Jahrestagung 2013

Inequality in Post-Growth Japan: Social Transformation during Economic and Demographic Stagnation

Japanese-German Center Berlin, 22-24 November 2013

Organization committee: David Chiavacci (University of Zurich) and Carola Hommerich (German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ), Tokyo)

Since the turn of the century, social inequality has become a key topic for scholars and social policy makers in Japan. For decades, Japan considered itself a homogeneous middle-class society of economic equity and equal opportunity. Recently however, Japan is struggling to come to terms with structural changes and a new self-image as „gap society“ (kakusa shakai) marked by increasing differentiation, unfairness and new forms of social inequality. Economic stagnation and population aging are compounding extant problems in the labor market as well as in the social security system.
The goal of the VSJF Annual Conference 2013 was to take stock after two decades of structural changes, new discourses and reactions by actors. Five dimensions of social inequality were chosen as focus for the analysis, which are especially significant for the Japanese case: education, labor market, welfare system, urban-rural divide, and minorities. Each of the five dimension was analyzed in a panel by papers addressing one of the three levels: structure, discourse, and agency. A sixth dimension, underlying all others is gender, which was incorporated into the analysis by referents. The conference brought together experts from various disciplines, including sociology, economics, political science, education studies, social geography and Japanese studies. It included scholars from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the USA.

Panel 1: Urban vs. rural
Urban-rural divide is a rather seldom studied dimension of social inequality in sociology, but of crucial importance in order to understand Japan. Its political economy has been described as redistribution not between social classes, but between urban centers and rural areas. Still, this redistribution could not impede massive migration movements to the cities, resulting in the depopulation and fast aging of the countryside. Moreover, after the burst of the bubble, the support of rural areas began to stretch the fiscal limits of the Japanese government and rural support declined. Even the stable growth of the Japanese economy between 2003 and 2008 did not translate into an amelioration of the economic situation in rural areas. These developments have led to debates about increasing disparities between urban and rural Japan.
Recent changes in structural inequality between urban and rural areas are studied by Ralph LÜTZELER (University of Bonn). His findings are that inequality between prefectures is stagnating or even decreasing and that rural areas do not consistently show a higher degree of inequality. Moreover, regional patterns of inequality are more strongly correlated to level of industrialization than to urbanization. However, inequalities on the sub-regional level are increasing due to neoliberal reforms. Volker ELIS (University of Cologne) presented an analysis of news reports on regional inequalities in the national daily newspaper Asahi Shinbun from 1990 to 2013. The public debate on regional inequalities and urban-rural divide gained momentum from 2003 onwards. The peak of this debate was between 2007 and 2009, when it was politically instrumentalized during the Upper House and Lower House elections. Elis concluded from his empirical analysis that the perception of inequalities matters more than inequalities in statistical terms. The contribution of Peter MATANLE (University of Sheffield) focused on rural areas, which have experienced strong aging and depopulation in recent years. He showed how these areas are starting to disconnect from national growth policies and try to find a new quality of local growth, which might contain even a depopulation dividend.

Panel 2: Welfare state
Regarding social welfare, Japan was renowned for achieving social equality without a high degree of redistribution. Of late, however, the small Japanese welfare state has come under pressure, as vulnerable groups in need of assistance are growing. Recipients of livelihood assistance are steadily on the increase, reaching new record levels month after month for the past three years. Moreover, the de-standardization of employment and life-courses contributes to a very low total fertility rate as a rising number of young men in precarious employment do neither marry nor have children.
Conference contributions regarding the welfare state started with a paper by Sawako SHIRAHASE (University of Tokyo) on the structural limitations of the current welfare system regarding support of young families with small children. Population aging is the main factor leading to higher inequality among households in recent decades in Japan. Households with older household heads, which have strongly increased, have higher intra-group income inequality. Still, the intra-group income inequality among household with young children has also strongly increased. Shirahase’s paper discussed how recent welfare state reforms have not addressed this issue. This means that the livelihood security of an increasing number of children is very limited. Harald CONRAD (University of Sheffield) presented an analysis of social policy responses to the „gap society“ in recent years. His study revealed that for a long time, especially during the leadership period of former Prime Minister Koizumi (2001-2006), rising inequalities were not addressed in the policy debate on social security. Only recently have new problems of poverty and social exclusion been taken up in policy debates and new solutions are being proposed. Still, to what extend this proposal will be implemented remains to be seen. The question of welfare reform and its obstacles was further addressed by Margarita ESTÉVEZ-ABE (Maxwell School of Syracuse University and Collegio Carlo Alberto, Torino). She discussed how institutional settings of Japan’s political system lead to a deadlock in welfare state reforms. Although political actors are aware of the problems, a comprehensive reform and solution of them is not in the institutionally embedded self-interest of political actors. Estévez-Abe even identified recent reforms in the political system as strengthening this deadlock and assessed the current situation as „the worst of the old and the new rules“.

Panel 3: Labor market and employment system
Life time employment, seniority-based wages and harmonious industrial relations were known as the cornerstones of the Japanese employment system and credited for a high degree of income equality and social cohesion. In recent years, however, this system began to crumble and the labor market structures have diversified. In view of the persistent economic stagnation after the burst of the bubble economy, pundits called increasingly for structural reforms and deregulation of the labor market. Still, rising unemployment and a surge in non-regular employment have triggered new debates among academics and policy makers. Currently, employers and business interest groups are still in favor of a strongly deregulated labor market. But labor unions have started to shift their perspectives and are identifying deregulation policies as the main factor for rising inequalities and low-paid jobs.
Discussing structural changes, Sébastien LECHEVALIER (EHESS, Paris) showed in his paper that the main factors leading to an increasing diversity in the labor market are not globalization or deindustrialization. Instead, according to his analysis, industrial dynamics resulting in a re-segmentation of the Japanese labor market are the major mechanism behind increasing diversity and rising inequalities. Overall, Japanese capitalism is marked by a great transformation since the 1980s. He called for further analysis from a political economy perspective of the impact of neoliberal public policies in this processes. Karen SHIRE (University of Duisburg-Essen) and Steffen HEINRICH (University of Duisburg-Essen) focused on public as well as policy debates regarding new inequalities in the labor market in their contribution. Their study shows temporal change and content-related specifics. The impact of labor market regulation on rising inequality became a central topic in Japanese politics during the election campaign leading up to the lower house election of 2009. Still, after this election, the topic’s salience has decreased significantly. Public discourse has been similarly selective: New inequalities in the labor market are topics of public interest. Some dimensions of inequality – like gender, however, have been sidelined. Focusing on actors in the labor market, Jun Imai examined the role and impact of labor unions. His analysis shows a decreasing influence of labor unions in recent years. Especially atypical workers are not members in labor unions and, therefore, not represented by them. Although a new type of labor union concentrating on atypical employment has emerged, membership is very limited. Overall, association in labor unions is decreasing and the labor movement is losing its voice in policy formation processes.

Panel 4: Minorities
Although ethnic minorities de facto exist since its colonial era, Japan was according to the dominant self-view an ethnically highly homogeneous society. However, since the late 1980s new immigrations movements started, and Japan is today an immigration country with a growing population of new immigrants. In view of the demographic aging, policy makers are increasingly discussing the need to introduce a pro-active immigration policy in order to counter Japan’s demographic decline. This is accompanied by a new debate about economic and social integration of immigrants. Ethnic minorities and new immigrants are seldom included in the new discourses about rising social inequality, but in view of the highly dynamic development the inclusion of this dimension is of crucial importance.
The paper of David CHIAVACCI (University of Zurich) discussed structural differences in socio-economic integration and exclusion between the three main groups of new immigrants in Japan. While Chinese students, after graduation, achieve a high degree of multiple integration in both Japan and China through transnational business activities, Chinese trainees are embedded into Japan’s foreign trainee system as a total transnational institution, which de facto excludes their integration into Japanese society. Migrants of Japanese ancestry (nikkeijin) from South America show the risk to become an ethnic social underclass. The discursive level of immigration and minorities was discussed in the paper of Takashi KIBE (International Christian University, Tokyo). He concentrated his discussion on multicultural policy discourses (tabunka kyōsei) in Japan. His analysis showed that there has been a tacit distancing from multiculturalism in recent years in policy making, but that it is still strongly embedded in public debates and not coming under a backlash as in many European countries. Gracia LIU-FARRER (Waseda University, Tokyo) discussed the agency of different new immigrant groups in Japan based on numerous qualitative interviews with immigrants from China, South America and the Philippines. On the one hand, each of these groups is embedded into immigration patterns and socio-economic opportunity structures that define their degree and quality of agency. On the other hand, immigrant groups also have their own perception of migration and integration, which strongly influences their strategic action in Japan and its outcome.

Panel 5: Education and social mobility
Japan’s educational system has been regarded as highly meritocratic and fair, bestowing equal life-chances on all students irrespective of social origin and, hence, very open for social mobility. Furthermore, educational attainments were regarded as decisive for the life course. Japan was often described as an education credential society (gakureki shakai) par excellence. However, already from the late 1990s, education was a central element in the new discussions about inequality. According to critics, education reforms introducing a more relaxed form of education (yutori kyōiku) have led not only to a drop in scholastic abilities, but have also strengthened effects of social background (and money) on scholastic achievement, causing a stronger reproduction of social classes.
Takehiko KARIYA (Oxford University) analyzed influences of the above mentioned education reforms on entrances into high-ranked high schools in his paper. This is a crucial research topic as the transition from middle school to high school is the most decisive sorting point in school careers in Japan. The results of Kariya’s empirical analysis revealed that the educational reforms resulted in an increase of individual choices in the system of meritocratic selection. However, this opening of the transition process has also led to a stronger impact of social origin. Therefore, the stratification system has become less open for social mobility due to the reforms. Kariya spoke of unintended consequences of the education reforms that resulted in a switch of meritocracy to parentocracy. Akito OKADA (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) looked in his paper at recent educational debates and reforms under the leadership of current Prime Minister Abe in historical perspective. The main thrust of these debates is the attempt to create a more diverse education system with an elite track through reforms. Okada pointed out that the current government is pushing for reforms that not only ignore recent discussions about increasing inequality in education, but actually will most probably lead to even more inequality. The paper of Julia CANSTEIN (Nidec) focused on the school level and daily practice. Recently, some schools have tried to introduce the concept of effective schools in Japan, which is said to decrease inequality among students. However, the effectiveness of this concept is increasingly questioned. In view of realized and planned education reforms it is debatable to which extent schools can mitigate disparities at all.

David Chiavacci (University of Zurich) & Carola Hommerich (German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ), Tokyo)