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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Globalization does its work on Japan

Special to The Japan Times
GLOBALIZATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN CONTEMPORARY JAPAN, edited by J.S. Eades, Tom Gill and Harumi Befu. Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne, 2000. 295 pp., 3,250 yen (paper).

The word "globalization" is used with increasing frequency these days. It is variously employed to describe the increasing degrees of communication and travel across national boundaries. Importantly, it is not just economies that are feeling its effects -- globalization impacts upon the politics, culture and family life of all countries within its reach.

But it would also be true to say that, despite our increased use of the term, globalization itself is not a recent phenomenon. What is recent, or has at least sped up and emphasized the process and impact of globalization, is information technology and the Internet.

It is in this respect that more and more ordinary people are becoming aware of the world around them and are starting to make use of the access they have to the economies, politics and culture of the world in which they live.

As one of the editors of this volume notes, advanced industrial countries are moving from economies based on manufacturing and industry to economies based on the production, manipulation and dissemination of information. This is widening the gaps between rich and poor, impacting on the structure of labor markets, and having a knock-on effect on family and social organization.

Japan and the Japanese people have not escaped the effects of globalization. In fact, precisely because of its history as a "closed" nation during the Tokugawa Period (1600-1867), Japan provides a particularly interesting case study for the way in which a nation has, upon opening itself to the outside world, adapted to the demands and expectations of that world and developed its own place in the global community.

"Globalization and Social Change in Contemporary Japan" is a timely and valuable contribution to research on this subject. Each of the essays in the book explores the impact of globalization on different aspects of Japanese political, work, cultural and family life, and each addresses in some way the relationship between the globalizing Japanese economy and the subjective experiences of contemporary Japanese.

The articles in the book cover a diverse range of topics, from the history of Japanese emigration, the diversification of employment, women's work and educational reform to the impact of globalization on the production of Buddhist altars in rural Japan. The very diversity of the topics speaks to the far-reaching impact of globalization in contemporary Japan.

The first article puts the phenomenon of globalization in a historical context. Harumi Befu explores the process of globalization in Japan in the form of human dispersal.

Although human dispersal has been an ongoing process in history, it has accelerated in recent years due to the accessibility of cheaper, faster and more convenient forms of transportation. In Japan, globalization in the form of human dispersal began in the 15th and 16th centuries but underwent an extensive break during the Tokugawa Period.

Befu identifies three quite distinct periods of globalization: pre-Tokugawa; mid-19th century through 1945; and the period following the Pacific War.

The latter period has been marked by several different types of dispersal. Among them Befu identifies "war brides," emigrants to South and North America, international marriages, multinational business expatriates and their families, service providers for expatriate communities, and those who have abandoned Japan because of discontent, failure or boredom.

Befu argues that there is an increasing dispersal of Japanese people and that this will have a profound impact not only on the character of Nikkei communities abroad but also on the social, political and cultural life of Japan.

One group of Japanese abroad is touched upon in more detail by Mitchell Sedgwick. Sedgwick explores the meanings and implications of globalizing processes in Japanese multinational corporations.

He focuses on the ideas, experiences and conflicts surrounding the globalization of Japanese managers in Japanese subsidiaries abroad. He examines the experiences of Japanese managers at both a corporate or public level and a family or private level -- how they adapt to the work and life styles of foreign countries and how their experiences affect their work and life when they return to Japan.

Sedgwick's main concern is the far-reaching effects of globalization: the idea that human movement, even if it is solely motivated by work, will affect not only the structure of the workplace, but also the social and family structures of those involved.

There are many social groups for whom globalization has brought positive changes. For women in Japan, globalization has forced changes in employment legislation, although it would be fair to say that social change may not have kept up with the pace of legal reform.

Beverley Bishop examines the changing nature of female employment and the increasing trend toward continuing work after marriage or childbirth. "Women in the traditional Japanese employment system had a very limited role," she writes. "They were usually confined to routine jobs with little or no training and expected to leave upon marriage or childbirth. Societal and demographic change, educational advance and increased acceptance of the ideology of equal labor rights have encouraged a gradual increase in Japanese women's determination to continue working."

Another important effect of Japan's globalization has been the collapse of the previously well-entrenched system of lifetime employment. The period of stagnant economic growth and faltering markets in the 1990s has forced reform of the Japanese labor model and the integration of American-style economic principles. This has led to less regulation, more privatization and remuneration systems that are increasingly governed by merit rather than fairness.

In his article, Tom Gill provides a fascinating case study of the growing number of workers forced to the fringes of the Japanese economy, working as casual laborers either independently (in the "yoseba," or casual labor market) or under the frequently exploitative control of managers (in "ninpudashi," or workers' boarding houses). He explores the gradual shift that has taken place from yoseba to ninpudashi, arguing that it represents a small, barely noticed, yet decisive defeat for labor in its never-ending struggle with capital on the fringes of the Japanese economy.

While Befu, Sedgwick, Bishop and Gill all construct their analyses of globalization on the basis of case studies, other contributors take a more theoretical approach.

Ulrich Mohwald, for example, provides a quantitative analysis of opinion-survey data to assess recent trends in value change in Japan. John Clammer addresses the ways various theoretical approaches to Japanese society have attempted to interpret emotions. These are just some of the topics covered in this volume.

Although not all topics will appeal to all readers, the quality and scope of the articles make this volume of considerable value to anyone interested in the current state of research into contemporary Japanese society.

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