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

Yu¯ji: A Light-Hearted Optimist

When i met yūji on a sultry august night in his mother's home, i was surprised to see him saunter in. I had not seen him since he was perhaps eight years old. Medium height, with a powerful build and an afro hairstyle, yūji filled the room with his presence. He dutifully and perhaps a bit playfully answered my questions.

Like his sisters, when yūji was young he loved to play, and studying was not his forte. As he put it, “i didn't study, and i couldn't do well. My tests were all marked up in red. I hardly studied and was always outside playing.” Soccer, however, was his love throughout his school years. Even now, he plays when he can. While soccer was the only thing in school at which he worked hard, i definitely got the sense that it had been character building.30

Yūji did not prepare for high school entrance exams during junior high school, so he ended up attending “the worst high school in the city, a private school.” His junior high school homeroom teacher told him it would be impossible to go anywhere else. He described the entry process to his private high school: “Usually you have a test, and it's a bit difficult, right? Say, if it's english, they'll have you write an essay or something. All i had to do was to write the alphabet. For math, it was multiplication. For Japanese, we just had

To write easy characters. Ones that everybody knows. Like kuni [国 country].

That's about it. There was an interview. But mostly i just had to sit there and listen. Usually you'd expect an examiner to ask you a lot of questions. But they asked me, 'is there anything you would like to know?'”

Sachi wanted yūji to go to a four-year university because he was their only boy, the chōnan (and there was still at this time a cultural preference for sons' higher education over daughters'; see Brinton 1994). Yūji, taking after his father, loved cars and thought of being a car mechanic, but he failed the exam for a four-year automotive technical school in his home city. He ended up attending a university in Kyushu (where his father had grown up); his school recommended it to him, and it had an automotive course. There was no exam. The intake interview was easy. Although he felt lonely at first living in a dorm, he made friends quickly and enjoyed college life. Like his older sister, he found friends to help him when he could not do the academic work, and he also sometimes cheated on exams. In the summers he came home and played with his friends and did part-time work in atsuko's moving company. Although he could have gotten an auto mechanic's license from his school, he graduated in 2006 without obtaining it.31 when it came time to get a job, Atsuko knew someone in the car sales business in their city, and through this introduction, yūji got a job interview and was hired. This time, however, the interview was “for real”: “the interview was tough. There were five senior guys asking questions. . . . I managed it, but i was frozen with fear [gachi gachi de]! [you wore a suit?] Yes, i certainly did. And my hair was perfectly slicked back. [Laughs.] I was awfully nervous. If there had been that kind of interview for junior or senior high, i would have been more used to it, but this was the first nerve-wracking interview i'd ever had in my life. I tried really hard. . . . Yes, i made it somehow.”

Although yūji obtained a regular position in this dealership, things did not go well for him. His job was to do door-to-door cold sales of toyota cars. The economy was bad, so it was not an easy job. It was terribly difficult to handle people's sometimes angry rejections, he noted. Moreover, his family had always been a nissan family, and to sell toyotas took more cunning than he could muster. He just did not feel good about urging people to purchase a car he would not buy himself. In a half year, he told his boss that he wanted out. His boss told him to keep trying at least another half year. His parents told him not to quit, no matter what. “But with my personality, if i don't like something, it's just no good anymore. [then did you get another job before you quit?] No, i didn't even think of that. I just wanted to take it easy! [Laughs.] I was just spoiled. Really spoiled. [But had you saved up that one year of income?] No, no; i had no money left. I used it all. On going out, going fishing. Really extravagant. I just kept causing [Mother and Dad] trouble. I'm going to hell! [Laughs.] Now i've reached the age where i have to be a good son. But i still can't do it! I have to try a bit harder.”

After quitting that position, yūji stayed home “playing around” for three months, when one day he saw a program on tv about craftsmen. He thought it looked like interesting work, so he went to the local employment agency to inquire. There he saw a help-wanted advertisement for a tree and shrub nursery. He followed up on it and was given a job at this one-man operation. He has been there for three years now as an apprentice, managing fields of trees and shrubs, learning to fertilize, spray, weed, and prune. His wages are paid by the day; if it rains, he has no work. There are no formal bonuses, and his monthly income in 2011 was $2,300–$2,860 (at ¥77 per $1; economic research 2012). By now, the owner leaves most of the work up to yūji. His goal is to get a tree surgeon's license after five years, if he can pass the test: “it's hard to get it. You have to study a lot to get it. And i hate to study! . . . I can study if i like the subject, so i think it'll be okay.” Yūji says that most of his friends Work for large companies and have much better salaries than his, but even those who have similar monthly incomes to his have semi-annual bonuses, so they earn about $15,500 more per year than he does. He muses, “i wish i had studied harder. But i am satisfied with my current work. . . . My life now is fine, but i wish i had a bit more money. But that's probably an either/or thing. You go to a place with good pay even though it's work you dislike, or you do what you love doing, even though the pay is low and you try hard anyway. I want the money, but deep inside, i think the best thing to do is what i love to do and to put up with [not having much money]. You have to put up with some things, right? . . . It's better to go to work with a smile on your face than with a frown!” Yūji added that atsuko had long ago told him to study, and if he studied, things would be easier for him later on and he could get a good job. But he questioned that: “who knows if that would have been better? I'm satisfied enough, even though i didn't study. Not everybody who studies succeeds, right? So i don't care.”

The economist Genda yūji, who has carried out extensive studies on youth employment since the bursting of the bubble economy, might consider yūji's initial employment problem one of “mismatch” (2005, 57). Genda notes that while it has become commonplace to blame youth for their lack of perseverance when they quit regular employment even after only a year on the job, in fact this is a reflection of recessionary times, when there is a lack of variety in job offerings, leading many young people to take jobs that were their third or fourth choices. Genda reports that it is indeed true that there is more “job churning,” or turnover, of young people in employment now than in previous generations. Once in the job, they find it is beyond their capacity to endure. In turn, the lack of job offerings to younger generations is due to the fact that corporations are protecting the benefits and favoring the retention of middle-aged and older workers (53). In yūji's case, had he graduated from a university in his city, he might have had an easier time finding regular employment that interested him. He settled for his sister's connection without realizing that the job would be in sales. When i said to yūji that his parents were both regular salaried employees, he replied that that was true and that they had made a lot of money, but that was “in the old days,” and he did not think it was possible anymore.

Yūji is being totally realistic. And he is making a reasonably balanced assessment of his current occupation. While it will not make him well off or give him high status, at least he enjoys it. The same can be said of his older sister. Neither of them have prestigious or lucrative jobs, but both of them are In work that they feel is worth doing. When they were young, they were not inculcated with the “new middle-class” values (vogel 1971) of studying hard, climbing the educational ladder, and landing a conventional white-collar job with all of its perks. On the other hand, some of yūji's protests that he is better off not having studied harder may also stem from a doubt that he could have succeeded even had he made the effort.

Of the three children, atsuko has a credential that has afforded her steady employment, but due to the privatization trend in the neoliberal economy since the 1990s, her job as an associate public servant no longer pays as well as it once would have. And while yūji did get his Ba degree, he did not come out with a credential to repair autos, which was his intention going into the program. The auto dealership job he obtained through his sister's connections was a total mismatch for him, and he could not reconcile himself to it. Had he stayed in it, it would have paid a much better salary than his current job as a nursery gardener, but he chose happiness over money; in the end this may be a much sounder choice if he is willing to compromise on his other goals. Like the blue-collar factory men in James roberson's 1998 study, yūji prefers to work with his hands; he could not stomach door-to-door sales, pressuring clients to make purchases. Like many children of his generation and also as was culturally appropriate as the only son, yūji lived at home after university graduation. He continued to rely on his parents' largesse, only seeking a job after his benefits had run out. As the youngest child and the only son of the family, too, he readily asked for and received indulgence from his family.

All the children were used to having a family on whom they could lean financially, but after Masaji's death in 2005, this dependency became increasingly burdensome for sachi. Ami has gone from one low-paying irregular job to the next, and although her most recent position was as a regular employee, she quit it because she could not stand the tedium and isolation. She knew she would need to find another job, but what she really wanted to do was marry her boyfriend and become a professional housewife, a solidly middle-class aspiration but one that was unlikely to come to fruition, at least not with the current boyfriend. Ironically, the children all have much higher educational credentials than their parents, yet they are in much less secure and/or well-paying jobs. Like many youth of their generation, there is also an element of wanting to be in work that they like to do, that suits them, and some unwillingness to put up with a job that doesn't fit their criteria. None of the children has fared so well in employment, characteristic of the general trend in youth employment in Japan in the recession era (Brinton 2011; Genda 2005; Kosugi 2008). This is also a phenomenon affecting youth in most postindustrial economies of late (thomas 2012).

Her children's somewhat bumpy transition to stable adulthood frustrates sachi, who now blames herself for not having paid more attention to the children when they were growing up, for not fostering their potential better or finding more avenues for them to explore. But in fact there was a lot more going on here than her failure to foster the children's “learning competency.” There were also structural issues at play. Sachi and Masaji had easily landed their well-paying, lifetime factory jobs when the economy was still in a high growth period. When the children went on the job market, however, there were rising bars to advancement in an increasingly global, neoliberal, and recessionary environment. The 1980s and 1990s saw an extension of education and credentials to a wider population (via an expansion in number but not quality of universities and an increase in enrollments) at a time that desirable job placements began to shrink. Moreover, the cultural capital the children acquired from their parents was not suited to desk work and test taking but gave them strong values of work, family, friendship, and enjoyment in life.

Toward the end of our interview, sachi expressed her worries about the future. She worries about the children's failure to put money into the household accounts, and she does not understand what motivates their behavior. She is extremely anxious that ami's boyfriend seems unreliable, and Masaji is no longer there to help her think about the situation. Sachi still keenly feels the loss of the companion with whom she could consult about anything. In summing up her anxiety about the future she says, “i don't think things are going in a good direction. Those marrying are fewer, there are fewer children, and we just get older. I can't see the future ahead. The people in the generation ahead of us got public pensions and are stable, but i don't know if we can get a pension when we reach pensionable age. Frankly, i'm worried.”

The past two to three decades have brought enormous changes and challenges to the Fujii family, who have been amazingly resilient. Despite illness, death, setbacks, difficult jobs, and heartbreak, they remain a very cohesive and generally optimistic family. In the autumn of 2012 as we looked over atsuko's wedding pictures and talked about the recent wedding, sachi told me that she had used some of Masaji's death benefits for atsuko's wedding, and she was sure he was happy about it. The legacy Masaji has left them is one of hope, endurance, love, and joie de vivre. This family's ties to Masaji, as well as to each other, are strong and enduring, regardless of the challenging times.


 
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