Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
II Work Conditions and experiences
In part ii contributors address work experiences and conditions during the 2000s. Sawa Kurotani (chapter 3) explores the lives of female full-time workers of the bubble generation, in their forties and fifties, who have never left their workplace for marriage or child rearing, as did most of their peers. Despite the equal employment Opportunity Law (eeOL), introduced in 1986, which officially opened the doors to career-track positions for women in the corporate world, the society continues to pressure married women to quit their jobs when they have children, and Kurotani's chapter sheds light upon the ways the long-term female workers have developed and coped with the persistent male dominance in the corporate world.
Nancy rosenberger (chapter 4) tells us the story of a young woman, Kana, who has given up a middle-class lifestyle for an alternative life based upon Organic farming. Following the ideals of environmental responsibility and food sufficiency, she strives to provide the safest vegetables that she can to her customers and spread her ideals among them through newsletters and faceto-face interaction. Her life path is at odds with the mainstream one, which depends on a corporate worker/husband in the capitalist economic system based upon mass production and consumption. Rosenberger delineates Kana's resistance to the status quo in contemporary Japan and its consequences, filled with contradictions and compromises.
Gavin Hamilton whitelaw (chapter 5) draws readers' attention to the small-scale business families who own convenience stores in tokyo. He reveals the storeowners' struggles to meet the demands of fussy urban consumers, make a profit, and grapple with everyday losses. Bound by franchise contracts set by headquarters to maximize corporate profits, storeowners are forced to pay “loss charges” on unsold food items. In the recessionary economy during the 2000s, it has become much more difficult to establish a thriving convenience store in tokyo.
Working women of the Bubble Generation
This chapter is an ethnographic study of professional Japanese women of the bubble generation (baburu sedai) who entered the full-time workforce in the 1980s and early '90s, at the height of Japan's postwar economic miracle. During the economic boom, Japan's strong economy and the equal employment Opportunity Law (eeOL) suddenly opened up professional opportunities for Japanese women, who had been marginalized for decades in the Japanese corporate world. Then, in the 1990s, they experienced a drastic change as the bloated economy collapsed and a decade-long recession put into doubt the efficacy of Japan's postwar economic regime in an increasingly globalized world. This chapter focuses in particular on three professional women, how they understand the effects of macrostructural forces in their lives, and how they have negotiated their professional and personal paths through these decades of socioeconomic turmoil.
Women of the Bubble Generation
The “bubble generation” commonly refers to the cohort of Japanese who were born in the midto late 1960s and started full-time employment during
83 The bubble era (1986–1991). A somewhat broader definition of the term— prevalent in Japanese popular culture—includes those who “came of age” in the late 1980s, formed their worldview at the time of economic effervescence, and are known for their taste for high-end consumer products and services. They are the children of the frugal and hard-working yakeato sedai, or the “burnt ruins” generation, who spent their formative years in the aftermath of world war ii. If the childhoods of the “burnt ruins” generation were made difficult with loss and poverty, their adulthood was characterized by everimproving standards of living and boundless optimism for the future. Already in the middle to advanced stages of their lives by the recession of the 1990s, they had amassed the world's highest rate of personal savings for secure retirement. Their children grew up in an increasingly affluent society. Unlike their frugal and conservative parents or their politically oriented big sisters and brothers of the dankai no sedai (the cohort born roughly between 1946 and 1954), those of the bubble generation learned to enjoy material comforts at an early age, drove the surge of conspicuous consumption during the 1980s, and came to expect a long, prosperous life as their birthright.
As Japan entered an extended period of economic stagnation following the collapse of the bubble economy, the bubble generation faced radical changes in corporate structure and workplace culture, as the corporate largesse of the bubble era disappeared and the promise of lifelong employment—a staple of postwar Japanese human resource management—quickly became a tale of the past. However, for them, falling into makegumi, or the loser's team (a. Miura 2005), was not an option. They worked harder—at times to the point of self-destruction. In the latter half of the 1990s, the wave of corporate restructuring ended the assumption of lifelong employment. When increased stress and anxiety over an uncertain future drove up the suicide rates among working adults, it was the bubble generation, men and women in their thirties and forties, who were hit the hardest.
While the bubble generation shares a significant historical experience that unites its members as a cohort, gender puts a distinct spin on the generational experience. Work is one of the most important factors of gender differentiation in the vast majority of human societies, and it is certainly the case in postwar Japan, where the strict division of labor between men and women was reinforced throughout much of the twentieth century (rosenberger 2001). Even after world war ii, the gender division of labor persisted, and Japanese workplaces remained male-dominated (Brinton 1993; Ogasawara 1998). Most women, whose labor participation increased gradually in the late twentieth Century, continued to regard paid labor as a temporary engagement before they got married and had children; in turn, most Japanese employers relegated women to non-professional clerical positions and considered that their contribution to long-term corporate productivity would be limited (Kurotani 2005; roberts 2007).
Major shifts occurred, however, as the bubble generation completed education and began to enter the workforce. The eeOL originally came into effect in 1986; it was intended to encourage gradual change in the male-dominated workplace and mandated some basic changes in employment practices, with no provisions to punish offending employers. The major change as a result of the eeOL was the prohibition of gendered career tracks. Prior to 1986, it was a widespread practice for employers to advertise for “male” positions in sales and technical fields, with opportunities for advancement, or “female” positions, mostly clerical work to support male workers and with no or few opportunities for advancement. In response to the eeOL, these gendered tracks were renamed sōgōshoku (professional career track) and ippanshoku (general, clerical track).
However, much gender differentiation in employment persisted, and female workers, while entitled to “equal opportunity” in theory, found it hard to break through the glass ceiling (asakura 1999; Hamaguchi 2009). Takenobu Mieko's 1994 study of professional women reveals that despite the formal structural change, male-centered workplace culture and assumptions about women's domestic responsibility persisted, and these assumptions in turn became the biggest obstacles for female workers on the professional track. Many of them found it simply impossible to be female and have a career-track job, and they quit their coveted positions within a few years.
The economic downturn that struck Japan in the early 1990s also affected the fortunes of the bubble generation women with professional aspirations. The job market suddenly tightened in 1993 and brought on the shūshoku hyōgaki (job placement ice age), which lasted until 2000. While everyone struggled to find full-time employment, job opportunities for female college graduates all but disappeared, as the few available positions were given to men first.
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