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Young Women in Japan: Transitions to Adulthood by Kaori H. Okano (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 448-451 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0052

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This book is a product of a long and unusual relationship that started in 1989 between Kaori Okano, the author of this book, and her “informants.” Okano then was a Ph.D. candidate doing ethnographic fieldwork at municipal-vocational high schools in Kobe. She was exploring how working-class students made decisions about their postschool destinations. The vast majority of her original subjects, 100 students, entered the work force instead of pursuing tertiary education; Okano has kept in contact with 21 women from this group. Her research and relationship with these women are still ongoing, and this book portrays what has happened to them during the first 12 years after graduating from high school. In this respect, this book is a direct follow up to Okano’s previous work, School to Work Transition in Japan: An Ethnographic Study (Multilingual Matters, 1993), and offers an understanding of the transition to adulthood in a non-Western, postindustrial society. This remarkable 12-year longitudinal study invites readers to witness these women’s personal lives and how they made decisions through critical life events, such as changing jobs, forming relationships, entering marriages, getting divorces, and having children.

This book is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses on eight women and presents their detailed life histories in chronological order. Part 2 analyzes themes that emerged from the life trajectories of the 21 women in Okano’s study.

The extensive biographies based on vivid narratives in the first part read like novels, the plots of which are, in fact, “stranger than fiction.” Okano’s descriptions allow the readers to follow the young women’s journeys into adulthood through their perceptions and interpretations of their immediate circumstances: deciding priorities, making choices about employment, job training, education, family, relationships, and leisure. As the young women’s lives unfold, their paths, shaped by their choices and constraints, take them in different directions. For example, Miyuki started her job as a cashier at one of the Co-op supermarkets. When she was assigned to design a window display and use her lettering skills to write price tags, she rediscovered her love and talent for art. Having studied interior design in high school and with her supervisor’s support, she develops her career as a “display specialist.” Seven years after graduation, she decided to invest in herself and study design through a junior college correspondence course. Another example is Hatsumi, who was highly regarded by her teachers for her academic work and good manners but was unable to adjust to the transitions of employment, marriage, and parenthood. She eventually divorced and lost custody of her daughter. The vignettes of these women’s lives told through their narratives set the stage for Okano’s stylized commentary which gives concrete realities to the themes discussed in the second part of the book.

In part 2, the author examines themes that emerge out of the portraits of the 21 women in her study, including initial entry into employment, forming relationships, entering marriage, and getting divorced in their 20s. Okano draws upon statistics and other research studies to situate the individual lives of these women within the social and historical context of young Japanese adulthood in the last decade of the twentieth century. The distinctive narratives of life histories being the warp, Okano’s voice as an interviewer being the woof, the thematic patterns reveal a landscape woven in an intricate tapestry.

The 21 women in this study have several features in common: birth cohort, class, gender, and the experience of a natural disaster. They belong to the same birth cohort, spending their last year of high school in 1989; they were brought up in working-class families, with only one parent of the whole group having a tertiary education background; they live in a society where gender plays a heavy role in distributing time, power, and resources; and they survived the devastating Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 in the most vulnerable areas of Kobe City.

Having been born in 1971, this generation would later be coined “the lost generation.” They came of age in the 1990s, the decade of recession and institutional restructuring that altered many of the components of a Japanese lifestyle...


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