Book Review – Precarious Japan, by Anne Allison

17264900Precarious Japan is a book published in 2013, not long after Japan’s massive earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown tragedy in March of 2011. It’s a socioeconomic look at modern Japan, where it’s at and potentially where it’s headed. What struck me most while reading through Precarious Japan was how familiar it felt. I live in the United States, a country far larger and more diverse than Japan. What happens in one state hardly affects another. When 9/11 struck or when Katrina swept New Orleans away, I looked on with mournful eyes and a heavy heart, but neither of these tragedies had a great impact on me in everyday life. Japan’s 3/11 shook the entire nation, both literally and figuratively.

Despite these differences in scale, the problems relayed in Precarious Japan are almost identical to those faced in the U.S.  Disconnectedness. Capitalistic greed. Loneliness. Loss of purpose. This could well be called Precarious America.

The term precarity is often used in the book, and its definition is multi-faceted. In part, it refers to a state of employment that is not secure; temp and part-time workers, employees without stability or benefits, those dubbed NEET (youth not seeking education, employment, or training), those living below the poverty line, or around it, who simply work to make ends meet week to week. It also refers to a broader sense of instability in the country, here Japan, which already existed before the 3/11 tragedy and exponentially increased after as people’s fear of where the country was eqnews_1111_02enheaded became ubiquitous.

The term ‘precarious’ resonates with me because I’ve always been part of this precariat, precariat here meaning the group of precarious workers as a whole. I’ve rarely had full-time, well-paid work, and never anything that made me feel stable. I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck since I entered the working world, and while I am to blame for much of my financial situation (I didn’t have to use those credit cards or borrow a bunch of money for my college education), the fact still remains that those making money at the precarious level (including those on welfare), are not living the kind of life that people in a wealthy nation like the U.S. or Japan should. Precarious Japan does not endorse the capitalism dream, by and large because capitalism demands a struggling poor to sustain itself.

The term hikikomori is also used often in Precarious Japan. This term refers to a phenomenon in the country involving young adults shutting themselves away, often in their rooms or apartments, and not associating with anyone. It’s hermit-ism and extremely anti-social behavior, but I don’t think this is a Japanese phenomenon at all. I say this as someone who could have easily been labelled a hikikomori.

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There was a period in my 20s, possibly most of my 20s, where I shut myself away, emerging only to work a job and buy groceries (some cases of hikikomori will not emerge even for these necessities, instead relying on family members to provide them with food and other needs). I just wanted to be left alone to play video games and read books. Reading Precarious Japan helped me put some definition to my experience, and helped me see what led to my own isolation.

For me, there was the typical post-college drift that occurs for many in their 20s. I had perpetual part-time work, nothing secure, and I didn’t understand my place in society. This feeling became exaggerated and extreme enough that I pulled away and dismissed everything and everyone. Things like patriotism and community made little sense to me because I’d never seen these words put into any meaningful action. Corporate America looked like a massive cess-pool (and still does), and every political campaign made me marvel at the country’s existence (I still feel mind-boggled when I remember that George W. was allowed to be the President).

This feeling of purposelessness has persisted on a personal level, and I’d still place myself in the precariat, but I have come to accept that I’m not alone and that I am part of something larger. That helps me see beyond myself enough that hiding in my room forever is no longer an option. For many, this outlook doesn’t exist. As precarious as my employment is, I don’t fear becoming homeless. Many in both the U.S. and Japan can not say the same.

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Allison uses personal stories to relate much of Japan’s woes, using anecdotal experience to add some emotional impact to the daunting number of statistics she also doles out. Of note was a series of stories she told about Japanese citizens living out of internet cafes, where they rent a private cubicle with a computer, living and sleeping in a six by six box. There were other stories about elderly Japanese being found dead in their homes, neglected and forgotten about sometimes for years at a time. She tells stories about homeless children who live in parks, still managing to attend school and somehow hiding their homelessness from teachers and friends. Stories like this could well be told all over the United States, and it’s not difficult to relate to what the Japanese are going through in the 21st century.

On the whole, Precarious Japan is worth reading if one has any stake or interest in the country of Japan. I found things within it to relate to, clearly, but I think it’s an important book for anyone who cares about social justice or income equality. It’s certainly left-wing, and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps crowd will find much to argue with, but it intelligently explains how a country could rise to become one of the most affluent nations but find itself victim to a malaise that threatens to destroy it. Allison’s position as a non-native who cares deeply for a country that she seems to have adopted as her own carries weight for those of us who have fallen in love with Japan without ever gracing its shores.

In the same way that I feel hope for the United States, I also feel hope for Japan, as does Allison in her summation of that country’s situation. There are people, particularly within the youth, that are struggling to recapture those feelings of community and connected-ness that are so vital to being human. Japan might seem precarious, but there’s clearly a foundation that is not so easily swept away by strong waves. stay_strong__japan_by_johnchan-d3c7da4

 

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