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.