Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Rural to Urban
Sachi was born in the mid-1950s in Fukui Prefecture of central Japan, the third of four daughters in a family of six children. Her family was not well off; her mother did piecework at home while her father was employed at a mill. When sachi was in her first year of junior high school, her father's employer went bankrupt, a not uncommon occurrence among small firms. Her paternal aunt, who had married into a household that owned a steel factory in Kyoto, offered to employ sachi's father and the rest of the family. Sachi's older brother, eldest sister, and second brother were already employed there, and when the remaining family moved to Kansai, sachi's aunt arranged company housing, and subsequently rental housing, so that the whole family of eight could live together. Her mother joined the factory as a pāto cook, and her two older sisters and brothers, along with her father, worked making steel. (“Pāto” refers to a worker's status as an irregular employee, without the benefits associated with regular employees and with much lower wages.)
Sachi, moving from the Fukui countryside to urban Kansai, found the level of the local junior high to be much more difficult than that of her hometown. She could not keep up in her studies; more important, her family did not have the means for her to continue in school but expected her to start working upon junior high graduation, as had her older siblings. High school was out of the question.4 One thing sachi did know, however: she did not want to work in the steel mill. It was filthy work; her family came home every day covered in grease and grime. She wanted something else, but she knew she had to work: “i had quite a strict father, and i could not have stayed at home if i hadn't worked. I would be hit if i didn't listen to him. He hit us. He was the kind of guy who would overturn the dining table [resembles a low tea table] . . . A ganko oyaji [stubborn old man]. He was scary.” So she asked her teacher to recommend a job to her. And the teacher recommended azumi, a large, well-established lingerie firm in the locale. In this era the “school-to-work transition,” wherein Schoolteachers introduced potential jobs to their pupils, was well in place, ensuring a smooth entry into the job market. It is no longer so (Brinton 2011). While her father would not have brooked resistance from sachi, he was willing to listen to the teacher's advice, and he allowed sachi to start at azumi. She entered in 1969, along with a large cohort of other girls. As she put it, “when i was recruited, there were a few hundred 'golden eggs'; that's what we were called.5 nowadays there are few regular employees and many dispatch workers [haken].”6 another big difference in this company since the mid-1980s is that it no longer hires anyone but university graduates as regular employees. Due to rising production costs, most of the manufacturing work has been shifted abroad or to less urban areas of Japan, and the urban workforce is mostly engaged in office or retail work.
Not only did sachi find herself employed at a stable, clean job at a wellknown manufacturer, but on her first day of work, the office at the company also asked her to recommend other women whom she might know. Within a month, both of her elder sisters were also at azumi: “we were called the three sisters. We were all in different places: my eldest sister in shipping, my elder sister and i in the main factory [but different workshops]. She is still there—making patterns on the computer.” Sachi's elder sister, also a junior high school graduate, never married, but with her earnings and benefits as a regular employee at azumi, she was able to purchase a new house right across from sachi's.7 Her eldest sister is also still at the company, although she quit her regular position when her husband's company transferred the family to one of its distant branch offices. But she returned to azumi later as a pāto and is still working there today.8
At age twenty, sachi became a shisutā, the lowest level of supervisor at azumi. At this time, she was in the sewing division, which was line work. Sachi reported that all the women in the sewing division were young. Most people quit at marriage, and nobody in the sewing division had children in day care. Perhaps fortunately for sachi, she injured her knee on a machine operated by a knee-lever and was no longer able to sew, so she was shifted to the inspection and packaging division, where there were some married women with children. She had to step down from being shisutā, but she gained the possibility of staying employed. She also married at this time.
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