-nobi, without inhibition. Although sachi and Masaji did provide the children with some remedial cram school (juku) classes and indeed afforded them private education when they were not able to gain access to public senior high schools, junior colleges, or universities, the children did not seem to learn how to study or where that might take them. Unlike children in households where parents have more education, more understanding of the requirements to move up in the system, and more time to shepherd their children through the educational process, the Fujiis did not equip their children by (for example) helping them with homework or pushing them to excel in school. Their family habitus encultured the children to be uninhibited and carefree. With two jobs, the Fujiis had the economic means to afford excellent schooling for their children, but they lacked the cultural capital to push them through the hoops.20 atsuko, the oldest child, now wishes she had studied more when she was young, but it may be too late to acquire further education, other than the training sessions provided by her employer. Neither of the other two children ever made efforts in academics. Sachi told me that the children decided for themselves, with their friends, where they would go to school. They as parents did not give guidance. As a result, they wound up attending very low-level private schools, the sort that required no exam preparation to enter. Although they then graduated with credentials, they were not worth much on the job market. And with the recessionary state of the economy at the time of the children's entry into employment (1999–2004), the lack of prestigious credentials surely mattered. Atsuko has done the best of the three children because the credential she earned, a day-care worker's license, was recognized and in demand.21

All of the Fujii children enjoyed their early childhoods (1980s–early 1990s). Atsuko remembers being sorry to be the last child picked up at day care, but otherwise there were only happy memories. They all attended the same local public elementary and junior high school, sometimes having the same teachers. None of them particularly enjoyed studying, and they reported That they frequently gave the teachers a hard time in class by chatting, goofing off, and not paying attention. Yūji said his favorite subject was recess—as soon as the bell rang, he and his pals would be out of the door like a shot, grabbing a ball on the way. They had many friends and no problems with bullying, which is often featured in the media as a major problem in Japanese schools. Their parents sent the daughters to an academic after-school cram school when they were in junior high, but as atsuko relates, “it was a waste of money. I didn't study a bit. I just attended. It was fun because a lot of my friends were going, but i didn't feel like studying.” None of the children remembers doing homework except perhaps during summer vacation, when teachers require children to finish a certain amount before they return in the fall term. Junior high school was much tougher academically, and the children reportedly had difficulty understanding the subjects. Yet the children enjoyed junior high immensely. As atsuko reports, “what was so much fun? The feeling of esprit de corps [danketsushin]. The feeling of solidarity. It was a lot of fun. I had [my friends] do everything for me. They helped me decide what to do next, how to write a resume; i had them do all my summer homework for me. I could really count on my junior high friends.” Here we can see that atsuko, while not the best student, was certainly a strong leader.

When it came time to enter high school, atsuko told me she had to enter the easiest private high school because her teacher told her she could not pass the tests for any of the public schools. As most of her friends went on to public senior high schools, she was a bit lonesome. Her sister ami followed the same pattern of coasting to the bottom in junior high, so she too attended the same private girls' high school as her older sister. For this private schooling, her parents had to pay about ten times as much the tuition of a public school. The son also ended up following the private school route. Because their parents were both in regular employment, this was financially possible. In a different longitudinal project in which i am engaged with families in white-collar salaried employment (roberts 2011), some of the full-time working mothers are also sending their children to private schools for much of their education, and it is affordable for some families only because they have two good incomes. In these cases, however, the mothers are highly educated, and their children are attending elite private schools, often in large part due to the intergenerational support of grandmothers, who shepherd the children through the cram school and exam system. In the Fujii family, if sachi had not been working as a regular employee, it is doubtful that they could have afforded private schools. Moreover, if sachi had been a homemaker and had had the time to push her Children to study, she may not have done so because she always said she wanted them to grow up carefree.

The desire to have children be carefree is not limited to the working class; i have heard many middleand upper-middle-class parents voice doubts about forcing their children to prepare for public high school entrance exams. The difference is that some middle-class parents with means have more options to avoid the exam hell by enrolling their children in “escalator” private schools, which start at kindergarten and go through high school. Others put their children through the exam hell despite misgivings about it because the path to social status is narrow and this path worked for them. In the recessionary economy of the past two decades, however, some people no longer see this direction as a secure path to social class reproduction (see Gordon Mathews' chapter in this volume).

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