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Reworking JapanChanging Men at Work and Play under Neoliberalism$

Nana Okura Gagné

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9781501753039

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501753039.001.0001

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(p.242) Conclusion
Reworking Japan

Nana Okura Gagné

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the different meanings of the new middle class, which describe the historical and cultural configurations of postwar Japan and universalized notions of socioeconomic class used in social science. It reflects on the configurations, relations, and operationalizations of the slippage between discursive and ideological characteristics of “middleness” that have been elided under the term the new middle class in postwar Japan. It also offers new insights on the understanding of dominant ideology and dominant groups, including anthropological theorizations of power, ideology, and subjectivity in late capitalism. The chapter emphasizes on the issues of individual self-cultivation and concerns of families in practice in the midst of socioeconomic change. It explains how salarymen or any other social actors represent both the nexus and product of ongoing self-cultivation and socialization in the changing global economy.

Keywords:   new middle class, postwar Japan, middleness, late capitalism, socioeconomic change, salarymen, global economy

When Plath (1980, 3) was writing in the 1970s about “rhetorics of maturity” in the postindustrial era, when mass productivity and mass longevity were achieved, he argues that fundamentally “a person is a collective product” and that people continuously craft and revise “our cultural heritages, our consociates, and ourselves” (8, 9). For Plath, the “rhetorics of maturity” is “a rhetoric of long engagements among intimates” (226) that is marked by “a lifelong engagement between the dynamic of personal integrity on the one hand and the dynamic of social integration on the other” (51). In the forty years since Plath’s work, Japan’s economic and social structures have changed dramatically. Nonetheless, my research also reveals that salarymen, both working and retired, are not just “working” (doing labor) or “retired” (dissociated from social significance) in a simple sense; they are still composing and being composed by the dynamics of “personal integrity” and “social integration.” These dynamics are best understood through the concept of society (shakai), which implies both the broader interpersonal field in which an individual is embedded as well as the public nexus by which one is recognized as a social actor. Simply put, salarymen do not stop participating. Many men dream of working as long as they are active and able (gen’eki de iru kagiri). Working in this sense is not just about making money or performing productive work. To borrow my informants’ words, it is closely related to their sense of value as “an individual in society” (Rohlen 1974)—and specifically, their sense of social responsibility as employee, manager, husband, father, club member, and grandfather, a sense that persists and takes on new meaning as they grow older.

(p.243) What began as a study of (corporate) men and masculinity ended up as more of a reflection on the issues of individual self-cultivation and concerns of “families in practice” (Gutmann 1996) in the midst of socioeconomic change. This reflects how salarymen or any other social actors represent both the nexus and product of ongoing self-cultivation and socialization in the changing global economy. This is a combination of Plath’s dynamics of “personal integrity” and “social integration,” as well as what Lebra (1984) terms “triadization”—the ongoing socialization process through family, school, and company (and beyond)—which shapes the development of the self as a “social adult” (shakaijin) through interaction with others in society (shakai) writ large. For my salaryman informants, becoming a shakaijin meant maneuvering through multiple responsibilities as well as tumultuous economic ups and downs. Rather than clinging to the notion of the company man under economic nationalism or enterprising selves under the neoliberal economy, these salarymen tried to restructure their sense of self and maintain control of their lives and their family’s livelihood even in the midst of turmoil.

Through the eyes of these diverse men, this book has examined how the post-bubble economic recession and increasing penetration of global capitalism in Japan has affected Japanese institutions and individual Japanese men at work and leisure. Obviously, Japan’s long-term recession and increasing globalization under neoliberal reforms have shaken not only the macro level of national policies and economic/corporate restructurings but also the everyday lives of individuals and their families. As I have argued, the ideology of neoliberalism is not just a globally enforced market-centered ideology, but it has been actively promoted by Japanese corporations to reengineer older Japanese corporate practices. This ethnographic study has shown how Japanese corporations actively used the ideology of neoliberalism as an external pressure to reengineer Japanese corporations and how individual working men have wrestled with various effects of restructuring, as well as how they have continuously constructed their sense of integrity through social engagement.

Subjectivity in Post-Toyotist Japan

Muehlebach and Shoshan (2012, 322) argue that economies’ transition from Fordist industrial models to post-Fordist, postindustrial models of production and employment has had a powerful effect on worker consciousness. “Fordism,” they write, “was an affect factory, organizing women, men, and children into a new ‘econometrics of feelings.’” They suggest that “Fordism shaped the senses of generations, giving them a rhythm and leaving deep, visceral traces” that persist (p.244) today, producing what they call a “post-Fordist affect” of melancholy that suffuses the present with longing for the rhythms and retrospectively projected security of Fordist times (324).

A similar melancholy surfaced in the comments of my informants since the mid-2000s. Breaking with the previous structure of long-term mutual entailments, economic restructuring produced a new kind of alienation among employees by creating new hierarchies of value based on flexibility and profitability. During the bubble economy, some critics and workers themselves had become critical of the rigid employment system, including long-term employment and seniority. Yet my informants’ life stories reveal how their willingness to work hard was driven by their own rational understandings and dedication to family, company, and social needs. Rather than mindless corporate animals, they were mindful social adults who often saw their roles as employees and husbands/fathers as a meaningful and important mission. At the same time, under corporate restructuring, my informants’ responses revealed how previous safety nets were now shaken in the name of employee empowerment and global competitiveness only to reveal crude capitalist alienation. As they reflected on how they felt as workers in today’s companies, their comments evinced a reflexive reevaluation of the time when the Japanese economy became known for Toyotism, the combination of flexible production with company citizenship and state-guided economic nationalism.

Considering the effects of neoliberal reforms on the operation of Toyotism as a distinctive accumulation regime and (social) mode of regulation highlights the local realities of neoliberalization as variegated processes that are “simultaneously patterned, interconnected, locally specific, contested and unstable” (Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010a, 184). In other words, despite government, policy makers’, and business leaders’ efforts to promote a specific mode of control—“self-management” (Imai 2011)—this neoliberal narrative did not successfully gain hegemonic traction on the ground. Put in context with anthropological studies in other postindustrial societies, the Japanese case highlights both the similarities and the limitations of assessing the impact of neoliberalism.

On one level, the structural transformations resonate with what Molé (2012) finds in postreform Italy. There, neoliberal labor market flexibility has created an alienated workplace where temporary workers fight with permanent workers, resulting in the social and economic alienation of labor and the breakdown of Fordist solidarity. As Molé (2012, 28) notes, “Neoliberal reform was intended to dismantle a labor market defined by its safeguards or protections, part of a broader ethos of Fordist stability.” As in Japan, Italian workers benefitted from long-term employment as an institutional postwar legacy. Under the post-2003 reforms, the previous system of long-term employment increasingly became an object of envy (p.245) and permanent workers became a target of workplace harassment by temporary workers.

While confronting similar global economic pressures to increase labor efficiency, Japan and Italy have very different underlying economic systems. In contrast to the high structural unemployment that limited corporate solidarity in Italy (Molé 2010, 42), Japan enjoyed a relatively high and stable employment rate and strong companyist solidarity. Whereas in both cases nonregular workers have increasingly replaced regular workers, in Italy these dynamics have contributed to aggressive actions by temporary workers, who harass their permanent coworkers using mobbing as a strategic weapon against them. In contrast, as labor instability increased in Japan, the breakdown of workplace solidarity has been internalized in self-defensive, reactive measures: avoiding interstitial tasks, withdrawing cooperation, lowering performance goals, and developing a general attitude of risk aversion.

Moreover, the absence or presence of meaningful mediating discourse is another crucial factor in how individuals on the ground respond to neoliberal reforms. For example, Yan’s (2003) conceptualization of suzhi in China and Lane’s (2011) insight into the value of autonomy and independence in the United States reveal how distinctive subjectivities that incorporate “neoliberal values” may emerge. In China, Yan (2003, 495–96) argues, Maoist-era targets of critique, such as notions of feudalism and backwardness, are invoked “as a strategy that justifies the need for liberalization and enlightenment and thus calls on the market economy as the cure, never as a problem.” Here the local concept of suzhi mediates the effects of neoliberal reforms as an “intangible operator” to transform neoliberal labor regimes into a culturally valued subjectivity. This is embedded within a discourse of civility, self-discipline, and modernity that marks postsocialist, neoliberal governmentality in China.

In contrast, Lane’s (2011) study of unemployed male tech workers in Texas shows how employees and their families invoke the same philosophy of career management advocated by their employers to embrace a culturally valued subjectivity of being an autonomous “company of one” despite insecure employment. Neoliberal flexibility becomes transvalued through local masculine idioms of independence, mobility, and self-actualization. Thus, success and protection within the American neoliberal economy are tied to embracing neoliberal ideals by rationalizing job instability as part of their long-term career development as independent enterprising selves. While shifting culpability for their hardships away from both themselves and their employers to the abstract forces of the market, these men, in effect, work on the economic logic of neoliberalism by welding neoliberal ideologies of market logic and self-responsibility onto American idioms (p.246) of “marketing oneself as an independent, never-complaining company of one” (Lane 2011, 140).

In Japan, individuals have similarly been impelled to become flexible, autonomous workers willing to take risks and accept responsibility. Yet even as many employees take on competitive and resistant stances within unstable workplaces, they fight for job stability and become risk averse, to such an extent that management came to reconsider and amend reforms. The responses from both employers and employees reveal the absence of meaningful transvaluation; structural reforms in Japan did not successfully produce a new discourse that could legitimate the reforms among workers. No new forms of self-directed therapies or lifestyles have emerged that can mediate and legitimize individual well-being (Davies 2015); nor have idioms like suzhi or autonomous company-of-one independence emerged to transvaluate the labor and subjectivity of companyist ideology into a neoliberal form. Japan’s case shows that no locally meaningful discourses or cultural idioms have emerged for workers to draw from in order to mediate the reforms. Instead, the reform process revived preexisting discourses and idioms and simply reinforced desires for stability, which many employees had become skeptical of during previous decades.

The subjectivity that emerged among workers I spoke with was neither reflective of nor convergent with neoliberal values; rather, it was a reflexive and reactive subjectivity that eschewed neoliberal values. As a result, some workers became increasingly risk averse, and many continued to seek success within the system, even though the system itself has been eroded by globally accelerating waves of economic reforms. It is perhaps this absence of new mediating discourses or transvaluation that might make Japan seem to be suffering from a “precarity of existence” (Allison 2013).

Despite the premise of liberating individuals through open competition and objective evaluation, individual responses to reforms in Japan by both employees and managers can best be understood as silent resistance. Rather than sitting idle or simply becoming complicit with neoliberal values, employees have critically reflected on and passive-aggressively responded to government and business leaders’ hegemonic ideology and practice. This is reflected in Matsuda-san’s experience of recognizing the problems of neoliberal techniques in his company and how his management team thought through and revised the performance-based merit system by providing permutation tournaments. This sentiment was also echoed in Ōtsuka-san’s confession that despite the push for quantifiable metrics, he could not help taking into consideration gender, effort, and actual performance when evaluating his subordinates like the young woman Yamada-san—an appropriation of his own version of the performance-based merit system. These reflections reveal their critical acceptance of the irresolvable tensions and difficulties (p.247) of applying so-called neoliberal practices of merit evaluation with deeply rooted “humanistic” (ningenteki) practices of cultivating and evaluating other human beings.

Intriguingly, while sharing some similarities with other postindustrial societies in North America and Europe, the Japanese response to neoliberal reforms resonates more with postsocialist literature on the reevaluation and reappropriation of local logics and values, which found new meaning and expression under global capitalist reforms (e.g., Collier 2005; Rogers 2009), as well as with the risk-averse attitudes in Argentina found by Shever (2008, 702). In the latter case, neoliberal privatization provoked a fallback on kinship networks and resilient local discourses of family instead of embracing subjectivity as “autonomized individuals.” And yet it was precisely because workers felt that they could no longer expect privatized corporations to protect them from risks that they fell back on the family system. In Japan, even as companies suffered and pushed employees to take risks, workers nonetheless expected companies to protect them, which revealed the resilience of prewar/postwar subjectivities and postwar employment relations and social order. Regardless of neoliberal policy goals in particular states—be they rationalizing labor forces or privatizing state industries—individuals on the ground will likely maneuver these seemingly dominant ideologies in unexpected ways, producing new meanings of employment, risk, and security by tapping into and reworking existing cultural idioms in their societies.

Rethinking the Dominant Group

In considering the relationship between cultural idioms and dominant ideologies in Japan, I was frequently reminded of Tanaka-san’s dilemma when he was desperately waiting for his retirement in 2007. He explained, “Well, we talk about and value endurance [gaman] and say that gaman is good in Japan, but we do not know how much. How much gaman is good gaman?” In different circumstances in 2009, Fukuyama-san also confessed to me that sometimes he wished he were single, because “as long as I have a family, I have to keep working hard for them.” When Ōtsuka-san was about to request early retirement in the winter of 2009 to pursue his dream of a pork cutlet restaurant, his son cried, and his family begged him not to quit and to work until retirement. As a result, Ōtsuka-san had to suspend his dream and keep working. He told me, “My son cried and begged me not to quit, so for now, I cannot help but wait [shōganai].” Ōtsuka-san’s case was even more poignant as his life had always been subjected to his family’s actions and expectations. However much these three individuals’ careers were affected by shifting socioeconomic ideologies, family matters, and physical (p.248) health, ultimately they were the ones who chose their actions with thoughtful consideration, even though their personal lives and career choices seemed constrained as ever by the human connections of their families.

Perhaps these three individuals’ subjectivities may not ring true for the group of men outside the center, where such dominant ideologies work less influentially. Such men include those whose wives are the sole breadwinners for their family, men who reject the burden of being a breadwinner, or men with inherited wealth. The sociologists Abercrombie and Turner’s (1978, 160) insight that “the dominant ideology does not function to secure compliance from the dominated classes” is relevant here. As they argue, the dominant ideology works most persuasively on the dominant class rather than in the subordination of the dominated class. In this sense, as much as Shimizu-san still had not found his ideal place, he was successfully free from other ideological pressures of salarymanhood, including both having a sense of institutional inhibition from corporate organizations and family strictures and being free from a sense of responsibility vis-à-vis society and others.

Applying Abercrombie and Turner’s (1978) insight to those within the dominant class of Japanese salarymen, the importance of ideological compliance in the company and within the new middle class and the effects of these ideologies on the assumed dominant group have been largely dismissed in the literature on postwar Japanese society. Clearly both salarymen and the new middle class have been oversimplified as a dominant economic group and a dominant economic class ideology. When examined closely within the contexts of their individual life trajectories and within the historical trajectory of salarymen and the new middle class as a whole, the ethnographic realities of the individual men’s narratives in this book serve to destabilize essentialist notions of Salarymen as well as Japanese companies and reveal the dynamics within dominant ideologies operative in contemporary Japanese society.

New Alienation and New Flexibility

As the stories in this book have shown, the implementation of neoliberal policies in Japan produced a range of unexpected effects and reactions, both at the corporate level and for individual workers. Neoliberal policies, most prominently performance-based merit systems (seika-shugi), promise that employees will be rewarded with pay for performance, but in fact they have not only constrained employees but also undermined their motivation (yaruki) and “fighting spirit” (ganbarism) as a result. Thus, certain cultural idioms such as yaruki, ganbarism, and gaman—which could be constraining—were nonetheless key values in Japanese (p.249) society. However, these values that were also built into and encouraged by corporate institutions under the ideology of companyism are no longer necessarily valued in the corporation, as management (shareholders) and corporate assets (real estate, branches, investment) have become privileged over employees.

Yet, despite the popular and academic view of neoliberal ideology as creating globalizing neoliberal practices and subjectivity, the narratives of salarymen show that those who were subjected to some sort of corporate restructuring did not simply remain victims of these transformations; nor did they become proponents of the entrepreneurial self or opponents of neoliberal policies like seika-shugi. Of course, while there might be salarymen who appreciated the flexible market that enabled them to advance their careers and thus had little sense of conflict, the lives of salaryman I met were more complex and nuanced, either navigating the waves or weathering the storms of corporate reforms in all of their vicissitudes. In all cases, they critically observed and creatively responded to the large-scale restructuring of the Japanese economy, becoming neoliberal subjects while actively eschewing neoliberal subjectivity. Even those successful salarymen like Matsuda-san and Takagi-san saw the opportunity for reemployment as some combination of one’s long-term efforts and one’s “personal quality” (jinkaku) rather than a result of being an enterprising self or an expert bundle of skills who benefited from a new kind of neoliberal flexibility.

What is significant in the cases of Matsuda-san, Takagi-san, Fukuyama-san, Tanaka-san, and Ōtsuka-san presented in part III is that this restructuring came into each person’s life unexpectedly but in highly nuanced, context-dependent circumstances that cannot be reduced to a simple economic formula of cause and effect, even within the larger regime of economic restructuring. Even in the radical case of mergers and acquisitions at Tanaka-san’s company, which made him realize how “business is mathematics after all,” Tanaka-san suffered precisely because of his socially framed interpretation and personal sensitivity regarding his hiring, training and working together with those employees who became victim to capricious corporate reforms. These cases highlight the dynamics of the simultaneous convergence and collapsing of competing economic ideologies with other cultural idioms of sociality and humanness, which channel the ways in which neoliberal ideology intersects with personal life trajectories.

Rather than holding on to the previous notions of companyism within Japan’s postwar economic nationalism, these salarymen tried to restructure their sense of self by drawing from the cultural idioms they had learned through their own biographies and by bringing these values into their participation in other social institutions, personal career paths, hobbies and leisure, and dreams of the future. Indeed this itself is nothing new; in his study of work and leisure among salarymen, farmers, and merchants in the 1960s, Plath (1964, 70) showed how modern (p.250) work styles produced the new social framework of the workplace as “the system of social control,” on the one hand, and after hours as a time “during which we search for enjoyments that will help restore a sense of ‘completeness’ and well-being” (9), on the other hand—though in practice “this line grows dim” (39). By using after-work spaces or weekend spaces creatively, my informants gained a more expansive sense of being an individual man that goes beyond strict institutional contexts of work and home—the two major institutions that bind working men to their socioeconomic roles as an employee or husband.

At hostess clubs, men could shed their social roles and rejuvenate themselves through fantasy. Even as after-work entertainment became more difficult to justify in the corporate world, it became more meaningful as a humanistic space for building social relations among customers. On the other hand, while members of leisure clubs like Bayside Half may be constrained by the institutionalized—almost work-like—rules, expectations, and responsibilities or interpersonal tensions, many stayed on because they felt meaning in playing hard together and supporting each other. What was more important for members was that regardless of individual differences, they could “deepen [their] companionship and value teamwork by participating.” And within such spaces, some outsiders like Saitō-san could also pursue enjoyment, working hard, and self-cultivation just like other members of society. Whereas increasing differences in employment have economically stratified postbubble Japanese society and generated public debates about increasing class disparities in the new economy, the invigorating camaraderie of leisure pursuits has become a social leveler; merely running together makes all participants gold-medal winners.

Salarymanhood as Social Adulthood: Responsibility and Social Connection

Since I started working, everything has changed. I mean, being a “social adult” [shakaijin], I have to meet and deal with people whom I do not necessary like or care for. As a student, I could distinguish those whom I liked and disliked so clearly, and I could choose to deal with only those I liked. Now, being a professional, it is a real challenge for me as I need to work well with everybody and also to think and care for a variety of different people in society.

(Suzuki-san, a young female professional in customer relations)

This statement by Suzuki-san, a young female professional—a salarywoman—in the early 2010s encapsulates, perhaps ironically, the sense of maturity and responsibility (p.251) that characterizes the subjectivity of salarymen. As Suzuki-san alludes to with the concept of “social adult” (shakaijin), my informants’ stories reveal how rather than embodying a kind of hegemonic masculinity or enterprising self, their salarymanhood was more about enacting the notion of being a social adult—a generic adult status rather than a particular gender role and performance, but one that implies a heavy sense of responsibility as a member of society.

Given the power of Japan’s companyist ideology to structure the lifeways and perspectives of Japan’s postwar New Middle Class, many observers have viewed the relationship between company and individual purely through economic terms, and likewise the term shakaijin has been treated as synonymous with a hegemonic salaryman masculinity. For many salarymen, as well as the young female professional Suzuki-san, however, such a relationship is not just about an individual and a company nor about a particular kind of masculinity (hegemonic or otherwise). Suzuki-san’s comments reveal that she must strive to “not only work well with everybody” but also “think and care for a variety of different people in society.” Being a shakaijin, then, is about participating in some activity with wider social significance. Thus, as a concept, shakaijin has broader cosmological implications concerning an individual’s relationship with multiple other individuals.

The concept of shakaijin implies an independent social adult who should be socially mature enough to be self-reliant (jiritsu) or free to act yet also mature enough to be aware that one can never be perfectly or truly free in one’s actions or free from impositions (Gagné 2010a). This shows the cultural inflections of seemingly equivalent concepts of adulthood in different societies: a socially appropriate (generally understood and accepted) concept like shakaijin in Japanese social contexts is not necessarily equivalent to the concept of a socially independent or isolated individual in American social contexts. Rather, shakaijin may be more accurately understood as a mature social adult who is independent enough to recognize the importance and conditions of one’s social embeddedness and act accordingly. This independence highlights the nuances of social embeddedness rather than social independence, although practically both are seen as characteristics of social maturity in their respective Japanese and American contexts. Thus, being a shakaijin as well as a corporate employee in Japan means more than simply participating in corporate fields; it implies mediation with and a role to play in the larger forces of social order. Critically, here self and society are not antithetical, as “we do not become actualized as persons simply by playing a role or cathecting a drive; what we are doing must be recognized or validated by others” (Plath 1980, 13). Their connection with society and their sensitivity to sociality through family, school, and work relations are key elements in their self-development and sense of integrity.

Seen from such a cosmological relationship of an individual’s place in the broader society, such intense emotions, including their passion for work or feelings (p.252) of betrayal by their company, are possible among Japanese workers because their connection to the company is also a connection to society writ large. As the life histories in part III demonstrate, salarymen’s sense of connection to society (shakai to no setten) can be achieved most often through corporations but is not always limited to the corporate nexus. More precisely, their sense of connection to society is about working through or for self/others/society. In this respect, even though meaningful relationships between workers and companies have become increasingly diversified under neoliberal economic restructuring, the importance of individuals’ sense of connection to society has not been completely overturned.

During my fieldwork, no salarymen questioned the fundamental value of having a connection to society through their company. Instead, they problematized the lack of connection that was produced through neoliberal reforms, and they actively drew on their personal experiences to re-create their sense of connection through noncorporate spheres like hobbies and community activities. And even individuals like Shimizu-san (who did not believe in society) and his corporate clients were finding such commonalities in the space of dance events, while Saitō-san and other marathon club members were already finding their connection in the weekly training sessions.

The Ideology of Neoliberalism and the Discourse of Middleness/Mainstreaming

Under late capitalism, many sociologists have pointed to a proliferation of beliefs and ideologies and a “legitimation crisis”—the lack of a “decisive, clearly articulated and uniform set of beliefs which provides comprehensive coherence for the dominant class” (Abercrombie and Turner 1978, 163). At the same time, many anthropologists have increasingly substituted the word discourse for ideology, with some claiming that the era of late capitalism does not have ideology and only has discourse. Purvis and Hunt (1993, 474), in contrast, argue that both ideology and discourse are indeed “much the same aspect of social life—the idea that human individuals participate in forms of understanding, comprehension or consciousness of the relations and activity in which they are involved; a conception of the social that has a hermeneutic dimension, but which is not reducible to hermeneutics.” Instead of making claims for the decline of ideology and the ascendency of discourse, they suggest that both can coexist in the same society, and they call our attention to distinction, not denotation, as “concepts of the social are never fully referential” (474, 478).

In pursuit of analytical distinction, Purvis and Hunt (1993, 474–76) point out that ideology is distinguished by directionality, interest, and ideological effect from (p.253) one group to another. Discourse, in contrast, is the process that organizes (one’s) thinking, understanding, and experiencing of the internal features through specific linguistic or semiotic vehicles. When applied to the concepts of the socioeconomic category of the New Middle Class and the lived experiences of those who have the orientation of new middle class (chūryū) under the postwar ideology of companyism, the rapid economic growth in Japan since the postwar period has successfully blurred such distinctions among ideology, discourse, and material reality in Japanese society.

As shown in chapter 1, the great degree of overlap and the ambiguities surrounding the linguistic term middle was a puzzle for many scholars and social critics, leaving the differences between ideology and discourse unexamined. As a result, this sparked many debates about Japanese society among Japanese, non-Japanese, and scholars of Japan, raising a range of questions, such as “Is Japan really a middle-class nation?” and “Is Japan a homogenous country despite apparent differences?”

As many anthropological works on nonmainstream or marginalized groups in Japan have shown (e.g., Gill 2001; Hertog 2009; Nakamura 2006; Margolis 2002), the fine line between ideology and discourse problematically created more nuances within Japanese society. Their works reveal that single mothers, deaf individuals, and homeless people, who may not be socially or economically categorized as middle or mainstream—that is, they have different economic opportunities or are less ideologically charged by the demands of the New Middle Class—can still draw from or even embrace the broader “middle/mainstream consciousness” (chūryū ishiki). Thus, we see a tenuous relationship between ideology and discourse among these groups.

Moreover, when looking at the center (salarymen who seem to be located in the middle/mainstream), historical and sociological studies show how those who self-identified as the middle class were not strictly “middle class” in a socioeconomic sense. Now, however, recent structural changes under neoliberal economic reforms challenged the companyist ideology that had protected the new middle class. Nonetheless, even Fukuyama-san, who fell outside of this socioeconomic grouping due to layoffs and other economic challenges, could still draw from and identify with the cultural idioms of middle/mainstream (chūryū). This is precisely because this middle/mainstream consciousness is not the new middle class in either an ideological or economic sense (Kelly 2002). More precisely, the broader middle/mainstream consciousness acts as the discourse of middleness while the socioeconomic category of the New Middle Class can be an ideological term within the framework of postwar economic nationalism.

In other words, while the ideological import of the New Middle Class and the discourse of middleness/mainstreaming overlap to a certain degree, the ideological (p.254) weight of the New Middle Class draws from the discourse of middleness, which grew up alongside the ideology of companyism as a public consciousness of middleness/mainstream. Thus, the two are not synonymous, and the discourse of middleness/mainstreaming has been able to persist regardless of the lack or presence of the socioeconomically distinct new middle class and class differences at large.

What is critical in this term middle within the broader middle/mainstream consciousness is the significance of its conceptual implications in Japanese. Kelly (2002) points out that the folk term “mainstream” (chūryū) in Japanese implies “social inclusiveness” rather than categorical distinction between upper, middle, and lower as in the English gloss of “middle.” Moreover, Kelly critically notes that “mainstream is not really the stream in the middle, but the broadening stream.”1 This middleness of the broader middle/mainstream consciousness (chūryū ishiki) is not so much a vertical middle, which has a clear top and bottom (as in hierarchical conceptions of economic class), but rather a horizontal middle, which does not have clear boundaries and oppositional layers. Thus, the discourse of this middle/mainstream orientation serves to “‘declass’ and ‘massify’ the debates about social stratification” (Kelly 2002, 235) and thus possibly works against the ideological effects of neoliberalism and stratification in Japanese society.

In other words, this middleness/mainstreaming discourse can have massifying and declassing effects for individuals regardless of distinct socioeconomic differences. Consequently, if companies can no longer create any sense of unity among employees amid the breakdown of the ideology of companyism and corporate citizenship, individuals themselves nonetheless try to re-create new forms of community by participating in spaces or activities that have similar effects. For Ōta-san in MTC company from the prelude, to re-create a context where one can relate with others beyond corporate roles is equally important whether working under the ideologies of companyism or neoliberalism. But the need for such spaces has also taken on new meanings as corporate sociality has declined since the 1990s. As we saw in chapter 3 and chapter 4, after-work and leisure spaces are where members deconstruct and declass their differences, not by erasing or flattening these differences but by transcending them. Even within the tensions produced by the strength-training exercise in Bayside Half, members struggled because they recognized how the exercise was well intended for the safety of members even though some members found it too hard; at the same time, with the new individualized, diversified training options, members equally worried about possibly causing more members to sacrifice their own training for the sake of supervising others. Their struggle was a microcosm of the tensions between recognizing individual differences and finding common ground, which has characterized the ambivalence of postbubble new middle class society. Ultimately, members tried (p.255) to promote an inclusive environment that was the most fair for everybody to participate, precisely because members were keenly aware that “everybody is so different.” Indeed, men in leisure drinking spaces (chapter 3) and members of the marathon club (chapter 4) taught me again and again how “everybody is different,” not just in terms of age, gender, and running ability but also in terms of personality, personal taste, and personal desires.

As a number of recent studies have suggested, the force of the ideological effects of the New Middle Class might be becoming tenuous within an ever-changing globalized society and the clash with economic reforms driven by neoliberal ideology. Yet the discourse of the broader middle/mainstream consciousness (chūryū ishiki) still remained meaningful in many of my informants’ lives as of 2019; indeed, public polls reveal that individuals have identified themselves as “middle” at record-high levels, hovering between 92–93 percent since the early 2010s (see figure C.1). Thus, the broader middle/mainstream consciousness can be resilient not in spite of or because of a growing fear of the ever-increasing socioeconomic differences but precisely because the broader horizontal orientation of middle/mainstream consciousness is (and was always) not about economic ideology or class in a strict sense from its very inception, but rather it is rooted in the inclusive discourse of shared social values of humanness and mutual recognition of one’s embeddedness in society.


Figure C.1. Comparative Self-Assessment of Standard of Living. Q: “Which rank do you think is appropriate to classify the living condition of your household?” The four possible responses were High, Middle, Low, and Not Sure.

Source: Data Compiled by author from Cabinet Office (2019).

(p.256) Final Thoughts

Writing of the changes in the concept and experience of the individual under global capitalism, Bauman (2007, 68) notes:

Once competition replaces solidarity, individuals find themselves abandoned to their own—pitifully meagre and evidently inadequate—resources. The dilapidation and decomposition of collective bonds made them, without asking their consent, individuals de jure, though what they learn from their life pursuits is that virtually everything in the present-day state of affairs militates against their rise to the postulated model of individuals de facto.

Bauman’s words echo through the corporate hallways of postbubble Japan. Nearly three decades since the bursting of the bubble economy, yearnings for security and belonging have taken on a new urgency in Japan. In speaking with those on the front lines of restructuring who have watched security lifelines slowly fray—young employees, middle managers, and the recently laid off—what emerges strongest is not a precarious subjectivity per se. Rather, we can see the disarticulation between employment structures and individual stability and an ambivalent nostalgia for Toyotism, which emerges from this widening gap. Thus, while subjectivity itself has not become “liquidized” (cf. Bauman 2007), the corporate-centered social structures that had enabled shared social values for stability and individual aspirations for security are being eroded by a growing undercurrent of capricious liquid capital flows and attendant neoliberalist labor-market flexibility. And yet many have pursued competitive and resistant strategies at work in order to maintain job stability and did not easily give up on the increasingly tenuous model of Japan’s postwar new middle class lifestyle.

While the collective bonds of social responsibility may remain comparatively more resilient in Japan than in many other societies (cf. Bauman 2007, 68), the most visible decomposition of bonds in Japanese society is in the bond between the employer’s success and the employee’s welfare. After several generations of salarymen being socialized into postwar companyism, this form of subjectivity took on almost ontological security for young generations to strive for and older generations to rely on for their futures and the future of their families. However, as these bonds of welfare corporatism wear thin, individuals are admonished to become more flexible and autonomous. To borrow Bauman’s terms, individuals are forced to become “flexible employees” de jure, without the opportunities and resources necessary to become “flexible employees” de facto.

As the Japanese case shows, despite the universalizing rhetoric, the transformations wrought by neoliberal policies are always deeply shaped by the preexisting (p.257) contours of social institutions, cultural values, and local aspirations, highlighting how no ideology takes root in a vacuum. To prevent both theoretical generalizations and dangerous terminological slippage, it bears remembering that the identities and subjectivities of individual Japanese men were never reducible to an ideological category of hegemonic salaryman masculinity. Furthermore, while these Japanese employees were the most directly penetrated by the dominant ideology of companyism, this ideology never secured total compliance from them. Indeed, from other angles, due to the postwar gendered structure of work and family, even in the midst of their corporate challenges, it was their wives and families who often encouraged and expected such compliance from men in order to secure their new middle class livelihoods.

Recent economic restructuring under neoliberal reforms has starkly expressed the discrepancy between the postwar ideology of companyism and the new ideology of neoliberalism, as well as between the cultural icon of the Salaryman and the lived experienced of individual salarymen. By examining the experiences and interpretations of salarymen historically and across different spaces of work and leisure, this book challenges the conventional critique of how dominant ideology is unilaterally coercive and how it actually operates. In the process, it reveals how the clash of powerful ideologies like companyism and neoliberalism offer a space for reflection and reframing for individuals to fashion new meanings and subjectivities in their lives. As a result, even as the socioeconomic category of the New Middle Class and the ideology of companyism have been challenged by the clash with neoliberalism, the inclusive qualities lying behind these powerful concepts have persisted. Even as the Japanese economy and society continue to be restructured under the pressures of the shrinking and aging population and global neoliberal logics, the stories of my salarymen informants reveal how the resilient consciousness of Japan’s diverse yet inclusive middle/mainstream modernity still resonated with their sense of integrity and sociality as working men, family men, aging men, and complex individual men in twenty-first century Japan. (p.258)


(1.) Personal communication, 2010. (p.266)