In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Exploited and Mobilized:Poverty and Work in Contemporary Manga
  • Matthew Penney (bio)

In 2006, Takenaka Heizō, an economist turned politician who acted as one of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō's most important advisors, quipped, "There just isn't a serious poverty problem in this country."1 Callous and unrealistic in 2006, this statement seems even more far-fetched in the recession-hit Japan of 2010.

Through the 2000s, under the banner of "deregulation," poorly paid, nonrenewable, short-term contract work was established as the norm for youth employment.2 At the same time, a lack of serious action against corporate malfeasance made it difficult for many full-time workers to avoid unpaid overtime or unsafe working conditions.3 Rather than looking seriously at the structural reasons behind the swelling ranks of working poor and furiitaa—"freeters" or young workers who move from one part-time job to another—many politicians and public commentators have instead attacked the young for failing to grin and bear it in accordance with the example set by earlier postwar generations. Asō Tarō, prime minister between 2008 and 2009, commented on the necessity of young people learning a "proper attitude toward work."4 Youths are even said to be too lazy and shiftless to take full-time jobs. Bestsellers like Miura Atsushi's Karyū shakai (The downstream society, [End Page 52] 2005) spread an image of Japanese young people as lost in hobbies or unrealistic dreams, with little desire for permanent employment or integration into adult society.5 The result of this and similar books, some with plainly insulting titles like Keitai o motta saru (The monkeys with mobile phones),6 as well as identical patterns of representation on television and in political discourse, has been the now widespread idea that young people are to blame for both their increasing impoverishment and Japan's economic and perceived social slip backward. Blaming the victims has served to draw attention away from Japan's climbing poverty rate, now among the highest in the OECD: 15.7 percent in 2007.7 The young have been hit disproportionately hard.

Youth culture, particularly the manga medium, offers an alternative to the conservative imagining of poverty as nonexistent in Japan or as something that can be exclusively blamed on the young. I will begin by looking at typical modes of representing poverty in manga from the 1970s through the 1990s, focusing on two of the most common themes—aspiration and moratorium. I will then examine how two recent manga, Helpman! (2003-) and Ikigami (Notice of passing, 2005-), take a different thematic direction, exploring a host of social and policy failures. Manga like these can spur us to confront issues as diverse as the social safety net, militarized visions of young people and the state, and alienation and endemic poverty. Both avoid the typical framing of youth poverty as a rite of passage or lifestyle choice, while challenging the idea that young people are too soft to make the grade. As such, they open alternative ways of understanding poverty and work in contemporary Japan.

Beyond Aspiration and Moratorium

In the 1990s, it was still easy to laugh at youth poverty in Japan. For instance, Binbo manga taikei (An anthology of poverty manga, 1999), a collection of essays and reflections on poverty manga, gives readers a sense of the carefree fun that characterized poverty comics of the past. The cover promises, "No bath, no meat, no car, no women, no degree. We've got nothing. But we've got freedom!"8 This collection does not look critically at poverty or at representations of underclass youth. The formula "poverty equals fun" does not address actual hardship and widening inequality.

The kinds of poverty manga included in the anthology suggest two ways of imagining poverty: aspiration and moratorium. Aspiration finds expression in popular titles by Matsumoto Leiji such as Space Battleship Yamato [End Page 53] (Uchū senkan Yamato, 1974-75) and Galaxy Express 999 (Ginga tetusdō 999, 1977-81). But other Matsumoto Leiji works from the 1970s such as Ganso daiyonjōhan daimono-agatari (Great tale of a four and a half mat room, 1970-74) and Otoko oidon (I am a man, 1971-73...