Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Maya: At the Lower End of Professional Work
Maya was yumiko's high school friend. They went to the same technical school afterward and remained close friends after they graduated. While some aspects of their lives overlap, there are many key differences in their life histories. For one thing, Maya's father was a salaryman who worked for a major company that once dominated Japan's telecommunications market. “i don't know what he did. He was just a salaryman,” Maya says. He left home early in the morning, came home late in the evening, and mostly slept on sundays. Maya's home life centered on her mother, who worked at home as a seamstress. In high school, Maya had decent grades, particularly in math and sciences, but was not interested in going to school for four more years, so going to a technical school and becoming a programmer made sense to her. She never considered following in her mother's footsteps, as sewing, she said, “didn't interest me at all.” She did not necessarily think about following in her father's footsteps either. “working for a company” seemed to be the only occupational goal she had in her youth.
Maya found a job with a subsidiary of a major electronics company (a competitor of yumiko's former employer) and was thrown immediately into projects. It was 1984, and the Japanese economy was going strong; Japanese corporations were just starting to computerize their operations, and there was a huge demand for programmers. Maya's primary job was to go to a client company with a team of programmers and set up or upgrade the company's computer systems. The team often worked under the pressure of tight deadlines and demanding clients. For many years, Maya routinely took the last train home and collapsed into bed at 1 a.m., only to get up five hours later to start all over again. She also worked all day on saturdays on a regular basis, leaving sunday to catch up with sleep and recuperate for the coming week. “yeah, i used to work a lot. I'm amazed i lasted!”
Maya is slightly built and says she is not very sturdy. When asked how she managed such a heavy workload, Maya wiped a smile off her face and answered very seriously, almost angrily, “i just did it because i had to.” Maya's company does not control its own work flow, as it receives work orders through its parent company. Salespeople from the parent company—who never even meet the technicians from the subsidiary—often make unrealistic Promises in order to secure a contract, with little regard to those who have to go out and do the job. “we got so angry a few times and tried to complain to the parent company,” she recalled. “But it was no use. They kept sending us contracts and demanded that we do them on time. They didn't care because they never had to deal with the clients. Even our own management didn't care. It was we, the programmers, who had to apologize to angry clients and bend over backward to appease them.”
Maya stayed with the company despite many difficulties, and she became a team leader, trusted with large projects for important clients. She seemed reluctant to admit that it was an accomplishment to stay with the same company and advance to her current position. “i've been doing this for a long time. I didn't try to become a team leader, but before i knew it, i was one of the older programmers with the company who knew how to get the job done.” I teasingly asked her if she was considered a so-called otsubone-sama, a long-term female employee who rules over younger women just as a shogun's concubines used to rule over attending ladies. “yes, i suppose so,” Maya laughed. “i'm definitely older than everyone else i work with!”
Maya's response to my question about the bubble's collapse was immediate and lengthy. “yes, i definitely felt it [the difference between bubble and post-bubble times],” she said. “when the bubble collapsed, our work slowed down a bit. We didn't have as many projects, and i could usually go home by ten or eleven and didn't work on saturdays, which was a lot better [than during the bubble era].” Still, she worked until ten on a regular basis. “well, that's pretty normal in my industry,” said Maya with a wry smile. “that just can't be helped.”
The period of a more manageable workload did not last long. Things got tougher again as the economic recession dragged on. Desperate to keep business coming in, Maya's parent company started taking on projects at reduced fees under ever-tighter conditions. “in the end, all the forced effort [muri] came back to us at the job site. We got caught between the parent company, who wanted us to get the job done quickly with minimal staff to bring the costs down, and the clients, who were not happy to see that we weren't flexible [enough to accommodate their needs].” As a team leader, Maya constantly found herself between a rock and a hard place among her own supervisor, the clients, and her own team members. Then, a reduction in the workforce, through layoffs and a stoppage of new hires, began to affect them. “sure, we have less work, but now we have fewer people to do it, too. So the pressure is up again.” Through the ups and downs of the economy and changing responsibility at work, Maya also had to take on family responsibility. Her older brother got married and left home when she was in her late twenties, while she never married and has remained in her parents' home all these years. Around 2000, her father's health began to decline markedly, and for the following several years, she shared the responsibility of caring for him with her aging mother. Every saturday, she would drive her mother to visit with her father in the hospital. In the not-so-distant future the care of her mother will most likely fall on Maya's shoulders as well. “My mom's getting old. Eventually, she'll need somebody to care for her, and i suppose that'll be me. My brother? He's been gone for many years, and he has his own family, a wife and two children. He won't move back with us—ever. So that leaves me.” Fortunately, she added, her mother was still in good health at the moment. Maya and her mother seemed to get along well, and as she put it, “things are simple” with just two women living together. The house is paid for, and with Maya's salary, her father's pension, and her mother's savings from her sewing work, they were financially well off. While work continued to be demanding, this was a relatively calm period in Maya's life, and she hoped it would last for a while.
Maya had two different role models—her salaryman father and her mother, who worked at home while taking care of the family—but in her mind, the path of wife/mother did not seem to have much meaning. She realized that if she was going to be self-sufficient, corporate wage labor was the only option.
After she graduated from a decent—but not top-notch—high school and a trade school for computer programming, Maya's work life began in a small subsidiary at the bottom of the corporate pecking order. Often called kogaisha, or “child companies,” subsidiaries live in the shadow of their powerful “parents”—usually world-class corporations with highly recognizable brand names and part of a gigantic assembly of corporations known as keiretsu. Along with subcontractors, subsidiaries serve the parent company by providing cheaper, more flexible labor. It is customary for subsidiary employees to be paid significantly lower wages, given fewer benefits, and subjected to harsher working conditions than the employees of the parent companies. Many of the difficulties that Maya has experienced are the results of her position within this elaborate tier structure of the Japanese corporate world.
Working in the information technology (it) industry has its own trappings as well. The industry is known for high incidents of depression, nervous breakdown, and suicide, due to the highly competitive atmosphere and the Isolating nature of programming work. It technicians and managers in small subsidiary companies must deal with even harder conditions and added stress for less compensation than their counterparts get in the parent companies. At the same time, the it industry tends to be more gender egalitarian than many other sectors of the Japanese economy, and female workers are often able to enter into professional and senmonshoku (specialist) positions. such was certainly the case for Maya, who, despite her limited educational capital, managed to advance to a supervisory position in a highly competitive work environment. it was both because she had an aptitude for this type of technical work and also apparently because of her position as a team leader that she acquired management and leadership skills over the years. However, her current position at the lower end of the professional spectrum is most likely where she will end her career.
Maya's role as a senior female technician with management responsibility adds stress to her already complicated position at work. she does not see herself as a particularly good manager and emphasizes that she was made a manager merely because of her seniority. she clearly does not enjoy “standing above other people” (hito no ue ni tatsu). while she would not have been able to stay in the position unless she was capable of managing her team, Maya's take on her managerial status remains ironic and self-deprecating.
another key component in Maya's story is her family obligations. she has never been married and has no plans for marriage in the future. while yumiko seems to have had a desire to marry when she was younger and perhaps dated a few men, Maya seems to have never considered marriage as a choice. they are part of the growing trend among bubble generation women who are more likely than previous generations to postpone or entirely forgo marriage and reproduction. Many of them are employed full time and live with their parents, allowing them a great deal of personal and financial freedom well into their thirties and even beyond. while marriage and reproduction are not entirely out of the picture for most of them, they often represent a more constraining, less attractive choice than they once did (inoue and ebara 2004; s. Miura 2009). Having stayed with her parents through her adult life, Maya has taken on the responsibility of caring for her parents in their old age, while her brother has remained largely hands-off. this is also an emerging pattern among contemporary Japanese families: unmarried daughters, instead of the oldest son and his wife, are becoming the primary caregivers for their elderly parents. this arrangement has certain advantages for both the parents, who find it easier to rely on their own daughters than on in-laws, and the daughters, who would rather prolong their carefree single lives than get married and become housewives and mothers (white 2002).
Maya's current situation is a relatively fortunate one. while she brings in an income to the household, her mother takes care of the domestic tasks. However, the situation can change at a moment's notice, depending on her mother's health. in the last few decades, the Japanese government has opted for home-based care of the elderly, touting the benefits of keeping the elderly with family members instead of increasing elder-care facilities, and it has established a long-term-care insurance system. while the system provides a degree of financial relief for families who care for their disabled elderly, it presumes the availability of a family member to serve as primary caregiver, usually a woman. at some point in the future, Maya will have to make some tough decisions between wage work and caretaking work, as many other working Japanese women are doing today (roberts 2011).
Maya's case also brings to the foreground the significance of educational capital in professional career development in Japanese society, where such capital goes a long way—more so than in Bourdieu's study based in France (1984)—to compensate for a shortage of cultural capital that comes with one's class origin. However, Maya's hands-off father and stay-at-home mother did not push their children toward higher educational attainment, particularly not Maya, whose gender deemed it unnecessary at best and even harmful, as men have tended to view women of higher educational capital as unattractive marriage candidates.
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