Are class differences widening in Japan?

by Janet Ashby

Along with increased pressures for deregulation and a free-market economy have come wider questions of what Japanese society should be like in the new century. Has the Japan in which 90 percent of the people considered themselves middle class ended? Is Japan becoming a class society of winners and losers like Britain or the United States?

Such questions are considered by social scientist Sato Toshiki in “Fubyodo Shakai Nihon — Sayonara Sochuryu (Unequal Society Japan — Farewell to the Mass Middle Class)” (Chuko Shinsho). Based on data from the SSM (Social Stratification and Mobility) survey, a nationwide survey conducted by Japanese social scientists every 10 years since 1955, he concludes that there was considerable social mobility in postwar Japan with two paths upward: a college degree and entrance into upper white-collar positions or moving from blue-collar work to starting one’s own business.

However, both such routes have been closing since the mid-1980s. Sato devotes particular attention to a trend starting with the boomer generation for new members of the white-collar elite to come from the children of that elite. The emergence of such a self-perpetuating elite means that others will no longer strive as hard when it is clear that they or their children can only go so far in society. There will be a progression from thinking “I can get somewhere if I try” to “Even trying hard won’t get me anywhere” to “Why try?”

As Sato noted in an article in Chuo Koron in May (before the publication of his book), this erodes the Japanese ganbaru spirit in schools and companies alike. A particular problem is that second-generation elite members tend to feel they have won their privileged position in an open system while others feel they enjoyed an unfair advantage. Indeed, in the 1995 SSM survey almost 50 percent of those from the boomer generation with an elite father felt that things are basically fair now, while almost the same percentage of those with a non-elite father felt things weren’t very fair.

In another Chuo Koron article in November, Sato corrects some misperceptions of his argument. It is an overgeneralization to conclude that Japanese society is entirely closed or becoming rigidly stratified, he says. Absolute differences in living standards are lessening and there is a high degree of access to a consumerist lifestyle and higher education.

This leveling of absolute differences, however, brings more sensitivity to the remaining differences and inequalities. As the desire to rise shifts from the pursuit of material wealth to one of recognition or social respect, there is the danger that gains by some will be felt as losses by others in a sort of zero-sum game.

Sato also reveals that he hesitated over using the word kaikyu (class) in his book because of its strong Marxist ideological coloring, but there was no particular reaction to it and he wonders if there isn’t a new, more pragmatic class consciousness now, as in Akasaka Mari’s novel “Muse.”

Actually both Bungei Shunju and Chuo Koron took up the topic of changing classes in Japan last May, and the Bungei Shunju feature article “Shin Kaikyu Shakai Nippon” took a somewhat different approach from Sato’s. It focuses on the consequences of clear-cut winners and losers in society and wonders if Japan can find a “Third Way,” avoiding the excesses of dog-eat-dog American capitalism.

After looking at some spectacular entrepreneurial success stories, it gives vivid details from the lives of Japan’s new losers. One former banker at the failed Long-Term Credit Bank is made painfully aware of his new status when he goes to the funeral of a high-school friend and no one says to him “Wazawaza tooku kara,” although he has also made a special trip there from Tokyo, or “Oisogashii no ni,” as if he must no longer be especially busy.

A man in his early 50s pushed into early retirement by a large securities firm realizes too late that his generation was dependent on the company not just for financial security but for decision-making; they gave up responsibility for their own lives and let the company think for them.

In addition to layoffs and restructuring, companies are now moving away from a seniority-based wage system, leading to widening pay differentials. According to the Labor Ministry 25 percent of large companies are already introducing achievement-based pay.

There is also a growing trend for students at Tokyo University to be from wealthy families. This in part seems to be an unintended consequence of Education Ministry reforms for a kinder, gentler, less exam-oriented public education system, giving an advantage to those who can afford private schools. The editors also fear the emergence of a two-tier health system like that in Britain, as medical costs rise but spending on the national health system doesn’t keep pace.

Such inequalities cause limited social tension in the United States because of a value system that accepts competition and rewards for individual achievement. The Japanese, however, still value effort over achievement, and limited job mobility and lack of a safety net make second chances more difficult to find.

Sato somewhat unhelpfully stresses that such societal changes should be thought of in a 50-year time frame and that inequality of opportunity can only be determined later, when the consequences can be measured. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the changes in attitude in Japan in the next SSM survey in 2005.