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Lost in Transition: Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 38, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 493-498 | 10.1353/jjs.2012.0057

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With her latest monograph, Mary Brinton once again sets the standard for conducting original sociological research on Japan and presenting it to an international audience. Her book promises to shed light on the “lost generation” of Japanese youth who failed, against their parents’ expectations and often to their own deep dismay, to enter the long-term employment system during the “lost decade” that followed the 1991 burst of Japan’s real estate bubble.

The “lost generation” is a stylized, imprecise term, but in this reviewer’s interpretation it primarily refers to those who graduated and tried to enter the job market between 1997, the year when unemployment for 20- to 24- year-olds surpassed eight per cent, and 2003, the year this rate peaked at just below ten per cent. In this period, the demand for young full-time workers declined dramatically. Accordingly, the “lost generation” came to be closely associated with “irregular” (hiseiki), or nonstandard, employment, which by 2003 accounted for over 40 per cent of 15- to 24-year-old workers.

These trends entered the public consciousness through provocative labels such as parasite singles, freeters, and NEETs (those Not in Education, Employment, or Training). Early debates were critical of young people’s changed behavior, almost to the exclusion of social-structural and policy issues. In 2007, the Asahi shinbun attempted to shift the discourse by arguing that 20 million young adults belonged to a “lost generation” (rosu-jene).1 This signaled that an earlier assertion by Genda Yūji (whose insightful commentary appears in the Japanese version of Brinton’s book2 ) had permeated mainstream discourse: young adults, not elite salarymen, were the biggest losers in terms of work opportunities during the recession of the 1990s.

A closer reading of Brinton’s wonderfully narrated volume, while in broad agreement with Genda’s influential argument,3 reveals that it is not primarily about the individuals themselves who were “lost” in the course of Japan’s transition to a postindustrial economy. Neither is the book predominantly about the transformation of secure, identity-fixing social locations, which Brinton, drawing on Nakane Chie, refers to as ba. Rather, Lost in Transition is a sophisticated scholarly account of the loss of Japan’s elaborate high school–to–work system.

This system contrasted favorably with school-to-work transitions in the United States in the late 1980s (see preface), explaining why both Japanese and U.S. authors have afforded it positive attention. Given her longstanding interest in how institutions shape individuals’ lives, Brinton began to research this system in the mid-1990s. Contrary to her expectations, she discovered that the system had already begun to fracture. The stories shared by the teachers Brinton interviewed were so discrepant with former celebratory accounts of “smooth” transitions that she felt compelled to pursue this topic further.

Why is this transition system and its apparent unraveling so important? Building on her earlier work with collaborators such as Kariya Takehiko, Brinton persuasively argues that Japan’s school-work system used to be highly distinctive, especially vis-à-vis the United States, because it made social capital—in this case, social connections that catalyze the job-seeking process—available even to less-educated, nonelite youth (p. 54). This could be achieved through institutional social capital, i.e., enduring recruitment networks between schools and companies. In the 1960s and 1970s when labor demand was high, up to half of young Japanese men found jobs through this arrangement.

While it is unclear whether this system took individual talents and personal preferences seriously enough, in systemic terms it was a spectacular success—a “conveyor belt” into stable employment for males in particular. For Brinton, this transition framework was, and to some extent remains, a key component of Japan’s wider human capital development system in which the burdens of fostering young people’s human capital are shared between the family, the educational system, and companies.4 A breakdown in the institutional social capital of schools, then, implies not just disruption in the lives of nonelite young people unaccustomed to fending for themselves in unprotected labor markets (pp. 54, 175–76) but also a breakdown in human capital development, with wider economic consequences.5

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