Contemporary Japan 22, No. 1/2

Mind the Gap: Stratification and Social Inequalities in Japan

Issue editors: Barbara Holthus & Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt

Entitled “Mind the Gap: Stratification and Social Inequalities in Japan”, the inaugural issue of Contemporary Japan (Vol. 22, No. 1/2) focuses on one of the most urging challenges Japan is facing today: growing social disparities and the emergence of a self-perception as a society of widening gaps (kakusa shakai) which has largely replaced the previous self-labeling as all-middle class society. The articles included in the inaugural issue of CJ address topics such as the contemporary Japanese social stratification system, the lay-off of temporary workers under the global recession, social cleavages in Japanese politics, discourses on disability and social stratification, buraku inequality, the representation of social inequalities in contemporary film, and the discourse on Miura Atsushi’s karyū shakai.

Free online access is available at:

Florian Coulmas
pp. 1-2

Barbara Holthus, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt
pp. 3-6

Yoshimichi Sato, Yoshimichi Sato
pp. 7-21
Stability and increasing fluidity in the contemporary Japanese social stratification system

toggle abstract

We argue that stability and increasing fluidity coexist in the contemporary Japanese social stratification system. It is often argued that the weakening of Japanese employment practices has made the labor market more flexible. While there is evidence to support this argument, it misses an important factor in the labor market, namely social stratification. We suggest that some parts of the labor market have become more fluid, while other parts have been stable. To test this prediction, we examine empirical findings made in the 2005 Social Stratification and Social Mobility Survey Project, covering such topics as education and inequality, increasing fluidity and disparity among young workers, job changes, and income inequality. Our findings on education and inequality show that stratification in the educational system affects the entry of graduates into regular or non-regular employment. Our analysis of young workers shows that while the longterm employment practice persists in large firms and the public sector and thus shows stability, mobility between regular and non-regular employment is difficult and that young female graduates from high schools and junior colleges recently find it difficult to enter the regular employment sector. Our analysis of the effect of education on job changes shows that the income of less educated workers who change jobs has decreased recently. We also find increasing income inequality between professionals and other occupations and examine the intergenerational transmission of income. We conclude that these findings generally support our prediction that stability and increasing fluidity coexist in the contemporary Japanese labor market. We consider the implications of this for the study of social stratification in Japan.
Keywords: social stratification; fluidity; stability.

Shinji Kojima, Shinji Kojima
pp. 23-45
When dismissal becomes a business transaction: Analysis of the processes and consequences of haken-giri under the global recession

toggle abstract

This article analyzes the particular circumstances of temporary dispatched workers (haken rōdōsha) and a feature of their job insecurity as one facet of the growing inequality in contemporary Japanese society, focusing on the relative ease with which these workers are dismissed both legally and in practice. By contrasting with other more familiar forms of insecure labor in Japan, the paper examines the triangular relationship involving the three parties that characterize dispatched labor: the user, the employer, and the employee. The Worker Dispatching Act, which was enacted and then deregulated, enabled Japanese corporations to use dispatched workers while securing the capacity to remove them from their workplaces as a business transaction and not within the bounds of an employer-employee relationship. Using the theoretical framework of risk, the paper analyzes the emergence and spread of the triangular labor relationship as risk being shifted from the corporate level to the individual dispatched workers. It examines the consequences of the shift of risk by introducing cases of dismissal from fieldwork conducted during the global recession over the winter of 2009.
Keywords: risk; inequality; temporary employment; non-standard work; flexibility; deregulation.

David Chiavacci, David Chiavacci
pp. 47-74
Divided society model and social cleavages in Japanese politics: No alignment by social class, but dealignment of rural-urban division

toggle abstract

In recent years, Japan has been marked by fundamental changes. From the late 1990s onward, a new model of Japan as a divided society has replaced the former model of Japan as a general middle class society with a very high degree of equality regarding chances and outcome. Moreover, the national elections of 2007 and 2009 resulted in a historical defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and in a new government led by the Democratic Party Japan (DPJ). Using the framework of social cleavage theory, this paper analyses the relationship between these two changes in a historical perspective. It raises the questions of whether and how the new divided society model is connected to the recent change of power. Has the ascendance of the divided society model and its establishment as the dominant model and common sense played a role in the crushing defeat of the LDP and the change in power in the two recent elections? The main argument is that postwar Japanese politics and over five decades of LDP dominance were marked by a social cleavage between urban and rural areas. While a social cleavage by social class never fully developed in Japanese politics, stable and strong support by rural voters was the main pillar on which the LDP’s long success story was based. The new model of Japan as a divided society has played an important role in the change in power in the two recent elections. Although this new divided society model has not led to an alignment by social class - as one may have expected - it has resulted in a dealignment in the rural-urban division. The demise of the LDP was primarily due to its recent electoral defeat in rural areas, where it had once been invincible.
Keywords: social cleavage theory; social inequality; social class; urbanrural division; general middle class model; divided society model; postwar Japanese politics.

Urs Matthias Zachmann, Urs Matthias Zachmann
pp. 75-98
Eine andere Form der Ungleichheit: Behinderung und soziale Stratifikation in Japans kakusa shakai-Diskussion

toggle abstract

Political discourse on the “society of widening social gaps” (kakusa shakai) in Japan largely focuses on the middle classes. On the one hand, the concept voices the fears of a majority of Japanese citizens of social downgrading and the eventual drop into the new sub-class of “working poor”. Neo-liberal politicians, on the other hand, defend social stratification as the natural and eventually desirable outcome of competition, which allows people to “challenge” their current social status and awards perseverance with upward mobility. Both positions, however, seem somewhat self-centered as they largely neglect those who are already at the fringes of Japanese society and, by the unfortunate circumstance of nature or accident, not able to enter the competition on the same terms as the majority. Disability in Japan, albeit less visible than in Western societies, is not a marginal issue even by numbers: 7.2 million people in Japan have some form of physical, mental or psychological disability (as of 2006). Considering that 87 percent of these live with their family, this multiplies the number of those affected by disability in their living circumstances to a sizable percentage of the total population. How then does this social group experience the kakusa shakai? Mindful of the social and demographic changes, the Japanese government since 1990 has initiated a flood of social reforms which, among others, also sought to improve the position of disabled persons by contributing to their equal participation in society. The Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act (Shōgaisha jiritsu shienhō ) of 2005 constitutes the sum of these endeavors so far, but has right from the start earned the criticism of disability organizations and service providers for being too neo-liberalist and heralding the retreat of the welfare state in disability policies. This article discusses the discourse on disability and social inequality focusing on the Disabilities Act, arguing that especially providers of disability services tend to stress the link between disability and social inequality, not only to represent the rights and interests of persons with disabilities, but also in order to fight for their own existence in an increasingly competitive welfare market. Thus, the debate on disability and social inequality is linked with the wider discourse on social inequality, economic competition, and the precariousness of local finances.
Keywords: disability; society of widening social gaps (kakusa shakai); Servicesand Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act (Shōgaisha jiritsushien-hō , 2005); normalization; neo-liberalism; welfare system

Christopher Bondy, Christopher Bondy
pp. 99-113
Understanding buraku inequality: Improvements and challenges

toggle abstract

Groups on the margins of society tend to find themselves in a tenuous position, often the first to bear the brunt of economic downturns and the last to reap the benefits of economic booms. This article explores inequalities faced by the burakumin, Japan’s largest minority group and long on the margins of society, as seen in education, occupation, and living situations. The paper pays particular attention to buraku social movement organizations, governmental actions, and local experiences, both in an historical and contemporary context. It examines how, at the macro-level, social movement organizations have challenged discrimination broadly, encouraging governmental action to reduce inequality facing the burakumin. While these macro-level approaches are important, it is also essential to consider this diversity of perspectives “on the ground.” Thus, based upon ethnographic study, the paper considers how two organizations in particular approach buraku issues at the local level in two different communities. The diversity of social movement perspectives is apparent within communities, but is easy to miss when viewed from the outside. Seeing these approaches at the community level, however, we still find inequality, in particular in the form of social and geographic isolation. Overall, this study shows how understanding the heterogeneity of the buraku experience and various challenges to their living situations enables an even deeper understanding of their lives as well as their approach to challenging inequality.
Keywords: burakumin; inequality; marginalization; social movements.

Roman Rosenbaum, Roman Rosenbaum
pp. 115-136
From the traditions of J-horror to the representation of kakusa shakai in Kurosawa’s film Tokyo Sonata

toggle abstract

This article investigates the popular cultural implications of the “gap-widening society” (kakusa shakai) as identified by Yamada Masahiro. A recent revival of sociological terms like freeter and NEET in popular cultural media reflects an increasing concern with the rapidly changing social landscape in contemporary Japanese society. Starting with the phenomenon of postwar economic growth, each subsequent generation of Japanese has allegorically and symbolically represented the dramatic social changes they experienced through popular cultural media like film and manga. This article also examines how Japan’s growing stratification is situated within the popular cultural media of recent films. Special consideration is given to the plight of Japan’s older working-class generations who are profoundly affected by the accelerating kakusa shakai trend of recent years. This concern is especially evident in the film Tokyo Sonata directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi in 2008, which depicts a family in crisis because of the traditional breadwinner losing his job. In comparison, Tanada Yuki’s Hyakuman-en to nigamushi onna [One million yen and the nigamushi woman], which was also published in 2008, depicts the contemporary social challenges of the much younger freeter generation upon graduating from university. The aim of this investigation is to gauge how the current discourse on Japan’s “gap-widening society” is encoded in recent literature and films.
Keywords: shomin-geki; realist film; working class; kakusa shakai; social disparity; Japanese film; Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Annette Schad-Seifert, Annette Schad-Seifert
pp. 137-152
Gender and class in Miura Atsushi’s karyū shakai [low-stream society]: Literature review

Susanne Klien
pp. 153-178
Collaboration between Local and Non-Local Actors in the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial

toggle abstract

This article deals with selected contemporary art projects that have involved the collaboration of heterogeneous actors in the framework of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, which started in 2000 in southern Niigata Prefecture. Originally initiated as a revitalization plan to tackle depopulation and obsolescence in this vast rural area, the triennal has been envisaged and implemented by the Tokyo-based commercial gallery Art Front Gallery (AFG) in cooperation with municipal and prefectural agencies. I will examine how the collaboration between local residents, non-local artist(s), and volunteers has evolved in three projects that were all carried out in mountain villages. The first project entitled “Ubusuna no Ie” was initiated by a Tokyo-based editor and his staff for the 2006 festival, involving the restoration of an abandoned house, which now serves as a space to exhibit pottery. As a result of the project, the village women have started a restaurant in the house, which has been an enormous success, attracting hundreds of visitors per day in August 2009. The second project implemented in 2006 involved the cooperation of a British artist group called Grizedale Arts with the locals in a secluded marginal village called Tōge in order to find ways to revitalize the village. The third ongoing artwork is concerned with promoting a brand of traditional Japanese paper (washi) by combining it with contemporary design and involves the cooperation between the vernacular washi production site and a Yokohama-based artist. Introducing a model to examine the development of kyōdō [literally: “working together”] by defining various stages of cooperation, the key issues I intend to explore are as follows: (1) What are the main factors that influence the implementation of the project, the intensity of cooperation, and its success? (2)What stages do we observe in the individual cases discussed here?
Keywords: collaboration; interaction; contemporary art; revitalization.

Susanne Klien, Ina Hein
pp. 179-204
Constructing difference in Japan: Literary counter-images of the Okinawa-boom

toggle abstract

This article’s approach is indebted to the method of discourse analysis from a cultural studies’ perspective. It attempts to position and analyze literary texts by four authors from Okinawa - Medoruma Shun (*1960), Matayoshi Eiki (*1949), Akahoshi Toshizō (*1974) and Tefu Tefu P. (*1976) - in the context of the Okinawa boom which has flooded Japanese popular culture and mass media since the 1990s. It will be shown that these writers clearly position themselves against the Okinawa boom. On the one hand, the texts selected for analysis in this paper construct Okinawa as a ‘different Japan’ - just like the images created by Japanese mass media and popular literature on the main islands. On the other hand, though, the authors subvert the mainstream discourse on ‘Okinawan difference’: Medoruma addresses inconvenient topics which otherwise remain excluded from popular images of Okinawa and, at the same time, highlights Okinawa’s inner diversity, thus destabilizing the idea of ‘one Okinawan identity’. Matayoshi stays ambivalent in creating Okinawa as a space which is culturally different from Japan: His text abounds with markers for Okinawanness, but at the same time his main character keeps an ironic distance to ‘Okinawan traditions’. Akahoshi and Tefu Tefu eventually pick up prevalent topoi from mainstream discourse and turn them into their opposites.
Keywords: Okinawa; difference; diversity; contemporary Japanese literature; Medoruma Shun; Matayoshi Eiki; Akahoshi Toshizō; Tefu Tefu P.

Elise Foxworth, Elise Foxworth
pp. 205-221
The personal is political in Kinuta o utsu onna [The cloth fuller]: A ‘little narrative’ by zainichi Korean writer Lee Hoe Sung

toggle abstract

In 1971 Japan-based second-generation Korean writer Lee Hoe Sung became the first ‘foreigner’ in Japan to win the esteemed Akutagawa Prize for Belles Lettres for his semi-autobiographical novel Kinuta o utsu onna [The cloth fuller]. It recounts the life and death of a young Korean woman, Chang Suri, during the 1940s, as remembered by her son. Whilst fascism, democracy, and Korean nationalism constitute the meta-narratives that informed the lives of Lee’s generation in (post)colonial Japan between the 1940s and 1960s, the writer underscores the importance of the little narrative for exploring identity and a sense of belonging. Eschewing hyper-political approaches that attempt to explain the whole movement of history and social life or nationhood as a ‘grand narrative’, Lee’s poignant rendition of the life and death of a young woman is rather a ‘little narrative’ of personal suffering and redemption. Lee’s story functions as a sinse t’aryong (i.e., a traditional Korean form of oral lamentation and narrative storytelling), which allows him to point to ‘Korean-ness’ as an anchor. This anchor secures the listener to a solid ‘home’ or cultural place of reference that can support them in their search for a sense of identity and belonging in the context of colonialist oppression and dislocation.
Keywords: zainichi Korean literature; Japanese literature; postcolonialism; little narrative; sinse t’aryong; lamentation; Lee Hoe Sung.