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Income (In)equality in Japan


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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 13, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

7 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    I lived in ura-hara from 1997-2003. During those years I watched it change from a fun place to a more relentless consumer place. Lots of the shops which gave rise to the ura-hara personality (on and around neko-dori) were actually new construction in the late 90s displacing existing older Japanese houses/stores. Omotesando suffered a similar fate.

    Now that all the big designer stores are there, I wonder how long before designer recycle shops pop up nearby? Japanese women have discovered that they can buy a fancy brand bag, use it for a while then sell it used to a recycle shop or on an auction site, and use the money towards a new bag. Its become an odd hybrid of upper middle class/consumer debt class culture. The other part of it that is not so easy to calculate in is the still thriving enjo-kosai aspect (yes its still going on, and not just with high school girls). Exactly how many salary man cocks must be sucked in order for an OL to purchase a Gucchi bag? How long till it gets resold (and did that money come from the same sources?)

    Pardon my french in the above paragraph.

    BTW, how bout a bonenkai/shinenkai for the regular posters?

  2. marxy Says:

    During those years I watched it change from a fun place to a more relentless consumer place.

    I think those “fun” brands like A Bathing Ape or Undercover or Real Mad Hectic etc were very commercial from the start (remember no cred in Japan unless you sell!). When Gap moved on the corner that seemed to really encapsulate a certain direction for the neighborhood. But Head Porter’s probably actual more popular in Japan than the Gap, no? The difference is not one of commerical vs. non-commerical, just big money vs. little money.

    Now that all the big designer stores are there, I wonder how long before designer recycle shops pop up nearby?

    The recycle shop thing was in full gear around 1998 to 2000 with $500 vintage Bape shirts etc. Heatwave was nuts. That particular market crashed, however, and now all the Heatwaves sell identical cutrate products they are probably receiving from brands themselves. I wish I had time to investigate what happened here.

    The other part of it that is not so easy to calculate in is the still thriving enjo-kosai aspect (yes its still going on, and not just with high school girls).

    I think the enjokousai (EJKS) boom is over, but it probably still goes on among working class high school girls with no source of revenue for their consumer habits. No one has ever been able to determine how widespread EJKS was in the mid-90s, and I have a feeling there was two distinct sets of girls – those who “dated” men and never got their feet wet, and then those who were using EJKS as a sociocultural excuse for just being prostiutes. There were definitely class lines between the two.

    Exactly how many salary man cocks must be sucked in order for an OL to purchase a Gucchi bag?

    I don’t know if OLs are doing EJKS, seeing that they live at home and can use their $1700 pay check ONLY on luxury goods.

    BTW, how bout a bonenkai/shinenkai for the regular posters?

    I am retreating to America on Saturday for three weeks. I can’t attend, but I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday period.

  3. Chris_B Says:

    EJKS is still widespread as far as I can tell from “word on the street”. Maybe the media doesnt pay much attention to it, but its there. As far as the OL participation that there too. Maybe its not called EJKS, but its the same thing, money for service, either pro or amateur. Lots of those young women dont live at home, they pay Tokyo rents and dont earn enough to pay for the lifestyle they want to lead.

    Enjoy your trip back to the US. I’m chained to my desk except for possibly a short trip back to wife’s inaka.

  4. marxy Says:

    Hmmm. I am suspicious that EJKS (which by the way is in no means a standard abbreviation, everyone) still exists like it did when it boomed in the 90s. From what I’ve read, EJKS was originally a very small-scale phenomemon (circa 1995), but once the media reported on it, a lot of girls said “I had no idea I can make money that way!” and went out and tried it. I would assume it’s gone back to being a mainly fringe practice of those who want to make a lot of money quickly, but cops ruined the whole thing when they raised the age of consent from 12 to 18.

    The idea though that OL’s can’t afford the life they are supposed to be consuming is dead-on, and the rise in consumer debt and loan-sharking confirms that people are spending way more than their means. The problem is that mainstream culture never stopped its taste progression, which means it offers products to consumers like they still have the same amount of spending money that they did in 1989. The number of youth consumers who can afford to use those magazines as buying guides is dropping, which is why I think punk rock and hip hop are on the rise. The kind of fashion consumption-based subcultures where you need Men’s Nonno to tell you what to wear are dying off, and those magazines are struggling to survive.

    The West meanwhile has decided Japan is cool because the most visible of the Japanese masses embrace a very sophisticated set of social codes only privy to cultural elites in the US or UK. The Japanese are unfortunately abandoning these tastes and values post haste, which is going to disappoint all the snobs in the West like it has disappointed me.

  5. porandojin Says:

    i am this kind of a snob ;], and it scares me what you write … it’s like one of these ‘metaphysical fears’- if not japan then what??? is there in this world any cool place anymore ???

  6. Chris_B Says:

    Punk rock and hip hop? Those arent cheap fashions either! It easily costs JPY80,000 to get a pre-stenciled, pre-studded leather jacket and matching zipper pants! Lets not forget the money to get ones head shaved and hair ‘hawked. For what it costs to be a stylish punk, one could afford Gucci!

    Dont even get me started on the cost of being fully bling blinged in the right medalions, gold teeth, trainers, sneakers, stylishly tilted backwards NBA cap. Now were talking more than a tailored Chanel suit!

    Hyperbole yes, but if you dont get my point, price out some of the gear those punk/hiphop kids are wearing. Even with low fashion, its almost like if a particular look or the components of the look arent reccomended by a formal trend authority, it aint worth it for lots of these kids.

    N.B. there are “real” punks and hiphop kids too. I’ve met lots of young punks w/o all the glam gear who are doing it for the same reasons I did at their age, suburban boredom and general dis-satisfaction with their lot in life and percieved futures.

    The OL’s might not be doing as much formal EJKS since their market value decreases with age, but they can find secondary employment at a variety of manzoku-ya. The younger ladies are now having trouble peddling their asses on deai sites, but they still find ways somehow. As long as there are lonely oyaji, there will be a market.

  7. D.W.Rambler Says:

    Enko, or EJKS, I do not believe has ever been a “big” thing with OLs — they are more likely to stay at home, and be “parasite singles” (another interesting topic). The Kyaba-jyo (KYBJ) are more likely to fall into the sex-for-LV senarios. Suppose it comes with the industry, huh?