The latest issue of Asahi Shimbun’s weekly magazine Aera speaks out to its readers: “We support both the upper class and lower classes!”
* Does escaping the lower classes really lead to happiness?
* The happy lower class member’s elegant lifestyle: The luxury of “looking forward to eating gyudon” on a ¥200,000 a month salary, and abundant holidays!
* The “Non-Poor” Complex of the Young: They grunt yes when asked about tough experiences at their job interviews. Seminars on how to do poverty and hardship.
* Why are female doctors choosing lower class men for husbands?
* Time management techniques for getting to the upper class world
Did you notice the word missing from this advertisement? “Middle class.” In almost every post-industrial country, the population overwhelmingly identifies themselves broadly as “middle class” when asked in surveys, but in Japan this idea that “everyone is on the same socioeconomic level” became a mantra and then an accepted social fact. The war and Occupation’s respective destruction and dispersal of wealth certainly made Japan one of the most socioeconomically equal nations on earth, but ever since the 1970s, Japan has lacked more class consciousness than is actually warranted.
But without socioeconomic worries to define self, a lot of things perceived in other countries to be off-limits to the working man — high fashion, avant-garde art, fancy things — became mass marketed products, to the benefit of lucky artists and designers all around the world. Marxist ideology is boring anyway — let the lower classes consume like bourgeois dilettantes and create an aesthetically pleasant society! Forget the crushing debt now common to those living above their means! Think of all the positive externalities that we all get to enjoy while standing on their backs!
Lately, I’ve felt that the Japanese middle class is caving in — which is nothing particularly special to this country, just a symptom of post-manufacturing economic arrangements. But the culture has slowly started to reflect this structural change. No longer is Louis Vuitton a “middle class” product purchased to keep up to a certain social standard, but a way to prove to the world you’re not on the wrong side of the fence. You’re either rich or poor, and here we have Aera implicitly making that point.
But I find Aera‘s “support” of the lower classes odd. Freeter are only freeter if their parents were white collar employees. Kids from poor families who become convenience store clerks are just “poor.” So, this “fun” of being in the lower classes — the holidays! the beef bowls! — is praising a false kind of poverty where kids know their parents can bail them out if the hairstylist gig can’t pay for the insurance bills. Rest assured, freeter will be authentically poor in about ten to twenty years, but right now, they aren’t so much “lower class and lovin’ it” as enjoying the ride down the socioeconomic fun slide.
A sane, rational man would note the advantages of both sides and — eureka! — create high level jobs that guarantee a certain degree of self-determination and ample free time. But jobs in Japan are not practical actions required to run a society, but symbolic actions for demonstrating degree of effort and dedication. I mean, do you understand the utter immorality of actually taking off your two weeks of vacation a year? So, you’re either in the office for life or happily eating gyudon. Either/or. But if everyone in this country is such a groupist bent on total sacrifice to a higher order, why would “休暇もたっぷり” (lots of vacation days) sound good in the first place? Shouldn’t slaving away to the system be the ultimate hedonic experience?