Japan's politicos miss emotional deficit
By Scott North
OSAKA - As Japan's August 30 election approaches, the country is at last
starting to come to grips with the social consequences of the long deflationary
episode known as Japan's lost decade.
Although Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians trumpeted the period from
February 2002 to October 2007 as the longest sustained period of growth in
Japan's history, the reality was anemic expansion built on zero interest rates.
Workers' salaries fell during much of the "boom", and unemployment rose as
prices gently declined.
At the recent International Convention of Asia Scholars, colleagues and I
presented some recent research on the social
and economic transformations after the great bubble. For my part, I outlined
how the deflated material economy has emotional analogues: Japan's emotional
economy is also depressed.
Afterward, a young Japanese man asked, "I'm 27. I had a fiancee, but could not
marry because I was unable to find a full-time job. Lack of stable employment
is making it impossible for many like me to live decent lives. What should we
The young man's question is really the crux of the coming election. In a slip
that reveals the stubborn persistence of the ruling party's outmoded views,
Prime Minister Aso Taro this week answered the young man's question by saying
that young people without adequate funds should not marry. How's that for
American political scientist Leonard Schoppa has characterized Japan's options
as a stark choice between "exit or voice", meaning that Japanese can either
withdraw (leave and go elsewhere), or try to change the situation. Big firms
and women, who, he argues, should be noisily advocating change, are choosing
exit over voice.
What seems common to my young Japanese questioner, large firms, women and the
government itself, is a failure of the imagination. The dominant organs of
Japanese civil society perpetuate tradition to such an extent that "resistance
is futile". Schools, courts, religions, media, political parties, neighborhood
associations, even unions, support the ruling class status quo as representing
the interests of all classes.
This civil society is so extensive and dominating that it is next to impossible
to find room to elaborate alternative visions and the language to describe
The basic requirement for an alternative view is to articulate it by creating
language that simultaneously expresses both the alternative and the legitimacy
of dissent. Any nascent counter-hegemonic formation has to emerge from language
that sets forth its worldview and sets it apart.
But Japan seems still too dominated by a patriarchal vocabulary of motives.
Social and especially financial resources are concentrated in the hands of a
few (old) men. Executive salaries have reportedly risen while workers
experienced cuts in pay.
Then there is the household registry (koseki
) system, the legal embodiment
of the modern traditional family ideal. This legal sanction for patriarchal
dominance makes alternative ways of living deviant and risky.
This discourse of family - and its associated life course and gender role
patterns - dominates the media. The dominant ideology brooks no insolence,
frowns on discussion and is loath to tolerate questions. Yet to live up to its
dictates is increasingly difficult or impossible. The people want life plans
that are appropriate to the reality they face.
The coming election is seen as an epoch-making struggle for the soul of
Japanese politics. All the parties are claiming to know best how to protect and
provide for the lives and livelihood of the people.
The core issue is the shift in Japan's division of labor, the dramatic
expansion of part-timers, contract and dispatched workers that has increased
the financial and emotional instability of the labor force and families and
widened income and status gaps. Full-time, regular employees have retained
their privileged positions but face increasingly intense work and the threat of
falling into the non-regular class; the latter group, truth be told, often do
the same work as regulars, but for sharply reduced wages.
The incidence of depression has more than doubled in Japan in the past six
years as co-workers have become competitors for scarce good jobs.
This change in the division of labor is creating a new class structure and ways
of living that are at odds with normative family ideals. Japan's election is
largely an ideological combat about how to respond to this threat to the
foundations of post-war Japanese society. Should the current situation be seen
as an emergency? Or is it a long-term change requiring structural adjustment?
Is a return to "normalcy" possible? What is normal now? What role should
Three approaches are prominent. One is to support Japan's big exporters in the
hope of expanding their global reach and thus increasing the size of the pie
for all workers. But given the exit tendencies of business - offshoring - this
will do little to reduce unstable employment in Japan.
A second approach is to provide "basic income" and social security so that the
young can marry and raise families and so that poor elderly do not fall through
the cracks. A third approach is to boost public works, but what constitutes
public goods and how they should be delivered is the focus of intense debate.
Finding the money to pay for these promised services and supports is also
problematic. Parties talk of cutting bureaucratic waste to generate 20% savings
in the budget. But given Japan's huge public debt, unpopular tax increases are
also likely to be necessary.
Equally problematic is the question of how to distribute the largesse. Should
funds be targeted to households, especially those with children, as an
incentive to boost the birth rate? Or should support go to individuals, through
income supports and pension reforms? Should employment be emphasized, with
funds funneled to firms to encourage them to increase hiring? Or should
government administer programs directly rather than going through companies?
In the run-up to the election, all the parties are scrambling to appear to have
a handle on these issues, but the confused tone of the debate suggests the
politicians are even more out of touch than the bureaucrats.
For all their talk of being populist reformers, the Democratic Party of Japan's
(DPJ) stalwarts are unlikely to rise above the ideology that attaches to
Japanese men of a certain age. On the day that he was anointed the DPJ's leader
and candidate for prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio declared that his party would
carry out a general housecleaning. But given the inertia built up over more
than 55 years of LDP rule, DPJ ascendance is more likely to resemble turning
your underwear inside out.
Whatever the composition of the government after this election, the problems of
my Japanese questioner and his fellows will probably remain. How can voices
like his be heard? How can he make the politicians see that emotions are forces
of production, that when they stop expanding or are fettered by the relations
of production, a crisis will ensue?
The titans of industry, finance and politics who focus solely on profit and
efficiency and neglect the importance of emotions in production are ignoring
the advice of Adam Smith, who knew that the true source of value is as much the
sympathy and approbation of our fellows as it is labor. The invisible hand of
the market is guided by ethical concerns. A party that could articulate that
sentiment would give voice to the interests of Japan's women and the devalued
and underemployed men whose numbers are proliferating.
Scott North is Professor of Sociology, Graduate School of Human Sciences,