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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Enduring effects of social class


SOCIAL CLASS IN CONTEMPORARY JAPAN: Structures, Sorting and Strategies. Edited by Hiroshi Ishida and David Slater. Routledge, 2009, 264 pp., $150 (hardcover)

This is a great collection of essays by sociologists and anthropologists who have convincingly brought class back into our understanding of contemporary Japan. In doing so they expose the myth of the ubiquitous middle class popularized by Ezra Vogel and also reject Chie Nakane's argument that workers' corporate identity trumps class-consciousness. Rather, the editors argue that "the stability of the firm as a marker of social identity for individuals has receded as the institutional commitment from the firm has been withdrawn."

Instead of a dominant middle class or a classless society, the eight contributors shift our gaze to "manifest and enduring social divisions," questions of social identity and an "increasingly fractured social order." The authors elucidate how social-class structures influence identity and life-course opportunities, while illuminating patterns that cut across institutions, gender and ethnicity.

Given the extent of social turmoil in Japan since the Lost Decade, this is a timely volume that contributes significantly to our understanding of social disparities. While analysis in English of ethnic, racial and gender issues has expanded over the past decade or so, subverting the dominant focus on a unified and homogeneous Japan, social class has largely been ignored.

This is a major gap in the literature, given that, as the editors write, "there is hardly a society that has experienced more significant class reorganization than has Japan in the past 100 years." Here readers come to understand how class dynamics differentiate and divide Japanese society in ways that have been misleadingly overlooked.

Hiroshi Ishida, drawing on rigorous empirical analysis, shows that the "relative positions of class status have remained remarkably stable" in post-World War II Japan, pointing out that family background influences access to higher education and thus limits class mobility.

This self-perpetuation of class is the focus of Sawako Shirahase's excellent essay on social class and low fertility. She asserts that marriage is one of the key institutions in continuing class structure from one generation to the next. People tend to marry someone of the same educational and occupational status, and their children subsequently enjoy an educational advantage that sustains their class status. In contrast, she writes, "the relative negligence of the poorly educated couples would tend to pass on low class status to the next generation."

Mary Brinton examines the long-term class-sorting effects of school-to-work transition, noting the increasing inability of young people — especially students from lower-level high schools — to secure stable employment. As the core workforce shrinks and firms hire more non-regular workers in order to cut costs and increase flexibility (i.e. the ability to easily dismiss), those at the bottom rungs of society are disproportionately affected. Failing to secure a stable toehold in the job market at the outset leaves these workers facing a bleak future. Curiously, Brinton speculates that the dramatic, ongoing shift toward non-regular workers (currently some 34 percent of the entire workforce) that shunted the "lost generation" of the 1990s to the periphery will not persist, but this seems an unwarranted leap of optimism.

The advantages of ethnographic research are clearly displayed in David Slater's superb essay on the life trajectories of students from a working-class high school. He argues that such high schools have long played a role in perpetuating class through "the systematic sorting and socialization of their children to fill the places in the shifting bottom of this economic miracle." Giving a voice to these students and their perceptions about how they are being socialized to accept limited expectations and prospects renders this a riveting tale from the front lines. Since students at bottom-rung schools recognize that "they have little chance of translating good school performance into a desirable job," they respond accordingly by ignoring their studies and acting out.

It's a sad state of affairs, and ironic given its focus on class, that this book is priced way beyond the reach of most readers. This is a valuable and unique collection that will certainly be adopted by teachers in a range of disciplines if the publisher provides a paperback edition at a reasonable price. If this comes about, put it on your must-read list. It is quite accessible for an academic effort, and it demystifies and explains Japan in a persuasive manner.



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