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How Did Japanese Analysts Make Money Before the Rise of Poor People?


Last week, I attended a small talk with Miura Atsushi — author of best-selling book about the rise of downwardly-mobile Japanese youth 『下流社会』 (Karyuu Shakai) — on the topic “New Rich vs. New Poor.” The New Rich make over ¥70 million a year and are generally much better people than you or me. Do you even have a car? These guys can afford to drive Benzes with automatic transmission. The Downwardly Mobile like manga and other stupid stuff that may be high on personal meaning but lack any sort of ability to separate you from the common jughead on the street. And I bet the New Poor tip very poorly — all puns intended, buddy.

Miura has carved out a market niche for himself recently by becoming the expert on the cultural effects of income inequality, with three new books published already this year. One of which is a book dedicated to looking at class-consciousness in young women 『上流な私? 下流な私? 』 (“Upper-class me? Lower-class me?”) which is kind of like “Betty or Veronica?” for a more stratified century.

I am reading through it at the moment, and there is something that bugs me: Most of these pundits sound as if they are talking about “class” as something one chooses upon adulthood. There is still a dangerous assumption at heart of the argument that “all Japanese are middle-class” but some of these equally middle-class kids get so wrapped up in music and art and an avoidance of persona-crushing social responsibility that they fall off the high-income track and end up eating pre-packaged ramen five times a week. That recent OECD report on Japan shows quite clearly that there are lots of people in Japan not only in relative poverty but in absolute poverty — and yes, even in close proportion to the United States. The quote-unquote real poor, however, do not get much attention from these books or lectures because they are not doing anything interesting with their pocket money.

Despite that major complaint, Miura’s books are really interesting for understanding how a once “(upper) middle-class” consumption ethic is breaking into subcultural groups based on class positions. He also looks at love and marriage, seeing that a woman’s only chance to escape a life of lower middle-class is not, I dunno, getting a full-time job and moving up the corporate ladder, which is still difficult in Japan — “(in a shrill voice) You ethnocentric boar! That would upset Japan’s tender Shinto balance! Stop pushing your Western values of equal opportunity on a country that has progressed beyond your simple understanding of gender relations!” “Okay, okay. Sorry. How did you break into this sentence of my blog?” — but marrying a man with a healthy salary and his own underlings.

As I was saying with the “goukon” boom, this reality means that class aspiration determines women’s fashion to a certain degree. One of Miura’s observations is that most Japanese girls know how to be attractive to the opposite sex — following the simple instructions of「モテ系」Can Cam routine because it is embarrassing and immodest.

He also has a ridiculous little side story about why “temp workers” can no longer meet their prospective hubbies on the job:

In the past, the ideal OL (office lady) — whose work was “making tea and copies” — could not do her job very well. It would be a problem if she could not do anything at all, but if she could do it too well, she lost a certain kind of cute charm.

So, when things would sometimes pop up in her work that she did not understand, she could just say, “Ooh, I don’t get it!” When she said that, a capable man (boyfriend material) would come rushing over and teach her how to do it. And love would sprout for the two. Well, this kind of pattern was typical (although it is rumored that if a non-cute OL said “Ooh, I don’t get it,” no one would help out.)

That being said, this “I don’t get it” is not tolerated for (modern) temp workers. If they say, “Ooh, I don’t understand,” they get fired. What’s more, they are only at the company for a short time. So it is difficult for love to sprout with temp workers. (p. 42-43)

If you cannot win a man’s heart by being bad at your job, I don’t understand how women have any sort of chance to move up to the upper classes.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
September 12, 2006

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

29 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    I have put much serious thought into the use of the kanji 下流 for a Japanese name. My other thought is perhaps 花柳. In either event, the shame should be deeply felt by my ancestors.

  2. Carl Says:

    “Social stratification is hard. Let’s go shopping.”

  3. Chris_B Says:

    Marxy as you progress through shakai life, you may note what I’ve noted: there is no advancement for almost all workers here be they temp; keiyaku or shaiin. In four years I’ve seen one person in group of over 250 get a promotion to “manager” (20,000 yen/mo raise).

    No new kachos have been created though, same ones as when I joined four years ago. No new “senior managers” either. Two guys made bucho when the department was split in three. Dont know about their raises however.

    In that same four years, no one has gotten a raise other than what I mentioned above. This last year most of us got lower annual bonuses than the national average by a large percentage yet the company reported record profits.

    Its not just the women, its everyone in the system.

    The only way up is out.

  4. check Says:

    Since this site seems to be all about anecdotal evidence – let me say, I too, agree with Chris.

    Personal experience blended with objective analysis has helped me deduce, professionals from other modernized countries would do well to stay at home, and stay away from Japan, if they don’t enjoy vociferously struggling to maintain a mediocre existence.

    Minimized to the point of almost becoming invisible. For what, then?

  5. marxy Says:

    professionals from other modernized countries would do well to stay at home, and stay away from Japan

    Think of it this way, foreigners: it’s not just you. Everyone except for an elite few who graduated from the right six schools and entered the company directly upon graduation will never get a substantial raise nor a promotion. Coming to Japan for a “career” may be like going to Mauritania for water.

    Even if the economy goes gangbusters, which it almost certainly will not, the income divide and the hopelessness of career prospects for 3/4-4/5 of people means that the country will not be so genki. The middle class-ness of old Japan was not just an ethical, socialist kind of issue — it let culture be free of obsessions with material wealth. Everything now is so targeted towards securing future financial stability, because the alternatives are all depressing.

    And with the consumption tax surely to rise to at least 10% in the new few years — if not 15% — Japan will be one of the hardest places to eek out a low-key “freeter” LOHAS lifestyle. Support your local farmers — if you can afford to pay 200 yen for a single peach! It’s easy to say, hey, just drop out of the corporate track, but the regressive taxes and high prices from non-efficient industries will kill you.

    I think we are all being very pessimistic here, but reality does not really point to some kind of magic solution.

  6. Adamu Says:

    Again I feel compelled to refer you to Shukan Toyo Keizai. The cover article this week is all about “Japan’s Working Poor.” While I don’t have a copy handy, I can tell you from the contents that they look at: the “paradoxes” in a booming industrial town; young contract workers; confessions of a 2nd generation Japanese “woman (fake marriage) broker”; children (of foreigners I presume) who don’t go to school; who makes the “kombini bento” (readymade convenience store lunches) we all know and love; foreign “trainees” used as slaves; and how to solve all these problems.

  7. marxy Says:

    I just noticed that my office has 週刊東洋経済!

  8. Dave Says:

    If nobody ever leaves, then the business has to grow if people are to be promoted. Otherwise you just pay staff more money to do the same things, which means profits go downhill. (or in your case, Chris, don’t go up as much.)

    The counterpart of this is that as all of the older generation retire, unless the organisation shrinks, people need to be promoted to fill their places.

    The place I work (not in Japan) has an ‘up or out’ policy that means that 75% of all people in the company (everyone except the top few people and support staff) either get promoted or asked to leave every two years or so. (Lucky me, I’ve been around for 23 months!) Not likely to go down well in a country of lifetime employment, I suspect…

  9. Chris_B Says:

    marxy said The middle class-ness of old Japan was not just an ethical, socialist kind of issue – it let culture be free of obsessions with material wealth

    I beg to disagree. I am of the opinion that Japan still operates along feudal lines. A peasant knows his place and never expects anything more just as a member of the ruling class never expects anything less. “Everyone is middle class” is a nice way of saying most everyone is a middle class peasant.

    The eternal kachos I mentioned before? NONE of them are actually qualified professionals, they were just around before everyone else and so they are essentailly village elders charged with keeping the peace amongst the lower ranks. At least one of em didnt even go to college and thus according to the official manual of employment is not elligable to work at the company. But he has been there forever so he cant be moved out and there are no slots above that he can be moved to either. He’ll stay there till retirement because honestly he has no where else to go.

    Dave: the company is growing, but all the profits are going into vendors pockets. Were not actually hiring or outsourcing, were insourcing hordes of unquallified people from companies whose only qualifications to do the work are that there is some cross shareholding. I cant say any more than that on record.

    Anyone with ambition is headed to the gaishuke and that goes for both locals and Japanese. That wont last forever though, at least one large investment bank has already figured out that they can hire the locals for market peasant wages and not promote em either. The smart gaishuke are learning to play the game by the local rules and take the profits home.

  10. lex Says:

    What about foreign firms with branches in Japan? Do they suffer the same problems and limitations as the traditional Japanese companies? From what I understand, these branches are often under entirely different management than their American counterparts…

  11. marxy Says:

    Anyone with ambition is headed to the gaishuke and that goes for both locals and Japanese. That wont last forever though, at least one large investment bank has already figured out that they can hire the locals for market peasant wages and not promote em either. The smart gaishuke are learning to play the game by the local rules and take the profits home.

    “Gaishi-kei” (外資系)
    Makes sense that foreign companies would soon realize the low wage expectation of the labor market and adjust accordingly. That being said, the wage premium is why all the best kids line up to work at Morgan-Stanley and not Mitsubishi UFJ. So, if they want the best talent, they should still continue to offer the highest wages.

    What about foreign firms with branches in Japan?

    If you want to work for a foreign company in Japan, join that company in your home country and get transferred. They are 1) probably not recruiting for people in Japan and 2) will not set you up with the luxury living package if you join them in Japan.

  12. anonymous Says:

    haw haw. I work for the Matsushita outpost in the United States. Yamada and co. run their company a little more American style over here, but still … almost nobody has been promoted in years, and over half of the employees have been converted to non-promotable temps. I think it’s just international corporate culture in general.

  13. marxy Says:

    Learn how to swim the backstroke in global capitalism, because it does not seem like anyone is gearing up to drain the pool.

  14. Chris_B Says:

    Expat packages are a thing of the past. Be a local hire. I’ve done it and am planning to do it again.

    marxy thanks for the correction. my fury got the better of me.

    Also I’ll tell ya a secret, even the locals at MS are mostly second class citizens on the trading floors.

    I’ll tell ya another secret, you probably seen movies where they show wallstreet trading floors as being full of activity and yelling? Japanese trading floors are mostly silent as the grave.

  15. Abiola Lapite Says:

    Japanese trading floors are mostly silent as the grave.

    Er, so are most Western ones nowadays, last I checked …

  16. Adamu Says:

    Speaking of that article on the working poor, Japan Times has an English summary of the feature along with a similar one from Mainichi’s Shukan Economist:

  17. davido Says:

    1. Mauritania lies almost entirely within the Sahara. Recurring drought has forced the nomadic herdsmen out of their former domain in the far north; it is now called “the empty lands.” With the exception of the south, which is a bit more humid, Mauritania’s climate is hot and arid. Rainfall is minimal, so vegetation is sparse.

    2. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (松下電器産業株式会社 Matsushita Denki Sangyō Kabushiki-gaisha?) (TYO: 6752 , NYSE: MC) is a Japanese electronics manufacturer based in Kadoma, Osaka prefecture, Japan. The common English mispronunciation is Matsu-sheeta, while the proper Japanese pronunciation for the company is Mahtsu-sh’ta.

  18. Rorschach Says:

    I hope you’ll forgive a rather uncouth statement based on my past readings from this blog…

    …but dear Christ, is Japan ever a shithole. What business anyone has immigrating there, I will never know.

  19. Momus Says:

    Mission accomplished, apparently, Marxy.

  20. marxy Says:

    I feel like those awful people who told everyone about the brand sneaker sweatshops. Most people were happy not knowing about all those kids in there!

  21. Momus Says:

    Exclusive photo-coverage of the stories you won’t hear on Neomarxisme (stories nevertheless featuring Marxy): the shithole, this weekend. And, you know what, it doesn’t look so bad. Cover-up? We, the public, demand to know!

  22. check Says:


    You know David, given what you say, and what you actually do, there is a bit of a contradiction.

  23. marxy Says:

    My main intention has never been to say “how bad life is in Japan” or “how much Japan is a shithole.” (I certainly would find it hard to claim the latter.) My point has been that 1) most of us who enjoy being in Japan have a privileged position and our experiences are not the same as “the average person” and 2) there is often something sinister behind what appears to be innocuous. That doesn’t mean I sit inside all weekend frowning. All the fun I can have at the OK Fred headquarters doesn’t make Shinzo Abe go away.

  24. check Says:

    But why misrepresent the situation, by always parading one side?

  25. Adamu Says:

    Check: Do you work for MOFA or something? Why do you feel the need to dictate content to a random blogger? There are numerous sources for positive coverage of Japan for people who are looking for it. What are you afraid will happen if marxy never ever talks up how much he loves melon bread?

    Just to show you how un-dangerous it is for marxy tet’s do a little experiment:

    A google search for English language pages on “Japan” brings up “” a user-friendly privately run site designed to help people who are interested in Japan, followed by the Asahi Shimbun’s English site, which is an impartial news site, as the first 2 hits. A search for “Japan information” brings up “Japan Information Network” a MOFA-sponsored “portal site” (since 1985!) and the Japan National Tourist Organization, another government entity that exists solely to promote Japan’s lighter side.

    A search for “japan blog” turns up some stranger results (EFL teacher showing a “pink crotch” picture is the top result) but you see what I mean. The beauty of the Internet is that there is someone giving an opinion in one direction or the other at any given time.

  26. check Says:

    Hmmm… I wasn’t aware I was dictating anything.

    Let’s try the following, instead:

    If you enjoy David’s ability to provide insight into Japanese culture, you might also enjoy insight into the entirety of Japanese culture (both good and bad).

    I’m sorry that seems unreasonable.

  27. clh Says:

    When Miura talks about 下流 he does not mainly mean a financial downstream. He says so himself, right at the beginning of 下流社会. It’s not so much a question of money, but more of lifestyle, intellect and cultural interests. Even though there is an indisputable growth of income inequality (you already referred us to the numbers), Miuras interest seems to lie more in the area of a possible decline of social and cultural values.
    I find his allocation and description of “lifestyle groups” very questionable though.

  28. marxy Says:

    That’s a good point, but the weird redefinition of non-class class makes Miura’s analysis really shaky. He never really looks at whether real social class determines whether you are 上流 or 下流. Take for example a Japanese OL from a Junior College and a lower middle class background who wants to marry up. In his calculations, she would be “上流,” no? I find this recent book hard to read because of how unclear this gets.

  29. clh Says:

    I could not agree more.
    Unclear, but clearly not very academic….that is all that needs to be said about Miura really, if it wasnt for all the public attention he has been getting.