Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan

Precarious Japan

by Anne Allison

Duke University Press, 2013. 246 pages


The March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster in Northern Japan illuminated and deepened a sense of vulnerability for people across the nation that, as Anne Allison argues in Precarious Japan, significantly predated this “triple disaster.” Author of three other major books on the cultural anthropology of Japan, Allison’s work draws connections between political economy, affective experience, and gendered, sexualized, and irregular labor, all topics that are highlighted in this present monograph. In Precarious Japan, Allison argues that the vulnerability of twenty-first century Japan, made suddenly stark in the wake of 3/11, disproportionately affected people who were already members of “the precariat”: people who experience themselves as “being out of place, out of sorts, disconnected,” those who have “a life that no one grieves upon death,” who live “a precariousness that no one cares to share” (14-15). Allison’s examinations of precarity struck a particular chord for me, as an ethnographer of Japan who focuses on the well-being of people who grew up in Japan’s extensive network of child welfare institutions (children’s homes): quintessential members of “the precariat,” disconnected from legible social ties of family and community and thus in many ways socially and politically invisible.

Being an ethnographer, however, sometimes affords the opportunity to share—at a distance—some of this precarity, to bear witness to and also grieve it. I had returned from fieldwork to the United States three months before the 3/11 disasters, after which I exchanged text messages with one of my interlocutors, a young man I will call Naoki. Raised in a large rural children’s home, Naoki had traveled to Tokyo upon graduation from high school. He had spent the past decade and a half moving from job to job; after being injured at work, he scraped by on welfare payments. I had met him at a Tokyo support group for youth who had aged out of Japanese children’s homes, during what I learned was a rare social period for him. After a few months, he fell out with the group members and returned to his customary isolation. He stayed in his apartment all day, generally meeting no one, leaving only occasionally to buy inexpensive food at convenience stores and to purchase cans of Coke, which seemed to be the chief pleasure in his daily life. After 3/11, there was a run on prepared food and beverages. Naoki’s isolation, increasing depression, and mounting desperation were evident in the sometimes-fevered text messages he sent me in those days of aftershocks, days where food was in short supply and there was no Coke. He had considered, he wrote, traveling to Fukushima: throwing his life away in the clean-up effort might have some social meaning. He decided against this course, he explained, because his old injury would make physical labor difficult. As Allison writes, the 3/11 disasters threw into relief “aspects of life that were precarious already; the fact, for example, that so many of the workers in the Fukushima nuclear plants were, both before and after 3/11, part of the precariat (close to 88 percent)—disposable workers for whom the safety of other Japanese . . . are now so intimately intertwined” (8).

Allison’s book tracks some of the experiential, affective dimensions of precarity in contemporary Japan, bracketed by accounts of the collective trauma—and the muted hope for future change—engendered by 3/11. In a society where social welfare has long been understood as the responsibility of the family, the corporation, and local neighborhood networks, contemporary discourses of “crisis” in Japan generally center on these very social organizations. These discourses are an anxious litany of putative collapse: declining birthrates; increasing divorce; high suicide rates; the increase of “flexible” part-time labor; youth not in education, employment, or training (NEETs); increasingly visible homelessness; and the “social problem” of hikikomori, young people who isolate themselves within their homes, often cared for by their mothers. Discussing a truly impressive number of contemporary media, Allison focuses particularly on the public discourses of disconnection (muen) and lack of belonging (ibasho ga nai) that have characterized popular analyses of two major demographics. These demographics are elderly people who die unnoticed and alone, and young people who lack the assurance of their parents’ generation of successful schooling leading to lifetime employment and (presumably) steady family lives.

Allison situates this state of affairs within a critical historical framework, illustrating the ways that the “stability” of post-World War II Japan’s social contract has collapsed under its own contradictions. Japan’s postwar economic success depended on the family-corporate system of the late 1950s, with its middle-class gendered division of labor. The salaryman labored long hours outside the home, and the housewife as “education mama” raised children inside the home—each supporting the corporate welfare system in which the workplace was intended to care for workers for a lifetime. The ideal of the heteronormative nuclear family, which Allison describes as “aspirational normativity,” borrowing Berlant’s (2011) term, became “what people came to desire and what they received in return for working hard, for sticking to a normative life course” (22). Now, after decades of declining economic power and increasing neoliberalization of social policies, the contemporary sense of “pain in life (ikizurasa)” that Allison examines can be understood as symptomatic “of a capitalism that had attached so much to, and was now festering around, a complex of belonging to work, family, and state” (17). If the image of Japanese society as uniformly and rigorously middle-class produced such durable aspirational models, and this model was so tied to the family-corporate system where jobs became (men’s) identities—no wonder, then, that contemporary declining employment, along with “failures” in reproduction evidenced by the declining birthrate, have caused a pervasive sense of crisis. “Japan remains a ‘work-like society’ (shigoto teki na shakai),” Allison writes, “where work, and the kind of work one performs, remains the currency of value: how people get calibrated as having social worth, which, in turn, converts into the means and reserves to live a safe life” (155). In Allison’s account, capitalism first drove a corporate-family model doomed to collapse (too much interdependency), resulting in a neoliberal backlash (too little interdependency). For Allison, capitalism, along with retrenched welfare policies, is inherently ill-suited to care for and to create a caring populous, even as the work ethic it requires continues to define social recognition and worth.

An important part of Allison’s argument is that contemporary precarity exists precisely because of that collective memory of Japan’s postwar ebullience. “For many,” Allison writes, “the present seems fraught, particularly when the reference point is a past remembered, or reinvented, as idyllically stable: a time when jobs and marriage were secure and a future—of more of the same—could be counted on. But belonging, even then, came at a price: an extraction of a particular kind of—constant, competitive, intense—labor. A sacrifice, some say, of everything else, even (or particularly) the soul . . . .” (118). Allison explains Japan’s contemporary malaise—the pervasive sense of precariousness that people cite in conversation, popular press, and the media—as a result of the persistent memory or imagination of postwar economic success and stability, even as this success of capital resulted in the economic and social collapses Japan struggles with today. What is less evident is the degree to which this collective memory is itself specific to members of the middle and upper-middle classes. Does contemporary Japan seem quite so fraught for members of the working classes? Does “aspirational normalcy” appear the same everywhere in Japan, and with the same effects?

While Allison exhaustively documents public discourses of shock and crisis, there is less discussion of the stakes of this shock itself. Representations of poverty as “new” in Japan participate in eliding those who were never part of the “miracle” of post-war Japanese growth, a distinction that also often maps onto urban-rural divides. Similar elisions have been analyzed in the context of family “break-down,” like Roger Goodman’s (2002) discussion of the “discovery” of child abuse in Japan during the 1980s. Child abuse had always existed; it was merely the social recognition of child abuse that was new. And yet the representations of these “crises” as new to Japan do important political work, drawing distinctions between Japan—as (supposedly) lacking these endemic social problems—and other countries, which (supposedly) have always suffered from them. Reframing poverty as “ordinary” is itself a loaded claim, a fact not lost on the social activists who are Allison’s interlocutors. I wondered whether the politics of these activists’ own projects—highlighting the ordinariness of precarity in Japan—could be interrogated further, exploring the social stakes of the discourses of “collapse” that Allison so thoroughly documents.

Allison’s book raises important questions regarding the precise relationship between these public discourses and experience. Critical scholarship on Japan has interrogated the ways that Japanese discourses of self (nihonjinron) emerge, are taken up, and feed back into commonsense notions of what it means to be Japanese (Harootunian 1989, Ivy 1995, Sakai 1997). Discourses of Japaneseness have long been co-constructed in dialogue with foreign and native scholars (for example, Benedict 1946, Vogel 1979, Nakane 1967, Yanagita 1988), and have informed narratives of Japanese history and politics, shaping everything from Japan’s immigration policies to its social welfare structures. Many of the examples Allison cites might be productively considered as types of discourses of Japaneseness, and analyzed as such. For instance, Allison begins her third chapter discussing the discovery of crises at the heart of Japanese families rooted in poverty. This comes as a shock to a reporter that Allison cites, a shock mirrored in widespread public discourses, because Japan is “supposed” to be middle-class. In Allison’s account, many in Japan experience the “ordinariness” of poverty and day labor, associated “with temporal and spatial otherness” (46), as a disjuncture. But poverty shocks precisely because it has been so under recognized as a social problem in Japan.

I take seriously Allison’s project to illustrate how affective experience is itself a result of the ways discourses of self and “reality” are in many ways co-constituting. Stories of Japanese self, like the celebration of postwar middle class society, have become powerful realities for contemporary Japanese people, to the degree that many people experience the lack of middle class security as a loss, a loss that results in a real decline in well-being. Allison vividly illustrates the ways this tension—between a perceived possible way of living and the brutal reality of those who cannot obtain this aspirational normalcy—can result in existential crises (for instance, her discussion of the 2007 stabbings in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo (64)). In this context, I was struck anew by what I see as the lasting damage of the highly normative discourses of Japaneseness, as they continue to shape peoples’ desires and their perceptions of loss. By that token, Allison’s data support both the difficulty and the importance of attempting to parse the relationship of stories of Japanese self from the lived experiences of hardship.

While the first half of Allison’s book focuses most on discourses of crisis and loss in contemporary Japan, the second half introduces the reader to non-governmental projects of community care provisioning, building a sense of burgeoning energy and hope for the future, in which members of the precariat are increasingly made visible, recognizable, and grievable upon death. In my own research, too, it was clear that people in Japan place hope in non-governmental, community networks of volunteers and activists to care for those in need, and Allison does a beautiful job elaborating the stirring of these grassroots movements. In fact, as I read Allison’s monograph, I wished that the text had been weighted toward a thicker focus on these movements and away from the rather dire descriptions of public panic. Those of us who have spent time in Japan are familiar with the discourses Allison catalogues, but perhaps less so with the quiet counterculture projects Allison introduces. If there is the sense in Japan that precarity is new or not “native”—in contradistinction to the ways inequality and social exclusion can be often taken-for-granted in other parts of the world—there is also a commitment on the part of local groups in Japan to provide services for needs that would not otherwise be met. Although these engagements are rarely politicized, they do point hopefully to a “revaluing of life as wealth of a different kind, based on the humanness of a shared precariousness and shared efforts to do something about it” (179).

All together, Allison’s book is an impressive tour through important public discourses in Japan today, rooted in extensive discussion of contemporary popular literature and media.


Kathryn E. Goldfarb is an Assistant Professor of Social-Cultural Anthropology at McMaster University. She examines the impacts of social exclusion on well-being, particularly through research with people involved in child welfare institutions and foster care in Japan and North America. Her interests include embodiment, kinship, mental health and trauma, and neuroscience and child development.


Works cited

Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Goodman, Roger. 2002. Child Abuse in Japan: ‘Discovery’ and the Development of Policy. In Family and Social Policy in Japan. Roger Goodman, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 131-155.

Harootunian, Harry. 1989. Visible Discourses/Invisible Ideologies. In Postmodernism and Japan, Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, eds. Durham: Duke University Press. 63-92.

Ivy, Marilyn. 1995. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nakane, Chie. 1967. Kinship and Economic Organization in Rural Japan. New York: Humanities Press.

Sakai, Naoki. 1997. Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Vogel, Ezra. 1979. Japan as Number One: Lessons for America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yanagita, Kunio. 1988. About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System. New York: Greenwood Press.

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