Japan Discovers Poor People... and They're Awesome!

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The latest issue of Asahi Shimbun’s weekly magazine Aera speaks out to its readers: “We support both the upper class and lower classes!”

The headlines:

* 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?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 12, 2005

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

26 Responses

  1. tsuyoshi Says:

    「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. 」

    全くおっしゃる通りで、だから「週末起業」という言葉が一定の人気を博していると思います。
    ただ、実際に会社を辞められる程度の収入を得るには相当の時間がかかるので、なかなかeureka!とはいかないわけですね。

    「So, you’re either in the office for life or happily eating gyudon. 」

    ちょっと単純化しすぎな気もしますが、第三の道が身近なレベルで明確に見えていない以上は、マスコミとしてはこのように書かざるを得ないでしょうね。ただ、アエラは物事を針小棒大に書くきらいがありますから、間に受ける必要はないと思います。

    「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” sound good in the first place? Shouldn’t slaving away to the system be the ultimate hedonic experience?

    はっきり言っておかなければなりませんが、日本人とてみんながみんなマゾヒストではありません。

    98年頃の都銀・長期信用銀行の破綻が、日本のいわゆる1940年代体制の崩壊を意味すること、即ち長時間勤務の滅私奉公がペイしないことは、私の周り(国立大卒のホワイトカラー、20代後半)は認識しています。

    ですので、大企業に勤務していても、できる限り有給休暇は消化しようという姿勢です。

    ただ、そろそろ役付きになる頃なので、それがいつまで続くかは不明ですけど。

    いずれにせよ、意識ははっきりと変わっていますが、それをなかなか行動に移せていないことが問題だとは思います。

  2. jasong Says:

    今夜23:30ぐらいに新宿大ガード西で、狼狽した顔のイギリス人が僕に質問した。「Why are all these businessmen walking around with suitcases at almost midnight? It’s unbelievable!」

    その質問にうまく答えられなかったね。やっぱり。

    Honda and some other companies are now forcing their employees to use all 20 days paid holiday.

  3. jasong Says:

    That should’ve read “briefcases”! He had a suitcase (being a tourist).

  4. dzima Says:

    You know sumfin’? To agree wif you, I’ll ‘ave to quote me mate James Hetfield: what you is just written is sad but true.

  5. dzima Says:

    Does the writer of this blog sees himself as 下流, 上流 or 中流? And when you finish your Master’s thesis, are you on your way up or down?

  6. marxy Says:

    tsuyoshiさん、

    コメント、ありがとうございます。返事を英語で書かせて頂きますが、もちろんこのブログで日本語で書いても良いですよ。

    「はっきり言っておかなければなりませんが、日本人とてみんながみんなマゾヒストではありません。」

    I don’t believe the Japanese are masochists, but sometimes commenters on this blog (and elsewhere) can’t differentiate between pure personal motivations towards working for a larger group vs. the forced requirements of working for a larger group in the Japanese system. There has always been an element of labor control in the management policies here, so it is difficult to tell how much people want to dedicate all their free time to companies and how much they have to. Being inside a traditional Japanese organization (一級私立大学の保守的なゼミ), I have seen first hand that everyone would rather have full control over their own time, but must succumb to various pressures to prove support of the organization in the public sphere.

    「ですので、大企業に勤務していても、できる限り有給休暇は消化しようという姿勢です。」

    Interestingly enough, hours are getting much longer in American companies too, as firms are cutting jobs and giving the duties of three people to one person. Perhaps that 9 AM to 5:30 PM work schedule of our fathers is an old tradition that has become extinct.

    Does the writer of this blog sees himself as 下流, 上流 or 中流

    My parents are upper middle class, and while I’ve worked hard in my educational life, my success thus far was undeniably depedent upon the childhood experiences provided by my parents and their relatively high income. The odd thing though is that my dad is in academics, so I don’t necessarily feel pressure to “succeed” in sheer terms of material possessions or bank account numbers. But I do feel a karmic impulse to provide for my children the same level provided to me.

  7. rachael Says:

    but who’s the scary guy on the cover? :p

  8. guest Says:

    That’s amazing expressionist dancer Moriyama Kaiji;

    http://mkaiji.cool.ne.jp

    He appears regularly on NHK’s kids’ show からだであそぼ, the best thing on Japanese TV!

  9. marxy Says:

    I doubt he’s poor… but he’s still awesome!

  10. calpispatrick Says:

    I totally agree with the observations in your post. But the “caving in” of the middle class seems to be not only accompanied by an interest in the lower classes. There seems to be even more interest in the super-rich – you cannot switch on your TV without another 35 year-old company president showing off his collection of 200 Versace suits, his country house and his sports cars.

    I always wonder what the viewers get out of this – in Germany (where I am from) such programmes would produce massive “Sozialneid” (social envy) and cries for higher taxation of the rich. For the Japanese viewers these programmes seem to be simple entertainment – but can they enjoy these programmes as entertainment because they believe they too can reach this level of success and material wealth (as I guess would be the case in the US)or on the contrary because they have given up on ever getting there?

  11. marxy Says:

    From the late 40s to late 60s, the leveling of wealth in the war, nature of economic progress, and the gains by labor unions meant income growth in Japan lacked gross inequality. In the 70s, although inequality began to develop, being too rich was still uncouth. Then in the mid-80s, the mass media started erronously acting as if everyone was making big bucks in the booming real estate market and embraced more upper crust tastes. In the 90s, everyone felt the recession, but now with the country reverting back to the 1980s mindset for some reason, everything is about how great it is to be rich. Same in America, mind you, but for a long time, it was “common knowledge” that the Japanese did not believe in an extravangant demonstration of wealth (and it is has been so since the beginning of time!)

    There has always been a wealthy elite in Japan. They’ve just been good about shutting up about their power. Now, with people like Horie and the IT enterpreneurs, there’s a new class of nouveau riche that like to show off their wealth. They’re about all that’s interesting in Japan at the moment, so they get the spotlight.

  12. r. Says:

    note to self: david’s new buzzword is “ultimate (hedonic experience, paranoid narrative, etc)”

  13. marxy Says:

    “Jim Hellwig was the Ultimate Warrior” etc.

  14. tsuyoshi Says:

    “I always wonder what the viewers get out of this ”

    Although I can not speak for all Japanese people,
    being a Japanese man in his late twenties from an upper middle class family, I tend to categorize these nouveau rich into two according to how they made their money.

    A.restaurant,pachinko,temporary staffing
    B.IT,consulting,something in knowledge based industries

    I would see A as maybe zainichi or buraku,so I wouldn’t envy them ,might be annoyed a bit ,might snicker at their bad taste ,but it’s acceptable since no one from a good background wants to do it.

    If it’s B ,they are probably someone with a good education and background so I’d get envied a little but on the other hand I would feel encouraged to work harder.

    That’s how I see it,but in general ,I assume that average Japanese viewer sees those programs as a story of some place far away and as entertainment.

  15. Momus Says:

    but now with the country reverting back to the 1980s mindset for some reason

    I like how you sidestep the admission that there’s any sort of recovery going on in Japan’s economy! You’ve consistently denied that “the sun also rises”, and you’re going to keep denying it… even though you rather like the opportunity it gives you to note a growing class divide in Japanese society! And so you note the return to a 1980s mindset, but add that it’s completely inexplicable.

  16. marxy Says:

    Momus, you confuse an end to decline with an economic boom. Yes, the Japanese economy stopped shrinking, but it’s not showing growth rates above and beyond the level required to keep up with the rest of the OECD countries. If people are getting richer here, it’s at the expense of others in the working and lower middle classes. There isn’t some huge influx of cash or amazing jump in productivity that is making the whole of society “rich” all of a sudden.

  17. marxy Says:

    Next you’re going to accuse me of sidestepping the admission that Hamasaki Ayumi’s finance is black.

  18. nate Says:

    the 人生ゲーム (life) has a new “mergers and acqusitions” edition for the bubble nostalgic.

    http://www.takaratoys.co.jp/jinsei/product/m-a/feature.html

    as an aside, I saw my first japanese person working on sudoku on the bus just now.

  19. marxy Says:

    I was convinced that sudoku books no longer existed here, and then I saw a guy on a train doing one, so I looked a bit harder at the bookstore. Turns out that “Sudoku” may just be a brand name. They are called ナンプレ(number play?) and number puzzles, depending on the company.

    I don’t find them “horribly addictive!!!” as much as I think they are awesome when I’m not doing them and the biggest fucking waste of time when I’m doing them.

  20. Michael McCarthy Says:

    “You can never be too thin, too rich, or have too many books.”

    -Carter Burden.

    …Seriously, if you want somewhat of a semblence of equitable and fair treatment at work in Japan, you can start by not being a woman. If you can’t handle that, your only hope is working for a non Japanese company—

    How are you liking your unpaid bonuses and holiday hours without holiday pay? Couple this with a nation that stresses (like none other) shallow conformity at the sake of fiscal solvency, and everyone becomes either a have, or a have not.

    Enjoy that pizza-la, on your wedding anniversery.

  21. nate Says:

    huh? is that what a troll looks like around here?

  22. Michael McCarthy Says:

    I base my comments on my own personal experiences— it’s neither kind nor free of irony (not sarcasm)— that’s just the way it goes.

    Niggaz are broke these days.

  23. Jesper Says:

    First of all. I love the headline: “Japan Discovers Poor People… and They’re Awesome!”

    and secondly, I think it’s true. I only spent a total of about 35000 yen during my 25 days in Tokyo recently – and the Japanese found that awesome!

  24. trevor Says:

    i think this is pretty much true everywhere. the “poor” are just cooler. but, of coarse its not just that easy. most people who would call themselves “poor” [with pride] are in reality, not poor, like the actual poor people we have in the states. [and are lucky to eat in a day, or have shoes, or even some form of a home!] hell, i think of myself as “poor”. yet, i’m really not. so we come up with words like “middle class poverty”. see, so i’m still in poverty, just not like.. shitty poverty. but it’s way cooler, cause its LIKE im poor. only the rich find the rich cool. all the “poor” people i know will boast about how little money they can spend, and get done with that little amount. or how they “ate ranman for a whole week”.
    i find the fasination with rich people [tv]weird. but! i think people would watch a show about poor people, as long as it wasn’t depressing. people seem to LOVE looking at other peoples lives. atleast thats how it seems to me. its like gossip.
    being poor is soo cool, look what it did for hip hop! make it the coolest thing since rock and roll. middle class music [like marxy and momus] can never become that big.. and rich music? i don’t even know what that is! well, i guess its the sound of rich people paying poorer people to play music for them..

    and to go with jesper, last time i was in japan for 15 days. i only spent 320$. though no one told me it was cool.. no one was impressed.. =\

  25. amida Says:

    Cool is pioneered by the poor and then appropriated by the rich. Both groups are trying to distinguish themselves from the middle class–when they catch on, it’s time for the cycle to start again.

  26. Abiola Lapite Says:

    If people are getting richer here, it’s at the expense of others in the working and lower middle classes.

    This is a non-sequitur, even based on the assumption that the Japanese economy’s growth is no better than average for the OECD, and I’ve yet to see any statistical evidence to support the notion that Japan’s middle and lower classes are undergoing immiseration; on the contrary, the dropping unemployment rate and uptick in business confidence suggest a broad-based rise in prosperity. It is perfectly possible to have moderate economic growth and increasing prosperity for all along with rising income inequality, as has been true in America, Britain and elsewhere over the last two decades.

    Anyway, back to lurking for this suit …