EMPLOYMENT REGULATION AND PRACTICES: The production and consumption of non-regular work


Since the 1960s, the distinct character of work and employment in Japan has received much international attention for its perceived contribution to the country’s postwar economic growth. Much has been made of the so-called three pillars or jewels: lifetime employment (sliüshin koyo), seniority promotion (nenkô joretsu) and enterprise unionism (kigyô kumiai). As the defining features ofjapan’s ‘firm-as-family’ management (Clark 1979; Fruin 1980) or ‘welfare corporatism’ (Dore 1973; Lincoln and Kalleberg 1990), these pillars have been instrumental in retaining loyal workers, keeping workers loyal to the firm, and maximizing corporate profits. Closely entangled with the work and employment system are popular discourses of‘culture’, notably the traditional Confucianism-informed family (ic) values, which are frequently invoked by the ruling elite to emphasize the sense of Japanese ‘uniqueness’.1 Such narratives, known as Nihonjinron, are now widely dismissed as functionalist or essentialist; to be sure, they are ‘in danger of legitimating, perhaps even helping to construct, that system as much as actually describing or explaining it’ (Goodman 1998: 135). In this connection, culture can be a dangerous word, unless it is understood as an ever-continuing discursive process in which a society’s core values, norms and beliefs are constructed, maintained, mediated, challenged or changed — one that is intricately intertwined with political and economic forces. This view of culture is particularly pertinent to the discussion ofjapan’s changing employment landscape in the post-bubble economy, where the tension between culture and social institutions is made more acute by the growth of precarious work. As more and more workers are being shunted to the disadvantageous labour market periphery as non-regular temps — and increasingly as ‘non-regular regulars’ (Gordon 2017) — serious questions emerge pertaining to the maintenance of the much-touted Japanese traditions that have been ‘invented’ — to use Hobsbawm and Ranger’s famous phrase (1983) — to entrench and reinforce labour market segmentation and inequality.

Drawing on this holistic conceptual framework that integrates culture and social institutions, this chapter sets out to explore employment regulation and practices in the context of non-regular work. It first identifies new and enduring employment features, with a view to accentuating Japan’s gendered, core-peripheral dualism. This is followed by an analysis of the production and consumption of non-regular work, examining (1) the extent to which the growth of non-regular work is caused and exacerbated by formal institutional arrangements and (2) everyday life experiences from the perspective of non-regular workers. The chapter concludes by arguing that the contours of non-regular work in Japan are shaped by two closely interconnected key factors. The first has much to do with Japan’s largely unchanged institutional structures, especially those centred on state-capital-labour relations, which subject a great many workers to management prerogatives and market despotism. The second and more elusive factor relates to the prevalence and persistence of cultural assumptions concerning the ‘male breadwinner-female dependent’ family model, which underpins the states regulatory and welfare frameworks, labour market dualism, industrial relations, corporate management and many other areas of Japanese life.

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