AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 744

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Session 744: Youth Labor and Changing Generations in Japan

Organizer: Gabriella Lukacs, University of Pittsburgh, USA

Chair: Andrea G. Arai, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Discussant: Thomas Looser, New York University, USA

Japan’s prolonged economic crisis and accompanying neoliberal reforms have transformed the country’s unique human resource management system leading to dramatic changes in labor conditions such as the wide-scale loss of job security. The recessionary 1990s witnessed diminishing pathways to regular employment along with the simultaneously growing demand for precarious work opportunities. This panel will examine how the deregulation of the economy—to which new technologies have been central—has affected the structure of the postwar labor regime and, more specifically, how young people secure their futures by redefining their relationship to work. The individual papers will offer case studies that analyze how the long recessionary context with its evacuation of former personal and national sensibilities of security has shaped the contours of youth labor and the experiences and expectations of youth in the realm of work. In particular, the papers look closely at the new practices of self-development and self-care, new forms of resistance and other affective responses associated with labor, the emergence of new networks of support, and changing expressions of solidarity and connectedness. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with analyses of public policy documents, popular cultural and new media forms, the papers seek to contribute to new considerations of what it means to be a subject of labor in this new condition and how the new exigencies of work reflect back on subjectivity and the nation.

The New Limits of Labor in Recessionary Japan
Andrea G. Arai, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

In the mid-1990s, the now late Jungian psychologist, Kawai Hayao, then director of the International Center for the Study of Japanese Culture (Nichibunken), was commissioned by the prime minister’s office to chair a committee on the future direction for the Japanese nation mired in recession. In this far-reaching report, entitled “Japan’s frontier is within Japan,” Kawai created a new formula for the future. Focusing on new “frontiers” of value extraction, much of the report zeros in on the production, utilization and new limits of youth labor. In this paper, I argue that this formula articulated by Kawai has made its way into the mainstream, influencing expectations, popular and professional, about the way youth labor is viewed and how middle-class youth in particular view themselves and their potential. The paper focuses on how this new articulation of labor has affected young people’s expectations and ultimately their sense of belonging and connection as national subjects. How youthful subjects are attempting to fashion themselves to be the “new adults of worth,” and what this might mean for new constructions of national and cultural identity, are the questions and contours that inform this paper. This paper is part of a larger project on the members of the first recessionary generation, how they are compelled to develop themselves, by themselves, beyond the former limits of the homogeneous workforce of the pre-bubble period and the new contexts, local, national and global of their lives.

The Affective Economy of Neoliberalism: Cell Phone Novels, Youth, and Labor in Japan
Gabriella Lukacs, University of Pittsburgh, USA

In 2008 the number of cell phone novels posted on the Maho no I-rando portal reached one million—a figure that has puzzled observers not only in Japan but also worldwide. In contrast to the ubiquitous technological fetishism that has markedly informed analyses of the cell phone novel phenomenon, I conceptualize the trend as a political response of youth to their incorporation into a neoliberal labor regime. By integrating interviews with novelists and editors with textual analysis, I suggest that we understand cell phone novelists as new labor subjectivities who illuminate how young people utilize new media technologies to earn a living in ways meaningful to them. More importantly, these writers showcase how ‘at risk’ populations embrace risk—in this case, by writing novels of highly controversial content and questionable literary value. Cell phone novelists draw on the repertory of affective capture: these novels revolve around emotional suffering and bodily pain that arise from unrequited love, bullying, rape, miscarriage, and fatal disease. I propose to analyze the production of cell phone novels as a form of care work claiming that these novelists care for their young readers whose disposition the protagonist of Kanehara Hitomi’s bestseller, Snakes and Earrings, sums up as follows, “I can’t feel anything. I can only feel totally alive while I’m experiencing pain.” Thus, the cell phone novel phenomenon reveals not only transformations in the conditions and meanings of work, but also new strategies of articulating resistance to the deregulation of the labor market.

Japan’s Hyper (Neo)liberalism
Mark Driscoll, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

Japan has gone from being the paradigmatic developmental state up until the early-1990s to the paradigmatic neoliberal state in Asia in only a decade. Attacks on workers and youth; one of the highest suicide rates in the world; and a radical breakdown of the post-war family-kinship structure has contributed to a pervasive sense of social and subjective alienation. In the 1950s and 60s Japan’s socius was configured as a dense web of interconnections, both vertical and horizontal. In stark contrast, since the bursting of the economic bubble, Japan’s fast-forwarded neoliberal polity is construed in intellectual discourse as one of no connections—the so-called muen shakai. This dramatic ideological rebooting from developmentalism to hyper neoliberalism has produced a shock in the Japanese body politic, one that has been registered most clearly by young women writers. My talk will focus on three women—the writer Kanehara Hitomi, the critic and activist Amamiya Karin, and the cellphone novelist Mika—and show how they are both ethnographically describing and, in a utopian register, pointing a way beyond hyper (neo)liberalism.

Days of Love and Labor
Michael Fisch, University of Chicago, USA

This paper approaches questions concerning youth and labor in contemporary Japan through a keitai-based video game entitled “Days of Love and Labor” (ai to rōdō no hibi). Targeting Japan’s male commuting population and marketed as a “unique life simulation game,” “Days of love and labor” lets players manage an alternate identity – in the figure of a bear – as they endeavor through labor to achieve financial and domestic security in life. With earned virtual wages or borrowed sums (at high interest rates) players can purchase various consumer or luxury goods as well as human relations in the game. The game’s ultimate object is to work toward successful retirement. Incorporating the vicissitudes of everyday urban life, “Days of Love and Labor” offers a playful and critical engagement with the postwar institutional pillars of corporate labor and education as well as neoliberal principles of consumer liberty, self-governance and fiscal responsibility. In exploring these aspects of “Days of Love and Labor,” my argument turns to interviews with the game creators and responses to it in online discussions. Ultimately, I ask how we can think about “Days of Love and Labor” in relation to contemporary conditions surrounding labor in Japan and what type of ideology or subjectivity, if any, it cultivates.