Anne Allison is Robert O. Keohane Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Professor of Women's Studies at Duke University. Her new book, Precarious Japan, is an ethnography about Japanese experiences of insecurity in the contemporary era of nagging recession, irregular labor, nuclear contamination, and a shrinking overall population with more and more elderly.
What is “precarity” and why is contemporary Japan particularly susceptible to it?
Precarity is a term used by labor scholars and activists to reference precarious employment: working at jobs that are unstable, insecure, and low-paid. For most of history and in most countries around the world today, most workers are precariously employed (if they have jobs at all). But for some countries—like the United States, western Europe, and Japan—the postwar period brought relative stability in employment for a wide swath of both white and blue collar workers. This was true of Japan during its period of high economic growth between the 1960s and 1980s when, establishing itself as a global industrial power, Japan became known for its “miracle” economy. Correlated with high productivity was stability of employment, particularly for male workers who came to expect long term jobs. But, with the bursting of the Bubble economy in the early 1990s that triggered a nagging recession (that Japan has not totally emerged from even today), industry and the government started promoting a shift to more flexible employment: what is called non-regular employment (contract, dispatch, temporary, part-time). Such jobs save companies money and, along with the adoption of neoliberalist policies such as deregulation of industry, the risk of the market has been shifted from employers onto workers. Today, one-third of all workers and one-half of all young workers between the ages of 16 and 24 are irregularly employed. Such precariously employed workers are also called “precariat” (workers in precarious employment). 77% of the precariat are women.
You talk a good deal about the shift from regular to irregular employment, from the idea of “Japan, Inc.” to “liquefied Japan.” How has this shift changed Japan’s social fabric?
When long term employment was more the norm, the commitment male workers would make to the workplace dovetailed with long term marital ties: getting married and having children. A gendered division of labor—breadwinner male, caregiver female—went hand-in-hand with men working long term jobs at one workplace. This socioeconomic model is sometimes called “Japan, Inc.” for the complicity between the nation-state and business (and between Japan Inc. and the corporate-family system). As jobs have become more irregular, fewer and fewer Japanese are able to afford the kind of lifestyle associated with Japan, Inc.: long term jobs, marriage and kids, high-end consumerism. As jobs become “liquefied,” so does social life more generally. Irregular workers are only half as likely to get married as regular workers, and young people are far less likely to marry and have children than their parents.
How are furītā (perpetual temporary workers) treated by society as a whole? How do they fit into the overall social landscape?
Furītā is another name for precariat or irregular workers, though it generally is reserved for young people. When the word was first introduced (as part of an ad campaign by Recruit Company, a temporary work agency, in 1989), it had a positive spin: jobs that are “freer” in duty, responsibility, and durability than the long term jobs of the postwar generation. But after the Bubble burst in 1991 and irregular employment became more fact than choice for a lot of young workers, the term has taken on a different connotation. While furītā are not always blamed for the precarity of their jobs and lives, they still carry the social stigma of lacking permanent employment (and the status that regular employment brings with it). This is also gendered for while 77% of the precariat are women, men increasingly are at risk of never being able to secure permanent employment as well. Women will say they would never marry a furītā for the social marginality this would confer on them and irregular male workers are only half as likely to marry as regular workers.
How does the precarity/poverty of Japan differ from that of the US?
Both the U.S. and Japan share high rates of poverty (16.2% in Japan which rises to 20% for the elderly and for children) as well as low rates of national expenditures for social welfare. In both countries as well, the rate of socioeconomic disparity is rising rapidly. But there are many differences in precarity/poverty between the two countries. Jobs have always been much more diverse in the US and switching jobs, even multiple times, is not that unusual for Americans. But in Japan, the postwar norm was a lifelong job (for men) which makes the shift towards more flexible/irregular employment today feel like a radical transformation. The same is true of the family model. In Japan, only 2% of children are born out of wedlock so birth and (heterosexual) marriage are closely linked. Family is the foundational social unit in Japan; it has also been the de facto welfare unit. So, whether one is married or not, or has children or not, is extremely important to how one is identified and how/if one has a safety net. There are segments of the population for whom this is true in the U.S. as well, of course, but there is also much more diversity and heterogeneity in living/birthing arrangements here. Also, while volunteerism is rising in Japan (and much occurred in response to the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, 2011), there is more generally in the U.S., I would say. So, being without a family or job leaves one particularly susceptible to social precarity in Japan: a fact reflected in such phenomena as “lonely death” where the elderly, living alone, die alone.
How has the rise of precarity changed the role of politics and activism?
As the general public has become more aware—and concerned—about rising poverty, un(der)employment, and social disparity, the issue of precarity has been taken up by politicians and activists. In 2009, the DJP party ousted the long-standing LDP party on a campaign that actively addressed this issue. The LDP has now returned to office and is less aggressive in dealing with irregular employment, yet local governments across the country (such as in Niigata prefecture and Niigata city) expend considerable resources and energy to youth assistance/training/and job support. Activists have become very committed to working for the rights and benefit of the precariat. There are MayDay events organized around precarity and democracy, furītā unions, campaigns to activate for better working conditions and policies for dispatch workers, and a number of other initiatives/activities meant to raise consciousness and support for hikikomori (social withdraws), NEET (not-in-education, employment, or training), those susceptible to committing suicide (the suicide rate rose suddenly in 1998 to about 33,000/year—a rate that has stayed high ever since), the homeless, and the un(der)employed.
What has led to the existential loss of the “home” and how does that connect with the sense of hopelessness?
Family was once much more a matter of patrilineage with multigenerations living together. Since the end of the Second World War, the trend towards the nuclear family living on its own with a reduced number of children occurred quickly (particularly in the cities where urbanization was another immediate trend). The familial norm became a man who held a long term job and was the breadwinner, a woman who tended to children and was a housewife, and two children who were expected to work hard at school and grow up to reproduce the same type of family. Home meant a family home, inhabited by a nuclear family, with everyone working hard in their assigned social roles; the desire to own one's own home and fill it with the electronic appliances marking Japan's new rise of a consumer culture was called “my-homeism.” This type of family and home, connected to the corporate capitalism of postwar Japan (what I call in my book “the family corporate system”), has begun to unravel with the bursting of the Bubble in 1991 and the trend towards precaritization of work and life. Being unable to have a long term job, unable to own one's own home, unable to get married and have children—all of this gets associated with a loss, both real and figurative, of “home” in Japan today. This also provokes a sense of hopelessness.
What is the connection between loneliness and hopelessness?
When hope is defined by stability of job, stability of marriage and home, and stability of income to pay for a middle class consumer lifestyle, then those who lack all this can easily feel hopeless. Being stranded from marriage and a job also deprive one of what has been a primary source of status, identity, and connection with others. Without these social ties, people often get isolated. Currently one-third of all Japanese live alone. This can be by choice, but there is also a phenomenon in Japan of “lonely death” —when the bodies of people who lived, then died, alone are discovered days, sometimes weeks after death. In a study done by NHK (the national broadcasting system) on lonely death, they discovered that even families won’t claim the bodies sometimes of those they feel have been stranded from them for too long or have changed their name and can’t be part of the family register. Loneliness, in general, seems to be a big social problem because the ways of connecting to others are so limited (family, workplace, school). This is one of the issues I explore in the book—as well as social practices that are emerging that are generating new ways for people to connect with others. The word I kept hearing while doing fieldwork was ibasho—which means feeling at home—but the way I more often heard it expressed was from people who told me that “ibasho ga nai” (I don’t feel at home anywhere; or I don’t feel I have a home). But one does see efforts made to generate new ibasho all over the place; new drop-in centers where everyone/anyone can find an ibasho; places for hikikomori (social withdrawees) to get out of their parent’s homes where they live isolated in a room; stop-suicide events where those who feel hopeless about life itself can find others who feel the same thereby possibly finding a way to avoid committing suicide themselves.
What was the most powerful story you heard regarding precarity while you were doing your field work?
My book is filled with stories about precarity that I acquired in the course of doing fieldwork. All, to me, are moving. One of the most powerful is about a man, now in his late 30’s, who was bullied, isolated, and psychologically abused growing up. He was a wrist-cutter and hikikomori at one point. But, through reading books, he came to the understanding that he was only a “loser” by a certain definition of worthiness—high academic accomplishment, success on the job market, upwardly mobile. But he realized that he had value and worthiness of a different kind. Becoming a social worker, he started working with precariat, particularly hikikomori. This is what he does today; he has just edited the book of a middle-aged man who has lived homeless and unemployed for years in what is now called a new phenomenon of SNEP (solitary non-employed person) and, with his own NPO, he set up a shop/cafe/work center in Niigata-city that services elderly and hikikomori. He also produced a film where he employed three hikikomori to do all the work—this was his agenda, to get hikikomori to do something productive. His name is Takayuki Suzuki and his story is one of the most powerful I encountered.
Has the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima disaster of 2011 changed the nature of precarity in Japan?
Yes and no. The triple disaster produced new forms of precarity: nuclear contamination, death and destruction for those living in the area, evacuation and displacement for over 300,000 Japanese, incredible costs for clean-up and reconstruction. The national economy has also been affected, as has the livelihood of so many farmers and fishermen in Tohoku; and the issue of nuclear power also hovers over the country. Today only two of the original 54 nuclear reactors have been restarted. But Japan once relied on nuclear reactors for 30% of its power; whether or not it can remain an industrial power without rekindling the nuclear industry or whether or not it can find sufficient alternatives are pressing issues today. The public sentiment is overwhelmingly against the nuclear industry. There are also older forms of precarity that still exist. These have become more obvious in the wake of 3.11; the original fifty workers who went into the Daiichi nuclear plant and almost all those subsequently working to quell the effects of the meltdown are precariat. And precarity—as in being insecure in both employment and life—came to be seen as a category that stretched to include all Japanese in the immediate wake of 3.11 when everyone was susceptible to the after-shocks of the earthquake and the unknown dangers of nuclear contamination.
This may seem to some like a relentlessly bleak book. Are there signs of hope for the Japanese precariat going forward?
I don’t see, nor intended for the book to be seen as relentlessly bleak. That many people are facing precarity in their lives today is true—and as true of Japan as everywhere around the world as we can see from recent protests (for/by precariat) in Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, Spain. But that precarity—of multiple kinds—is an issue getting public recognition is hopeful. People are saying they are not satisfied with living a life that feels too insecure, too lonely, too deathlike, too demeaned. And they are coming up with new ways of being in the world beyond the old ways that aren’t really working that well anymore. I see this as very hopeful.