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Reviewed by:
  • Bad Youth: Juvenile Delinquency and the Politics of Everyday Life in Modern Japan
  • Brian Platt
Bad Youth: Juvenile Delinquency and the Politics of Everyday Life in Modern Japan. By David R. Ambaras ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. xii plus 297 pp. $49.95).

This solidly researched, well-written book contributes to our understanding of juvenile delinquency in modern Japan on multiple levels. It is in part a social history, providing enough statistical data and individual case stories to reconstruct a composite picture of the lives of delinquent youth in Tokyo during the first half of the 20th century. It also describes vividly the various youth subcultures that provided both social milieus and cultural identities for young people in urban Japan.

The analytical thrust of the book, however, comes from what other people—government officials and middle class commentators, in particular—said about those youths. And they said a lot. Beginning around the turn of the century, Japanese officials and a burgeoning mass media latched on to juvenile delinquency as a "social problem." Newspapers, women's magazines, social science journals, and government white papers generated troubling and titillating images of urban streets teeming with unsupervised children, libidinous young wo- men, gangs of street toughs, and dissolute middle-schools students. In the words of one newspaper exposé, this was "a hidden world, outside the law and undetected by police," one in which youth "learn the ways of evildoing." This interest in deviant youth was not just about middle class voyeurism. Juvenile delinquency served as an arena within which Japanese people voiced concerns over the social and cultural changes that accompanied the country's modernization. Delinquency was framed alternately as the residual influence of Japan's pre-modern past or the direct outgrowth of its modern transformation; in either case, controlling delinquency was about controlling social change and wringing out the deficiencies of Japan's modernity from the national body.

Juvenile delinquency was not unusual in this regard. Early 20th-century commentators identified countless social problems—everything from rural decline to "modern girls" and jazz music—that were similarly freighted with larger anxieties about Japan's modern identity. What made youth delinquence unusual was the extent to which it fueled the development of institutions. Much of Ambaras' book is devoted to tracing the proliferation of laws and agencies and campaigns [End Page 770] designed to address this recently defined problem of delinquency. Believing that delinquents' behavior could be reformed through environmental controls, the government established reformatories to teach delinquent youth discipline, cooperation, hygiene and other middle-class virtues. It created a juvenile court system to deal specifically with youth offenders—a departure from the Tokugawa era, when the state did not, by and large, make distinctions between youth and adult criminals. It established "youth continuation schools" and vocational guidance programs to extend the state's socializing influence to post-elementary school youth who otherwise would have directly entered the urban work force. Ambaras also illuminates the close institutional ties among these various programs and agencies. Collectively, he argues, they formed a "dense net of surveillance" which authorities used to police and regulate the activities of Japanese youth. Reformists endeavored to extend the reach of this net into every setting of youth life, particularly the home, the school, and the workplace.

One of Ambaras' main points about this network of surveillance is that it took shape largely through the combined efforts of reformist bureaucrats and middle class activists. Government support was crucial, as were the police, but what made this network so intrusive was that it was embedded within the fabric of society. Community leaders, businesses, social scientists, Christian and Buddhist organizations, and women's groups were eagerly mobilized to "protect" youth through surveillance and regulation. The guiding rationale behind this project was defined less by reactionary, moralistic killjoys than by the modernist ambition to manage, and ultimately perfect, society through the application of science and reason. Reformists' ideological orientations varied widely, but Ambaras downplays the significance of these differences. He argues that most reformists—along with the police and authoritarian elements within the government—shared the goal of "rendering surveillance ubiquitous" as a means of combating the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 770-772
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-05
Open Access
No
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