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Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

In disparity-ridden Japan, don't mind the gaps — just get out of them


Special to The Japan Times

This is a nation of gaps.

When the term kakusa shakai came into vogue in 2006 — a fairly self-explanatory expression given that kakusa means "gap" or "disparity," and shakai means "society" — it was a clear sign of Japanese people having finally recognized that the notion of theirs being a hope-filled nation of upwardly mobile middle-class people was a myth.

In fact, being a highly stratified country, Japan has always been riddled with gaps. And its social strata, like layers of rock from different eras piled on top of each other, don't readily mix with each other.

It takes something on the seismic scale of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which marked the overthrow of centuries of military government under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the social revolution of the latter half of the 19th century, to dislodge and remix the strata.

Now, in the 21st century, the gaps between the strata are becoming more apparent as that big middle-class layer is eroding.

Social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats and the media have, in the past decade, all amply identified this phenomenon — but they are at a loss what to do about it, save make a lot of noise, blow off steam and stamp their feet while hoping that the ground beneath doesn't give way altogether.

Society's foundations are certainly getting more shaky after two decades of meager growth and social-policy stagnation. They were even shaky during the affluent 1980s, though too many people were dancing about on the upper crust to notice.

There are three gaps to worry about: the income, or wealth, gap; the education gap; and the goal gap.

For the last 15 years of the 20th century, the income gap in Japan was growing at twice the average rate it was in the other 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The underclass is truly large in this country, voiceless and seriously underrepresented.

According to data reported last year by that Paris-based organization in a paper titled "Growing Income Inequality in OECD Countries," "real incomes of people (in Japan) at the bottom of the income ladder actually have fallen since the mid-1980s." The only other OECD country where that has been the case is Israel.

In Japan now, it is time to forget about haves and have-nots, because in the past quarter century it has become a nation of never-hads and never-will-haves.

Part and parcel of the income/wealth gap is the insecurity factor now hard-wired into unemployment. In fact, though it was only a continuation of a trend from the previous decade, during the tenure of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06), the number of people in regular employment fell by 1.9 million, while the number in temporary jobs rose by 3.3 million.

But the result of the widening income/wealth gap in Japan is not just these bleak statistics. It has exacted an immense toll on the population, in everything from family dysfunctionality and domestic violence to depression and suicide. The kakusa shakai is a national menace.

The second gap is in education.

It used to be that young people from every income group had a stake in the system, or at least perceived themselves as having that stake. Fees at the national universities, whose academic ranking generally tops that of private ones, were affordable. Admission was by universal exam; and the goal posts were at the end of a relatively level playing field.

Now, however, private prep schools prepare the more well-off aspirants for entrance exams, while those from the cash-strapped countryside have a markedly diminished chance of getting into one of the better universities.

In The United States, The Pew Charitable Trusts' "Economic Mobility Project" for 2011 reported on the educational opportunities for families in the lower income brackets in that country.

"At every step in the process of preparing for, applying to, attending and graduating from four-year universities," states the report, "students from poor families are at a substantial disadvantage."

Japan, which has increasingly been modeling its higher-education system on the U.S. one, is, without doubt, emulating those disparities.

The third gap is what I dub "the goal gap."

It used to be that children growing up in Japan had clear goals. These were, as in all countries, set primarily by the society. Japanese postwar society put a premium on social harmony and individual sacrifice for the good of everyone. The myth of the all-encompassing middle class was fostered to make people feel they had a comfortable place in the midst of all others.

But when the 1980s asset bubble inflated people's expectations of a life of excessive wealth and luxury, insiders vacuumed up profits like gold dust on a jeweler's floor. Many Japanese convinced themselves their country's gross domestic product was going to overtake that of the U.S. — and the stage was set for a collapse that left the actual middle class riddled with debt and the lower classes bereft of hope.

The features of Japanese society that had appeared emblematic were stained. A job for life with the same company or organization? Promise unfulfilled. Guaranteed economic growth? Promise unattainable. A stable income with safety nets for all? Promise denied.

In other words, the very fabric of Japanese society had begun to come apart, and it remains to this day frayed and attenuated.

If the goals of the previous generation — upward mobility, wealth equality, security in old age — are regarded by the present generation of young people as being out of reach, what do they have to aspire to?

Why should they have children of their own?

It's fine if you come from a family on top of it all in the first place. Your chances of remaining atop the other crumbling layers of society are good. But what do you do if you are a bright kid from the lower strata of society's sediment?

As of now, you probably sit at home much of the time fiddling away at your electronic gear and doing part-time jobs to finance your sedentary routine. You don't "occupy" Tokyo or Osaka like some of your counterparts in the outside world; you occupy your bedroom and, perhaps, the corner of a local Starbucks or McDonald's. You are riding the tide to see where it will take you. But, with the whole society at a low ebb, that's next to nowhere.

The key term for the generation now trapped in the lower stratas of society is not kakusa shakai, but toppa suru — meaning to "break through," "burst forth" or "break free." But how to do that in such a solidly stratified society as Japan's?

The answer lies in the very delineation of the three gaps: in money, education and goal-seeking.

Do what the innovative postwar giants of Japanese industry did, and get together with friends and co-conspirators to find your own ways to race ahead. The Internet offers a myriad of opportunities.

Also importantly: If you can't do it in this country, go elsewhere. Universities in Japan are still largely geared toward inculcating the old knowledge and the old "useful" skills, although many of them are desperately trying to regear and refit their educational engines.

So, learn or teach yourself languages and acquire the skills that your generation needs to succeed — which may well be far different from those needed by previous generations.

Set your own goals and start on the marathon in their direction. This is the key to doing toppa: You won't get into the upper strata by knocking your head against its underside. Break out of the sediment, as the term suggests, and build up your own mountain. It's not as difficult as it seems.

Genuine mobility in Japan can only be achieved with force from below. The people on top may not be dancing in 2012, but they are still digging their heels in to prevent a breakthrough that might shake and rattle them.

Occupy your own life, and the gaps above you will vanish into the air.



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