The Japanese government likes to boast that Japan enjoys the lowest income inequality rate in First World, and although the equality of income distribution peaked in the early ’70s, this is probably still true today. The reason for this income leveling, however, has little to do with Japanese culture and more with the huge loss of wealth for the capitalist class in the War and Occupation. As Mouer and Sugimoto write in their 1982 book Images of Japanese Society:
Much of the difference between the prewar and postwar distributions lies in the dislocation caused by the war and in the occupation policies themselves. The authors know of no scholars who would seek to explain variation in the level on inequality over the past three decades by reference to changes in the cultural values or attitudes of the Japanese (118).
The boss-to-lowest-paid-employee ratio in Japan is extremely low compared to the United States (something like 6:1 compared to America’s 100:1), but this has nothing to do with Japanese Confucian paternalism: The working classes won that reward from a highly reluctant top management after a successful campaign launched by the Left-leaning unions in the postwar. Upon this structure, economic growth in the ’60s was highly egalitarian, but the Bubble brought a period of reckless wealth-creation for only those who already owned substantial capital or property.
For better or worse, the image of a classless Japan has remained throughout the post-Industrial period. In the past, I have found this to be one of Japanese culture’s greatest advantages. Once Japan made it through the very nouveau riche cultural explosion of the ’80s, the ’90s was all about subcultural fashion and music and the display of “taste” as the ultimate sign of status. Bourdieu would probably find this equally class-biased, but when a populace feels no need to prove its own self-worth through expensive and established branded European products, it has room to innovate and create another set of values. I would much rather see someone wearing Undercover than Fendi, although I cannot philosophically justify the difference in wanting a culture based on exclusive symbols more than one based on conspicuously expensive products.
Income equality is on the rise in Japan, especially with the IT boom creating new pockets of wealth for e-business spheres and a widening digital divide among the Japanese people. Income and media literacy in Japan are almost perfectly correlated, which will undermine the great social advantage of full literacy that Japan enjoyed in the 20th century (see Chapter 9 of Kenji Hashimoto’s Class Structure in Contemporary Japan). And like in the U.S. and Western Europe, globalization is shipping a lot of jobs from the manufacturing sector out to China. Higher market deregulation in the future will lead to more growth, but possibly more inequality as safety nets are withdrawn.
Culturally, I feel like the Aughts have brought with them two unfortunate, but understandable developments in Japan: the acknowledgment of wealth discrepancy and a re-emergence of narikin culture. Although the myth of “everyone being middle class” still drives more and more people every year into consumer debt and sarakin-related troubles, the difference between poor and rich is becoming much more apparent in everyday Japanese life. Especially with the friitaa and those joining the workforce, some people clearly have money to spend and the others are eating at Yoshinoya everyday. I don’t want to exaggerate this phenomenon, but I do think the rise in income equality has crossed a threshold and the peak of the iceberg is dipping above the water.
Very noticeable, however, is the rise of branded products in women’s fashion over the last decade. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Christian Dior, and Hermes are all enjoying amazing growth at the expense of smaller and more experimental brands. There does seem to be a return to status-consciousness in womenswear, and for some reason, these companies enjoy such a permanently strong brand power that wide diffusion into lower middle-class society does not lead to a reduction in image.
The problem with brands based on “good taste” is that taste changes, and no one can afford to dump $2,000 on a bag and not have it last forever. Women want these products under the assumption that they are eternally meaningful — teiban not hayari. Japan 2004 is in the weird position of being rich enough to buy these luxury products, but not rich enough to experiment with less stable brands, like consumers did in the ’90s. The result is a society resembling the tacky nouveau riche-ness of the Bubble — all about expressing wealth over displaying taste. Roppongi Hills certainly opened at the right time.
I don’t want to blame Japan for its growing income inequality, since the same trends are happening all over the world, but I am a bit unhappy with the new wealth-consciousness’ impact on pop culture and fashion. Ura-Harajuku is crumbling, and Omotesando-doori is shinier than ever. If the marketing system is supposed to work to provide the best products and culture to consumers, count me as part of the ever-growing “unsatisfied” group. I’d rather see a bunch of girls in X-Girl legwarmers than “J’adore Dior” shirts.