Ordinary Refugees: Social Precarity and Soul in 21st Century Japan


In the aftermath of the bursting of the Bubble economy in 1991, a turn to more flexible labor since the late 1980s, and the recent disaster (of earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor accident) of March 11th, the socioeconomic equilibrium in Japan has been shaken. In contrast to the post-war era of high economic growth when lifelong jobs and a middle-class lifestyle were the norm, today these staples of “good living” have become undermined or unobtainable for more and more Japanese. Not only are more workers irregularly employed (called the “precariat” or precarious proletariat by activist Amamiya Karin), but there are signs of a more pervasive precarity—experienced by more than just the precariat—at the level of an evisceration of social ties, connectedness with others, and a sense of security. Taking the example of “net café refugees”—young working poor who live in net cafés—as paradigmatic of what has been called the “refugeeization” of Japan as a place no longer materially or socially secure for many of its citizens, the essay studies the condition of “social precarity” in post post-war Japan. This is looked at through the lens of affect: not only the state of precarity as it is experienced affectively (as a pain and longing for what still gets assumed to be “ordinary”), but also the affects deployed in practices adopted by the socially disenfranchised and economically precariat to survive. Seeing in these extra-economic networks of survival a glimmer of social change—a recalibration of human life and relationality in a new direction—I consider them to be a biopolitics of life from below, constituting new zones of (post post-Fordist) social possibility for Japan/ese.