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Reviewed by:
  • Precarious Japan by Anne Allison
  • Allison Alexy
Anne Allison, Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 248pp.

Especially after the disasters of March 2011, the risks that Japan faces might seem to come primarily from under the ground. What are now called the “3/11” disasters began with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan, which created a tremendously large tsunami wave that rushed inland, decimating communities, collapsing buildings, and killing more than 18,600 people (Gill, Steger, and Slater 2013:6). Hitting a Fukushima nuclear power plant that had already been damaged by the earthquake, and overwhelming its ten-foot protective seawall, the tsunami crippled the plant’s back-up generator required to keep coolant circulating around nuclear fuel rods. Without the mechanism to cool fuel rods, reactors melted down, releasing radioactive materials into the air, ground, and ocean water. Thousands of people within a 20-kilometer radius of the nuclear plant were required to evacuate, and many still remain unable to return to their communities. In the months afterward, the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), admitted that they had minimized or ignored predictions that back-up generators would fail after large tsunami waves hit (Gill, Steger, and Slater 2013:19; Fackler 2012). In a nation that is perpetually preparing for the next big earthquake, even these events were shocking (Sayre 2011). In various public demonstrations, tens of thousands of people marched to close all nuclear power plants, to change national energy policy, to improve government oversight, to protest TEPCO’s willful incompetence, or to remember the dead. National campaigns asked people to use less power, while public spaces around the country were lit with fewer lights and heated or cooled to less extreme temperatures. Throughout the country, the message “Keep at it, Japan!” (gambare Nippon!) became a [End Page 541] common symbol for national unity.1 In these almost-simultaneous national disasters, Japan’s precarious location at the intersection of three seismic fault lines was rendered even more violently unstable through lax government oversight, cost-cutting private industry policies, and hope that the worst-case scenario would not come to pass.

In her new book, Precarious Japan, Anne Allison makes a compelling case that the risks that come with earthquakes and their aftermath give only a partial sense of the problems that shape contemporary Japan. In addition to the precarity resulting from treacherous geological conditions, Allison argues, restructured labor markets have impaired intimate connections and shifted family norms to create a generation of Japanese people living at the edge of oblivion. People are living precariously not only within range of possible radioactive fallout, but also as perpetually “temporary” workers who can barely earn enough to live, as the invisible homeless who pass as average citizens moving through a typical day, or as young adults who express their worries by refusing to leave their bedrooms. Although other social scientists have examined these problems as individual phenomena, Allison suggests that analyzing the problems together—seeing them as pieces of a larger whole—makes possible a holistic perspective on the risks that encompass contemporary Japanese people. She argues that these diverse risks result from changing labor patterns, specifically the decrease in stable, predictable employment. Indeed her key term, “precarious,” extends terminology that most typically describes a category of labor: “precarious employment” is marked by the loss of any possible security or stability that might have been expected for postwar Fordist laborers, and the “precariat” describes “the precarious proletariat of irregular workers” (7). In the last 20 years, the Japanese labor market has grown to include huge numbers of irregular workers, contract laborers, and freelancers, and these patterns of employment have initiated tremendous reverberations throughout Japanese society. For instance, Allison retells horrifying murders that are often extensions of domestic violence, narrates examples of children living on the streets after being abandoned by family members, and describes local governments’ struggles to find blood relatives willing to help the growing population of disconnected elderly people. Focusing on the labor market as tectonic plates moving beneath the surface of Japanese society, Allison proposes that a wide variety of social problems can be...


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pp. 541-553
Launched on MUSE
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