AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 456

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Session 456: Imaging the Lost Generation: Representations of Japan’s “Unequal Society” (kakusa shakai) in Popular Culture

Organizer: Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Nagoya University, Japan

Chair: Hilaria M. Goessmann, University of Trier, Germany

Discussant: Hilaria M. Goessmann, University of Trier, Germany

Our interdisciplinary panel explores popular culture representations of the recent discourse on Japan as a “society of widening gaps” (kakusa shakai), a notion that has all but replaced the older view of Japan as socially homogeneous. Popular cultural media reverberate this dramatic shift in self-perception and, at the same time, shape the understanding of Japanese society as increasingly unequal. From a growing corpus of literary works labeled ‘precarious’ or ‘new proletarian’ literature to recent films, TV dramas and manga dealing with changes in the workplace, the discussion has gained momentum through the resurfacing of old proletarian literary texts as exemplified in the 2008 Kanikosen boom. Yet, as we will discuss, this revival is accompanied by a larger social shift wherein proletarian ideals are recontextualised to suit contemporary cultural representation. Our panel begins with Suzuki Sadami tracing the historical development of the current inequality discourse, thereby setting the frame for the following textual analyses. Focusing on popular manga such as Egawa Tatsuya’s Golden Boy and Takimoto Tatsuhiko’s Welcome to N.H.K., Roman Rosenbaum seeks to explore the relationship between Japan’s so-called “lost decade” (ushinawareta junen) and the current emphasis on social stratification. Through a close reading of Kirino Natsuo’s Metabola focusing on the topic of exploitation, Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt points to particularities of the new proletarian literature as opposed to the proletarian works of the early 20th century. Alisa Freedman investigates TV dramas promoting “hinkaku” (dignity) for female workers, during when corporations are hiring more temporary staff (haken) and fewer lifetime employees.

Towards a Graphic Catharsis: Popular Cultural Tropes of “Kakusa Shakai”
Roman Rosenbaum, University of Sydney, Australia

There has been considerable debate surrounding the adverse affects of increasing social stratification or the so-called kakusa shakai phenomenon in Japanese popular cultural discourse. This paper investigates the literary trend of kakusa shakai exemplified on the one hand by Okazaki Yoshihisa’s success with New Proletarian Literature and likewise the accompanying increase in the graphic portrayal of Japan’s disenfranchised younger generation such as Freeter and NEET in popular manga. To what extend can the rhetoric surrounding the kakusa shakai phenomenon in contemporary Japanese society be theorized through the graphic novel media in Japan. The presentation focuses particularly on the well established realism of the “gekiga” manga genre exemplified through Shirato Sanpei’s Kamui Den and also more recent examples like Egawa Tatsuya’s Golden Boy and Takimoto Tatsuhiko’s Welcome to N.H.K. Takimoto’s N.H.K. stands for Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai and like Japan’s public broadcasting corporation creates a popular cultural discourse, which for the first time lends a voice to the so-called “new silent generation.” The themes of nihilism, angst and alienation explored in this manga through the protagonists in contemporary Japanese society has been compared to Holden Caulfield and creates an intertextuality that crosses generational boundaries. What is the relationship between Japan’s Lost Decade (ushinawareta junen) and the current emphasis on social stratification? Does this investigation of popular cultural representation allow us to postulate the future in terms of "datsu-kakusa shakai"?

Caught in a Loop of Exploitation – Kirino Natsuo’s Metabola
Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt, Nagoya University, Japan

Kirino’s 2005 novel, a representative work of the “new proletarian literature”, starts out in a nightly jungle, an unruly space which could hardly be more antithetical to the clean room of the industrial manufacturing plant the narrator has just escaped. He has not only lost his spatial orientation but also his memory and therefore struggles to (re)construct an identity, randomly appropriating objects, names and a personal history. The protagonist’s hunger for authenticity and coherence – and the eventual denial of both – take on a larger meaning as the story progresses and the reader learns of his past as a temporary worker. Cheated into unfavorable working conditions, he at the same time finds himself profiting from the subordination of others. I argue that this absence of clear-cut boundaries between exploiters and exploited can be regarded as Metabola’s main theme. In the proposed talk I show that through setting part of the plot in Okinawa (thereby alluding to its quasi colonial past and neo-colonial present) and through pairing the protagonist from the mainland with a young man from a remote island, the topic of exploitation is abstracted from the actual workplace. Kirino’s analysis of power structures in the globalized world is as sharp as demoralizing: Power appears as obscure and diffused, impossible to locate and thus impossible to resist. The individual is left paralyzed with no way out, unable to resort to political ideologies as proposed in the 20th century proletarian literature. Hope for salvation thus becomes a scarce commodity in the stratified consumer society of kakusa Japan.

A History of Equality and Disparity in Japan: The Development Towards “Kakusa Shakai”
Sadami Suzuki, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan

This paper provides a historical overview of the inherent disparity in the Japanese class system, social statuses and the related concept of equality. Byodo (equality) is originally a Buddhist concept based on the notion that anybody, irrespective of social status is able to obtain jobutsu (enter Nirvana and become a Buddha). The popular folk philosophy of the Edo period, advocated equality for any social status through the practice of virtue. For that purpose, the enlightenment thinkers of the Meiji period did not differentiate between freedom and equality. After the Russo-Japanese War, the populace responded to the rapid industrialization of Japan’s business structures with anti-capitalist trade unionism, which propagated the notion of equality in social positions. By the 1920s, in the light of low price commodities, every social position had become equal. Following postwar democracy after the Second World War, Japan had reduced the social stratification to such a degree that it resembled a socialist state. This mass socialisation spread even further during the Japanese post-war economic miracle and the increasing leveling of personal income give birth to the consciousness of ichioku chusan kaikyu (the middle class of one hundred million). The social security system in Japan has been strongly supported by movement of the Socialist Party and based on the waning fortunes of the party it crumbled easily. Today, with the prominence of the new classical school of economics and the spread of part-time employment, a variety of gaps have appeared in the social stratification of Japanese society.

Super Temp to the Rescue: Television Dramas and Workers’ Dignity During Corporate Restructuring
Alisa Freedman, University of Oregon, USA

Because of legal reforms permitting Japanese corporations to hire more temporary and fewer permanent employees, the number of “haken,” or “dispatch workers,” dramatically increased. Haken, hired under limited contacts, are often stigmatized as not desiring or trained for fulltime jobs. More women have been able to enter corporations as haken, while men have been forced into employment tracks once reserved for women. Recent bestsellers promote “dignity,” or “hinkaku,” self-fulfillment from taking pride in and being appreciated for doing one’s best. These books recast the ethic that hard work will be rewarded that propelled Japan’s postwar growth and emotionally supported the salaryman system. I explore how increases in haken and discourses about hinkaku are related and speak to changing gender roles. I focus on the 2007 television drama Dignity of the Temp (Haken no hinkaku), adapted from manga in response to a 2006 government report that Japan’s proportion of temporary to fulltime employees had doubled in eight years. In each episode, the female protagonist, a superhero haken with remarkable skills ranging from operating cranes to speaking Russian, saves the corporation from crisis. To avoid the pain of being downsized, she refuses permanent employment and does not socialize with coworkers. The fictional series presents real problems, but, instead of offering solutions, advocates proudly coping with the status quo. It teaches that work gives life meaning; employees must unite to ensure corporate Japan’s survival. I analyze the series alongside Bando Mariko’s Dignity of Women (Josei no hinkaku), the 2007 top-selling book.