Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Work Conditions and experiences
Once the economic bubble burst and ended the consumption-oriented affluence of the 1980s, Japan faced a long economic recession during the 1990s and a slow economy during the 2000s. By then, deregulation in the workplace dramatically increased the number of irregular jobs that supported the neoliberal regime, which required an ever-flexible labor force. Glenda roberts' (chapter 1) story of sachi, a blue-collar worker in her fifties, and her adult children in their twenties and thirties provides a stark contrast between Japan's economy before and after the long recession and its impact on working conditions and opportunities. Despite the fact that sachi had only a middle-school education, a strong economy offered her a stable job in the early 1970s, and by working hard and well, she was able to keep it until she retired. With her husband, also a blue-collar worker with a regular job, she was able to buy a modest house and educate her children in private schools, thus achieving some aspects of a middle-class lifestyle. However, in Japan's slow economy, only one of sachi's three adult children could find a steady job.
Despite the tougher economic climate that has overshadowed even the most well-known conglomerates, the corporate hierarchy still shapes workers' experiences in a significant way. Workers at prestigious large corporations continue to have better working conditions, higher incomes, and superb benefits, while those working for the subsidiaries and contractors of the large corporations are not so fortunate (see Kondo 1990). However, the equal employment Opportunity Law (eeOL), introduced in 1986, opened up career-track jobs to women. Formerly, as sawa Kurotani notes in chapter 3, regardless of education or talent, new female recruits were given clerical-track jobs with limited opportunities for advancement; their main job was to support Career-track men (see Ogasawara 1998). Although some women are still hired as clerical-track workers, others are now hired for the career track. Kurotani reveals that the corporate hierarchy has thus become more complex, involving not only a growing disparity among long-term female workers, but also a persistent inequality between male and female workers.
Employment insecurity is particularly the case for aging women workers, a situation examined by Lynne nakano (chapter 6). There are many single women who are long-term workers in the labor force. Those in their thirties and forties during the 2000s were aware that as they aged, it would become more difficult to find a new regular job with benefits, and they keenly felt the need to keep themselves competitive by strategizing and developing new, specialized skills. In their struggles in the employment market, which continues to celebrate women's youth, docility, and ability to assist male career workers, these women have developed alternative values—“perseverance, independence, innovation, hard work, and initiative,” as nakano puts it. Many countries have experienced problems of inequality and youth unemployment during the economic downturn in recent years. In societies where timing is less emphasized, young people have a bit more flexibility in pursuing their futures. Furuichi noritoshi notes that in europe, young people have long had a “gap year” after graduating from university before they were expected to find work; however, Japanese young people face the (increasingly unrealistic) expectation that employment will immediately follow graduation (Furuichi and toivonnen 2012, 20). Mary Brinton (2011) has pointed out that Japan experienced its heyday and a rapid downturn in a very short period of time. As a result, a deeper-than-normal generation gap between parents and adult children is not unusual. A newspaper article indicated that seminars are now available to parents of young people seeking jobs to give them the latest information regarding the job market (Msn sankei news 2012). The article explained that many applicants turned down job offers from less prestigious medium-sized companies or newer, unknown companies because their parents encouraged them to reject such offers. These parents were typically the beneficiaries of the nation's past strong economy, and their expectations had not adjusted to the current reality of shrinking opportunities. we can hear the echoes of the resulting frustration in some of our chapters (e.g., chapters 1 and 2).
The decade-long recession and slow economy particularly affected young people negatively, increasing the number of “freeters” (frītā), young people in irregular employment. Some consciously took that path, while others failed to obtain stable jobs after graduation (Mathews 2003). How do young People in irregular positions see their jobs and themselves? Some of them ask an important question about personal happiness in today's Japan: which is important—pursuing the lifestyle of a salaryman (seen as stable but uninteresting) or finding a job that is unstable and pays little but offers a promise of personal fulfillment? If one cannot have both security and personal satisfaction, one might take the latter. The personal “fit” with a job is increasingly important among young people, as shown in chapters 1, 2, and 4 below. The celebration of a personally satisfying career is not limited to young adults but is also found among some older individuals (chapter 2). While the large major companies still offer more secure jobs with superior working conditions and stability is still valued by many, as expressed by the accounts of older men and women interviewed by Gordon Mathews, doubts have also been expressed about the salaryman way of life (chapter 2). Personal satisfaction and compatibility are important not only in the choice of careers, but also in other life transitions, such as marriage and death, as we shall see below.
Some young people have consciously abandoned the middle-class mainstream path and explored new work possibilities. Nancy rosenberger (chapter 4) describes a female organic farmer's attempt to be self-sufficient and environmentally responsible. Her lifestyle relies on a face-to-face exchange relationship with consumers, called teikei, and she delivers boxes of produce to customers who have signed up. Such a lifestyle not only challenges the salaryman way of life, but also contests the larger capitalist system of mass production.
While organic farming represents a radical departure from the salaryman model, Gavin whitelaw (chapter 5) describes a less radical alternative that is still deeply embedded in the neoliberal economy: that of small business owners. Members of the merchant class in premodern Japan were historically known for their distinctive cultural ethos and pride; they lived an alternative lifestyle to that of the warrior class, which was in charge of running the local and national governments (see Umesao 1990). Theodore Bestor's classic ethnography, Neighborhood Tokyo (1989), delineates the ways in which postwar merchants during the late 1970s and 1980s strategically constructed “traditional” images of themselves as the old middle-class, juxtaposed against the new middle-class, the salarymen. Small-scale, self-employed business people were central to community affairs and local religious activities in neighborhood shrines until the mid-1990s (Kawano 2005; Kondo 1990). What are their lives like today? Whitelaw's account provides a glimpse into their lives in tokyo: many specialized mom-and-pop shops used to grace tokyo's streets in The late 1970s, but they have disappeared or turned into franchise convenience stores.
As their own bosses, small-scale business owners sometimes characterize themselves as more “independent” and “free” than their mainstream salaryman counterparts (Kawano 2005; Kondo 1990). It is not unusual for nonsalarymen to criticize salarymen in order to construct a positive self-image. For example, day laborers examined by tom Gill (2003) emphasized their “independence” and “freedom,” while they saw salarymen as tied down to their companies and suffering from long work hours that they could not control. Do small business owners have more “freedom”? Whitelaw reveals equally tough, or perhaps tougher, working conditions among convenience store owners in Japan's stagnant economy. By the 2000s many more convenience stores had opened, thereby increasing the competition and decreasing a store's profits. The exploitative franchise contract set by the convenience conglomerates further decreases store owners' profits, making it harder to establish a new, successful convenience store during the 2000s. Uncertainty and insecurity thus overshadow not only corporate workers' lives, but those of small business owners as well.
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