Plight of women and the young in modern Japan


Demographic Change and Inequality in Japan, edited by Sawako Shirahase. Trans Pacific Press, 2011, 239 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

This stimulating collection of nine essays examines the implications of demographic trends for inequality in Japan. The contributors are sociologists who elucidate how changes such as fewer children, more childless couples, postponement of marriage, increasing life span, educational disparities and worsening employment conditions are influencing social stratification and inequality.

Debate over inequality in Japan has increased significantly over the past decade triggered by growing income disparities and the increased marginalization of younger workers and women in the labor market. Although this book is a translation of work published in 2006, the issue of disparities has drawn even more attention since 2008 in the post-Lehman Shock era.

Shirahase emphasizes growing risk in Japan, arguing that “the falling birthrate/aging society implied a move away from the traditional life course characterized by marriage, childbirth and co-residence of old people with their adult offspring, and that this shift is intimately connected with a high level of economic risk.”

Increased risk is reflected in growing income inequality, but she argues that consciousness of inequality outstrips actual increases in economic disparities because there is a greater sense of unfairness and vulnerability.

One of the troubling and inescapable conclusions of this book is that youth are getting the shaft and women especially so.

Shirahase finds that “the income of younger generations has fallen relative to that of the retired generation.” Focusing on widening generational differences between poor households, Shirahase notes that there was a doubling of the percentage headed by youth in their 20s between 1986-2001, from 21percent to 42 percent, while during the same period there was a large decline in the percentage headed by people over 65 years old.

She also finds that single person households are especially prone to poverty, and women are at greater risk. In addition, the “economic handicap that comes with being a single parent is far more significant for women than men.”

In terms of policy implications, Shirahase argues for reform of the social security system because in her view it is unrealistically biased in favor of elderly people and should be adjusted to life-course needs and the greater diversity of lifestyles, careers and household living patterns in contemporary Japan.

Yuji Genda argues in his chapter on NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, Training) that marginalized youth have become dispirited because growing numbers are unable to secure regular full-time jobs and have been shunted into low paying, dead-end jobs with little security. NEETS are disproportionately from nonaffluent households, suggesting that mobility is decreasing.

Genda also warns of growing inequalities in the future due to disparities in educational attainment as some families will be able to provide more financial support for their children than others. He writes: “Japanese have long prided themselves on possessing a largely classless society, but a new set of castes, based on educational attainment, is about to emerge.”

Takehiko Kariya also finds a widening inequality in education. Paradoxically, he argues that “Japanese-style egalitarian ideology in education contributed to concealing the problem of inequality until recently.”

In his view, because educational opportunities were expanded for everyone, competition intensified to acquire more desirable credentials. Therefore, “various reforms adopted to deal with problems born of the credentialist society actually ended up widening inequalities in education.”

Hiroshi Ishida, on a more encouraging note, finds a positive association between drinking and good health; alas it’s not because imbibing is the cure for what ails. Rather, those who are healthy enjoy drinking and there is a positive correlation between higher income and drinking (and exercise).

In terms of health, the strongest determinant is job and income and those with professional/managerial class jobs are the most advantaged.

Interestingly, educational attainment isn’t associated with better health mostly because the well-educated are less likely to exercise.

Katsumi Matsuura explains how government policies since the 1990s have contributed to widening inequalities by design. He notes that the government halved the effective rate of inheritance tax to 10.8 percent and laments that intergenerational transfers of wealth perpetuate disparities in opportunity and outcomes. The pension system is another factor in widening disparities as it transfers wealth from the relatively poor working age population to relatively wealthy elderly retirees.

Matsuura writes that “younger cohorts will inevitably receive less in pensions than they pay in premiums, so that the public pension programs effectively become a form of forced investment in an instrument that is bound to show negative returns.”

Having kids is also a bad deal for working women, as Matsuura finds they face a steep penalty if they give birth in the form of lost potential earnings that average as much as ¥185 million.

This book is a powerful indictment of a system the authors find to be systematically weighted against the young and discourages so many from having kids or dreams.

Note: Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.