By Alexei Kral

Gary Allinson, Professor of East Asian Studies, University of Virginia
L. Keith Brown, Professor of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh
Merry White, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University
Mariko Fujiwara, Director of Research, Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, Tokyo.

Uncertainty seems the defining feature of Japan as it enters the new millennium. Domestic and international forces are pushing Japan to consider fundamental changes in its economic structure, political system, and foreign policy. But moving beyond these macro forces, it is the social and cultural transformation that may demonstrate most clearly what kind of Japan is emerging.

As social and cultural change are observed and felt most deeply at the micro level of daily life, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program presented a seminar to focus on important questions that policymakers and scholars often overlook. Namely, what ideals guide the lives of Japanese today? What motivates and concerns Japanese in their everyday lives? How are Japanese reacting to the economic and demographic changes that currently face them? Are widely-held Japanese values changing?

Investigating the sociocultural context of Japan today provides a more nuanced understanding of Japan's economic problems, political initiatives, and even its foreign and defense policy. Too often, social and cultural factors are relegated to secondary consideration or neglected altogether as businesses, governments, and newsmedia seek ever-quicker analysis. At the Asia Program's December 13, 1999 seminar, historian Gary D. Allinson, anthropologists L. Keith Brown and Merry I. White, and sociologist Mariko Fujiwara focused on social and cultural factors by analyzing strains in contemporary Japanese society, pressures on established institutions, challenges to traditional forms of social organization, and shifting Japanese attitudes.

Historian Gary D. Allinson noted that Japan's ongoing economic dilemmas have created "a psychological climate of worry and unease." On top of the economic problems, Japan has experienced significant and jarring generational shifts. Allinson recounted how two shifts in the political arena took place during the 1990s, creating instability and segmentation: from older to younger political leaders, and from an electorate predominantly born before World War II to one predominantly born after the war. In business, he pointed to tensions that have developed between older business managers and their younger employees, who have different attitudes regarding work and loyalty to one's company. Families have become alienated, dividing in a tripartite manner: the older generation personifying a home culture, the middle generation of working men and women devoted to a work culture, and the young generation participating in a street and media culture. Thus, Allinson described Japan as a "segmenting society" in which relationships are breaking down. He suggested the "fraying social fabric in the 1990s prolonged the nation's economic dilemmas, complicated policymaking, inhibited cooperation, and undermined cohesion."

Focusing on rural Japan, anthropologist L. Keith Brown countered that traditional social patterns and values are still strong. Japanese farmers, nevertheless, are faced with hard decisions because their small-scale farms cannot compete in the global economy. In addition, the government is trying to increase the scale of agriculture through farm consolidation. Even so, Brown observed, rural Japanese families almost never sell the family farm and move to the city, because the deep-rooted Confucian ethic of filial piety exhorts them to respect their ancestors and retain the family land. Rural families set up co-ops and other arrangements with neighbors in order to hold on to their land. These arrangements often take new forms, but still reflect long-standing traditions of close community relationships. The persistence of Japanese culture, Brown maintained, is also evident in household composition. In the provincial town he has studied since 1961, 59 percent of the families today remain multigenerational. Japanese will continue to cope with economic and global changes "in ways that are consistent with Japanese culture," Brown argued. He challenged Washington to stop expecting Japanese to "be like us."

Anthropologist Merry I. White examined how families - especially women - have struggled with the pressures of life in modern Japanese society. Through rhetoric and social policy, she observed, the Japanese government aspires to create "an organic National Family," which includes a grandparent or two, a father working outside the home, and a mother at home caring for the children and the older generation. Whether families wish to emulate the normative model or not, educational pressures on children, long work hours, job transfers, care for the elderly, and more recently, financial strains, job insecurity, and lack of opportunity for working class families make it difficult to maintain a family approaching that image. In response to economic necessity and increased opportunity, more women are working outside the home and marrying later than in the past. Conservative leaders, worried about a declining birthrate and care for the increasing elderly population, lament individualism's effects on the traditional family and blame women for the "birth strike," "abandoned grandmothers," and "only child syndrome." White argued that those conservative Japanese politicians and bureaucrats are incorrect in assuming that individualism and "familism" comprise a zero-sum relationship. Western observers are also incorrect in assuming that individualism is associated with economic, legal, and social structural "modernization." White concluded that the changes in Japan have less to do with individualism and more to do with the real adjustments families make to cope with socioeconomic change, and with the recognition that Japanese families live in diverse ways.

In analyzing social change, it is also important to investigate young people's roles and participation in society. Sociologist Mariko Fujiwara argued that a new class struggle is fracturing Japanese society. Young Japanese are central players, stuck in a "surrogate class struggle for their parents" through the education system. As early as kindergarten, schools are "stratified and ranked," and students must gain admission to a good school in order to pass the next level of entrance exams and eventually enter a high ranked university. An "educational industry" has emerged and Japanese buy "educational services" such as tutoring, cram school lessons, and special training for exams. In school, alienated young people demonstrate their frustration through violence, bullying that has led to suicides, and truancy. On big city streets, youth crime, prostitution, and "paid dating" have become widespread. Fujiwara concluded that in a highly commercialized society, Japanese parents' desire for their children's educational achievement must compete with their children's demands for entertainment - and both are costly in economic and relational terms.

The seminar suggested that Japanese society is moving in a direction that is redefining how people approach each other, their families, their communities, and their nation. Professor Brown warned, however, that it is dangerous and incorrect to assume that the Japanese will become more like Americans. Japanese will draw from their own set of "cultural responses," he noted. Still, the Japanese people are experiencing heavy strains, which are manifested in almost every institution of society: in political parties, business firms, the education system, families, and farming communities. These strains are similar to socioeconomic strains in other advanced industrial nations, and are likely to continue for some time to come.

If one is to understand contemporary Japan, it is important to appreciate the pressures ordinary Japanese confront in their daily lives, and to take account of their attitudes and values. Our information on Japan is often a limited reflection of the Tokyo political and corporate elite. As Japan is a democracy, young people, workers, families, and farmers will all influence the course that the country takes in the coming years. We can be a little more certain of that course if we pay greater attention to the sociocultural context, especially now as it is in such profound flux.