Work and Lives of Three Bubble Generation Women

On one hand, the macrostructural changes discussed above define the professional lives of bubble generation women generally; on the other hand, individual women experience, understand, and respond to such changes differently because of their varying habitus (Bourdieu 1977). Habitus is a system Of durable dispositions specific to class or other social groups that share the same material and social conditions. Inculcated early in an individual's life, it continues to affect one's relationship to the macrostructural forces throughout one's life. It is “durable” because once acquired, a class-specific system of dispositions strongly influences the ways in which a social actor responds to and interacts with the preexisting structure of power, in such a way that he/ she remains in the same structural position—the very mechanism that keeps working-class “lads” on working-class jobs (willis 1977).

We need to carefully consider, however, the cultural and historical context of postwar Japan to productively apply the concept of habitus in this analysis. The effects of class-specific habitus were obscured during Japan's postwar economic miracle, which continuously expanded opportunities for ordinary working Japanese for nearly a half century and created a collective illusion of an ichioku sōchūryū shakai, or “a 100 million all-middle-class” society. At the same time, the gender differentiation of the habitus was naturalized to the point that it molded the life courses of men and women without ever being scrutinized. In the latter half of the 1990s, however, class disparity became the new norm in post-bubble Japan, and gradual changes in gender role expectations began to take root. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, individual social actors, in turn, adjusted their expectations and began to make novel choices in response to the new social reality.

In the following narratives of bubble generation women, we will see the dynamic interplay between their classand gender-specific habitus and the concrete social conditions they encounter in their professional and personal lives. Yumiko, Maya, and seiko (all pseudonyms) were all born in 1963 and grew up in the suburbs of Kanagawa Prefecture, south of tokyo. They graduated from high school in 1982, went on to receive a post-secondary education, and began working full time between 1984 and 1986. Their life histories leading up to fulltime corporate employment and the articulation of their individual choices and the macrostructural forces affecting them are of particular interest to me. The similarities and differences among them give us important clues toward understanding the lives and work experiences of bubble generation women.

Yumiko: The Clerical Track for Life

At the time of the interview, yumiko had been working as an ippanshoku, or clerical-track employee of a small company. When i asked her what kind of ideas or dreams she had about her future career when she was in high school, She chuckled a little but did not say anything right away. I too chuckled and asked, “Or did you have one?” To that, she replied, “no, not really. I didn't know anything [about career planning]!”

Yumiko grew up in a coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture, where her parents owned a liquor store. The youngest of three children (she has an older brother and sister), her childhood was relatively eventless and carefree. She remembers that summer was a particularly busy time for them, when the beaches attracted many tourists and everyone wanted liquor and food delivered all the time. “we never went on a vacation in summer,” she recalls. “there was no way [my parents] could close the store for days during the summer. That's what happens when your family owns a shop. It's not like with other [kids] whose parents are salarymen.” In her childhood and teenage years, she was surrounded by those “others,” whose parents—fathers, really—had corporate employment. Moreover, knowing the drawbacks of owning a family business, her parents did not expect their children to carry it on. Both her older siblings took corporate employment and had left home by the time yumiko was in high school. When i asked her if she had ever considered taking over the shop, she immediately said no. “My parents never wanted us to, and i really didn't think about it.”

Yumiko went on to a local high school that was, in the strict ranking of public high schools in the district, considered decent but not top level. While only a handful of students were accepted to the best universities, most of her school's graduates went on to a post-secondary education of some sort. In her senior year class of forty students, all but a couple of girls went to a technical school, junior college, or four-year university. Yumiko herself opted for a technical school to learn computer programming. Was she interested in computers? “no, not really. I just thought it'd get me a decent job.” Nor did she consider applying for college. She was not into academics, and all she wanted was to get a job so she could support herself.

Yumiko finished a two-year program at a large technical school in 1984 and found a job as an entry-level programmer—a decent one, as she had planned—in a small subsidiary of a large electronics company in tokyo. She quit the job after a few years, however, because she found that she “wasn't really [cut out] for that type of work.” She went back to school to learn basic accounting and found a job in the clerical staff of a mid-sized company in tokyo. After five years, she found another job in a small trading company, where she works today. “that job [in tokyo] was okay, but the commute was getting really tiring,” she explained. “it used to take like an hour and a half to get to work; now it's about forty-five minutes door to door.” I found it difficult during the interview to get yumiko to say much about the nature of her work, past or present. “My work? I'm just doing jimu [general clerical work], preparing documents, keeping books, helping the guys in sales, you know? All the routine stuff, that's about it.” And her feelings about such “routine” work? She hesitated a little before responding. “it's okay. I have to work; everyone has to work, so i work! I mean, sometimes, i get tired of it. Oh, and the stuff that goes on with the other girls. . . .” Yumiko realizes that at her age finding a new job would be difficult. She has never been married and has no plan to do so. She is resigned to the idea that she will be single for the rest of her life. The notion does not seem to bother her in itself, but she notes that it means that she will need to work for twenty more years or so to support herself. That thought seemed to distress her a bit.

Yumiko characterizes her workplace as “very traditional” and having a clear division of labor between men, who are in sales and management, and women, who provide clerical support for them. In other words, top-level professional and clerical or low-level professional (ippanshoku) work is strictly divided along gender lines. As a gesture toward equal opportunity, however, the company assigns a couple of women in low-level management positions as “team leaders.” Some women become very competitive and cliquish over these assignments, yumiko explains. They try to get on the “good side” of their male supervisors, while handpicking their female allies, to increase their chances at the limited opportunities for advancement. Yumiko feels she is in an ambivalent position. She is, along with one other female worker, much older than the rest of the women, who are in their twenties and thirties. In a seniority-driven workplace, she would be a natural candidate for team leader. However, she entered the company late, and she also does not feel capable of taking on a leadership position. For the team leader who is younger than her, yumiko is a potential threat to her authority. So she treats yumiko with contempt at every opportunity, as though to demonstrate her superior position.

If the eeOL did not affect yumiko's work experience much, how about the bubble economy and its collapse? Yumiko tilts her head slightly—a habit of hers when she wants to take a moment to consider the question—and makes a noncommittal “hmmm” sound. “i never thought about it much. I can say that i used to be busier before the economy went under. My company is struggling to keep our clients, and the business is much slower these days. So there isn't as much for us [clerical workers] to do.”

Toward the end of our conversation, i asked yumiko what she would like to do for a living if she had complete freedom to choose. She thought about It a little while and said that she would like to work at an amamidokoro, or a Japanese-style teahouse, where traditional sweets are served along with Japanese tea. “it seems like a nice, relaxed environment to work in,” she explained. “nothing strenuous or stressful. I could just serve tea and sweets to customers who are a little bit older and want a quiet place to relax.” I asked her if maybe someday she would want to open her own teahouse. Yumiko laughed at my outrageous idea. “Oh, i don't know. Maybe, but i don't think so.”

Throughout our conversation, yumiko remained ambivalent about her life trajectory and career choices. She did not present herself as someone making active choices about her life and work. She chose computer programming not because of her own interest, but because of job prospects; then she dropped out of her technical career, not because there was something else she would rather have done, but because she did not like programming. She never married, but it was just because an opportunity had not presented itself. There may be a kind of work she would enjoy more than that of a clerical worker, but she is resigned to the reality that she will most likely retire from her current job, to which she has no particular attachment. Nor does yumiko reflect upon her life course and the external forces that have been at work. For example, even when she is asked explicitly, it takes her a while to remember any changes in her work routine that occurred at the time of the economic change. One gets the impression that her life is left out of a historical context all together, placidly floating in a pond of water for eternity.

A closer consideration of her stories, however, quickly reveals that these impressions are not correct. The macrostructural framework of her life and work is evident in many parts of her interview. To begin with, yumiko's family history places her at the margin of Japan's postwar economic development, which pushed “salarymen,” or core corporate workers who worked on a salary basis (as opposed to hourly employees), to the forefront. Her older siblings responded to this marginalization by getting out of the family business, and yumiko followed suit. Yet it was as though yumiko lacked a viable alternative or a role model from whom to draw inspiration. Her parents, who encouraged their children to seek corporate employment and supported their educational preparations, themselves lacked a realistic understanding of the corporate world and thus were unable to help yumiko navigate a path into that world.

Merchants did exist as a distinct class or caste in premodern tokugawa Japan; more important, merchant families, until very recently, played an important role in the modern Japanese economy and in local communities (Bestor 1989; Kondo 1990). Much has changed in post-bubble Japan, however, and the “burnt ruins” generation of merchant-class families was perhaps the last one for whom taking over the family business was not a choice but a fact of life. The following generations tended to frown upon family businesses as old-fashioned and burdensome; to them, “owning a business” did not signal entrepreneurship; it signified the outdated notion of ie (house or family), which stifled individual choice. At the end of the interview, i asked if yumiko could possibly convert her family store into a teahouse. Her immediate rejection of the idea reflects the close, and often negative, association between small business ownership and ie entanglement, closing off, rather than opening up, an alternative path for an entrepreneur.

Yet yumiko's attempt to leave the merchant class remains incomplete. Bourdieu points out that one of the effects of habitus is to exclude unlikely possibilities from one's worldview (1977, 77). In the case of yumiko, who grew up in a supposedly “all-middle-class” society, class reproduction did not take place in a classical sense, as it did for Paul willis' working-class lads. Instead, she works at the margins of the white-collar corporate world, locked into a routine clerical track, doing work not unlike the tedious bookkeeping that her mother did at their family store. Gender has also seemed to play a significant role here, as her brother did make it to the white-collar professional ranks, while yumiko and her sister did not.

Finally, yumiko's reference to a teahouse as a desirable place to work tells us a great deal about her sense of self at this stage in her life. Bubble generation women grew up hanging out at coffee shops and McDonald's, and now, in their forties and fifties, they often relate to things “traditional” as a novel and exotic cultural form, rather than their cultural roots. During the consumption frenzy of the 1980s, pieces of “traditional Japan,” from Kabuki theater to kaiseki cuisine to hot springs spas, were repackaged as attractive consumer goods to be “discovered” again by younger generations of Japanese. Some Japanese confectionaries have become coveted brand names, featured on glossy pages of magazines targeted at younger women, and their beautifully appointed tearooms, often located in busy shopping districts or department stores, are depicted as quiet refuges where customers can take a momentary break from their fast-paced modern life. The meaning yumiko attaches to working in a teahouse reflects such popular cultural clichés—a quiet, stress-free place where interactions are muted and work is light and clean. She is a reasonably friendly woman, but she does not consider herself an assertive or outgoing person. She does not crave mental or physical challenge and has no objection To simple work. The type of work required of a server in a Japanese-style teahouse fits perfectly with her perception of herself.

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