I came across a book Globalization and Social Change in Contemporary Japan in the library, from which I became interested in the changing lives of Japanese over the last century. Out of curiosity, I found two more books Class Structure in Contemporary Japan and Japan’s Lost Decade and began reading. 5 months’ stay during my undergraduate study in Japan gave me a real experience in the lives of Japanese. It is not hard to observe that since the 1950s to now, the lives of Japanese have experienced great changes to a large scale, especially after the 1990s. In general, people’s lives are becoming more sophisticated and diversified, accompanied by a prevailing sense of “uncertainty”. So here I want to give my ideas about the changing lives of Japanese over this time span until “the lost decade” in the 1990s, as a conclusion to what I read recently and also a memory of my wonderful experience in Japan.

Stratification and class structures

When I was dinning with a Japanese family in their house during my stay in Japan, the host Mr. Kakemizu told me that he was a company worker and his wife was a teacher. He just retired one year ago and lived with his wife since their sons have got married and moved out. They now live in a two-story house, like many Japanese families do that I have seen. Without a doubt, Mr. Kakemizu said he belongs to the “middle class” in Japan. During his working years, he led a busy life devoting most of his time to his company and meanwhile received a good salary. After retirement, his earnings are far enough to support a pleasant life with his wife. He began to enjoy his leisure time, driving out taking photos, drawing cartoons, dancing the waltz and so on, among which singing Karaoke becomes his favorite. From him, I formed my first impression of Japanese middle class.

As early as the 1950s, a heated debate of “Mass Society Controversy” brought the idea of “new middle stratum” into people’s eyes. Scholars in favor argued that in contemporary mass society, “the new middle stratum, with the core of management and supervisory workers and distribution system workers” was becoming an overwhelming majority in society.[1] Though criticized by other scholars at that time and especially in the 1970s when Japan’s economy grew rapidly and living standards rose with reduced income disparities, the “new middle stratum” theory developed with the “re-emergence” of “class” distinctions after the mid-1980s, despite disputes over questions like what sort of people constitute this class, how are different classes distinguishable.

As circumstantial evidence, stratification can be seen partly from the evolution of Japan’s political parties. In the 1950s, the majority of the population in Japan was the so-called old middle class. The labor unions had enormous power and the two major political parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which was based on the capitalist and old middle classes, and the Socialist Party of Japan (JSP) which was based on the working class, were “class parties”. In 1960, as the study of ‘new middle class’ emerged and attracted increasing social support, Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which broke away from the JSP, was newly established and based itself on this ‘new’ class. Several decades after the 1955 system, the DSP was dissolved to join the New Frontier Party, which later dissolved and all of its tiny parties merged into the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Meanwhile, the JSP was transformed into the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and lost the more moderate members to the DPJ. Currently, there are around 10 parties that hold their seats in the Diet and dozens of minor parties not represented in the Diet. This reveals, to a large extent, the diversification of social stratum that different parties stand for.

Anyway, we can hardly lose sight of the existing various groups of people within which they have a similar working and living style pertaining to occupation, education, family, social life, income, assets, social consciousness, etc. According to Japanese sociologist Kenji Hashimoto’s four-class model, the current Japan’s population is divided into four classes: capitalist class, new middle class, working class and old middle class. He claims that the “working class” is by far the largest of the classes, constituting almost half of the total working population and “new middle class” comes the second largest, accounting for almost 1/4 of the total working population. It is interesting that he categorizes clerical workers in different classes in accordance with their gender, which determines the potential for access to promotion and power in the workplace. A universal model, such as that of the Social Stratification and Mobility (SSM) researchers, generalizes all these workers into the “middle stratum”.

I am not going to discuss what kind of model should be most proper one or what sort of people exactly constitute each class. There is one thing that interests me most: the statistical results indicated by the 1995 SSM survey showed that the overwhelming majority of the population ranked themselves in the middle class and working class, no matter which class they “should” belong to in the eyes of scholars. Most surprisingly, of those “ought-to-be-capitalists” defined by Kenji Hashimoto, 55.5% also identified themselves as middle class and 38.7% as working class, while only 5.8% claim that they belong to the capitalist class.

The most valid explanation to me for those results goes to what Yasusuke Murakami, a professor at Tokyo University, stated as early as 1977. He pointed out that the fact that many Japanese consider themselves to be “middle” is ultimately an issue of “status identification” rather than their objective social/economic position. In my opinion, his is largely due to the comparatively narrow income gaps and homogeneity of living conditions and styles among the majority of Japanese people. When one alone has a high income, he thinks himself to be the wealthy; however, when placed in an environment where everyone around him is similarly well-paid, he will then pull himself down in line with the middle class, more often than not with less satisfaction. Thus, the above results also show that a relatively small proportion of people from each class are satisfied with their current life. Particularly, only 15.8% of the “new middle class” feel satisfied, the lowest rate compared to those of the three other classes.

One message from Yasusuke Murakami ‘s “status identification” is that when taking various criterions into consideration for studies of class and social stratification, we should attach more importance to people’s social consciousness including status identification, life satisfaction, value orientations and so no. The class is not merely defined in the economic region in contemporary society, but with links to many other aspects of life.

Changing familialistic Regime and life course of women

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, what is currently considered to be the Japanese life course became established. As a result of the high and steady economic growth since the 1970s, its uniqueness was created, which was described as a typical Family-oriented (or familialistic) regime. Under this familialistic regime, there is a distinct sexual division of labor within family, men are considered to be the breadwinner and enjoy a stable employment from school graduation until retirement, while women are employed until marriage and reenter the workplace when freed from the burdens of childcare. This regime bears some similarities with the “strong male-breadwinner family” model suggested by Jane Lewis in 1992 targeted at European countries. This model supposes that women’s income are secondary to men’s and draws a firm dividing line between public and private responsibility, typified by Ireland and Britain. Despite differences between the two kinds of regimes – the “strong male-breadwinner family” mainly focuses on the inequality between man and female while model Japanese familialistic regime is mainly about roles of both genders in the context of “family” and their relevance to familism – both systems provide a more stable life course especially for women, compared with that of nowadays.

However, for the second baby boomers who were born in the 1970s, things began to change when they entered their 20s after the late 1990s. Here I will focus more on the changing life course of women. Firstly, good news for them is the expansion of female employment opportunities. One of the main explanations given by business and political elites is the increasingly fierce competition to which Japanese goods and services have become subject in a globalized economy. Another important reason lies in the emergence of the service economy and expanding educational opportunities for women, which leads to women’s increasing willingness to continue to work. On the other hand, however, the incompatibility of careers and family becomes a problem that working females have to face. The choice of young women is restricted to either staying at home as a housewife to raise the children and care for elderly relatives, or delaying the family formation.

For family-centered women, the main life course priority centers on marriage and motherhood and if they work it will mainly be out of necessity. They often represent a large proportion of older women, but are disappearing. At the other extreme, there are career-centered women who invest heavily in their human capital and who have children only if they do not interfere with careers. For those, both groups of female which remain a minority representing, the problem of work-family balance will generally hold little relevance.

The vast majority of contemporary Japanese women opt for the dual-role model, unwilling to sacrifice both employment and family. This kind of group is most responsive to the incompatibility between work and life. As a result, many women postpone their marriage and having children as long as they cannot find affordable day care or remain stuck in seemingly endless jot queues, which leads to the acceleration of delayed marriage and declining birth-rate from the 1970s. For those who do not want to lose their career life, they are likely to choose a part-time job and other non-regular works instead of full-time employment, which results in the significant change from the highly standardized pattern to the diversified paths of women’s work-life course. This transition is clearly shown in the changing figure of Women’s Life Course and Women’s Employment Status and Firm Shifts from the 1040s birth cohort to the 1970s birth cohort.

What is worth mentioning, a part-time job is often presented as a way for women to “harmonize” family life and work, providing care for children and Japan’s rapidly swelling elderly population. But this is far from being the case for all part-timers. Sakai (1999) reported that part-timers are often not allowed to take childcare leave. According to a survey of 2319 working women (excluding dispatched workers), 34.5% of non-regular workers in private companies and 56.4% in the public sector said they were doing non-regular work “involuntarily” (Part-Time Work Research Group to Consider Women’s Working life 1999). In many other cases, part-timers have trouble “harmonizing” family care and work, “because they are actually working full-time hours”. [2]Furthermore, the wage difference between female regular and part-time workers has increased. A female part-time worker was earning only 68% of a female full-timer’s wage in 1997 (Sakai 1999) before bonuses and pensions were taken into account. As well as part-timers, there has been an increase in other types of non-regular employment, such as agency and contract work.

To eliminate barriers to continuing work for women and raise the bottom of the M-shaped profile, laws, and social policies have been adopted. For example, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced the Angel Prelude Plan in 1994 that its goal was to encourage women to “raise healthy children as well as supporting efforts to make childrearing and employment compatible” (Gottfried and Hayashi-Kato 1998:39). In 1985 the Equal Employment Opportunities Law (EEOL) was passed and later revised in 1999. However, as the EEOL only refers to jobs where men and women do the same tasks, non-regular jobs in which no men are employed do not fall within its scope. Social policies and laws so far still have a long way to go to be fully implemented and reach their ultimate goals. Therefore, the M-shaped pattern of women’s life course based on OECD Labor Force Statistics, though alleviated gradually from 1970 from 2000, still has its rock-bottom employment for women in their 30s.

Conclusion: ‘uncertainty’ left by the lost decade

From the 1990s, with the collapse of the economic bubble and the following long-term economic recession, Japan was caught in a so-called “lost decade”. The whole system of politics, economy and education, which sustained the development of the postwar Japanese society, has been questioned. We cannot tell exactly when Japan stepped out of the “lost decade”, but thanks to vigorous exports and corporate investment, the Japanese economy has sustained sound growth for the recent years.

We may say the lost decade is now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, it has left scars not only on the economy, but also on Japanese society. To continue the topic mentioned in second part, as a result of the restructuring of the Japanese firms during the decade, the share of part-time workers as against full-time workers has doubled to 1/3 by 2005. The once celebrated “lifetime employment” of the Japanese firm appears to have disappeared. Now, inequality symbolized by a rising number of part-time workers is the top political issue in Japan.

Beyond all the legacies left to Japanese by the lost decade is the sense of “uncertainty”. In my opinion, for example, women’s delayed marriage and fertility drop due to the incompatibility of work and family is, in essence, a reaction to a far greater uncertainty about the future. As of the economic field, Hiroshi Yoshikawa advances a proposition that Japan was caught in an “uncertain trap”. He states that uncertainty did not trigger the long stagnation but “it seriously hindered the economy from normal recovery”.[3]

In short, the changing Japanese lives, in addition to stratification and changes in women’s life course, also includes expansion of higher education, school reforms and unstable occupational careers of younger adults, aging population, fragmented intimate and public spheres, and etc. More often, we tend to depress ourselves by listing the negative aspects of contemporary Japanese society, without coming up with a possible solution to shake off the predicament. In my perspective, what we see as big challenges today are to a large extent growing pains in the development and transformation to a more an advanced society, which in turn offer prospects for Japan’s future.

[1] Kenji Hashimoto, Class Structure in Contemporary Japan, Trans Pacific Press
[2] J.S Eades, Tom Gill, Harumi Befu, Globalization and Social Change in Contemporary Japan, Trans Pacific Press
[3] Hiroshi Yoshikawa, Japan’s Lost Decade, I-House Press