- Precarious Japan by Anne Allison
How does one write an ethnography of a “sense of precarity” (p. 14)? How does one communicate through text the feelings of unease, discomfort, and insecurity that seem to pervade Japan following the collapse of its late-1980s bubble economy? Moreover, how does the transient ethnographer capture precisely that which subjects living through precarity themselves cannot so easily grasp and put into words? To be sure, conventional narratives attempting to explain national anxiety do exist in Japan: the disintegrating social ties (muen shakai), the increasingly unstable demographic trends of an aging society and decreasing birthrates (shōshi kōreika), a general lack of cultural confidence. But none of these narratives seems to quite capture the mood. More importantly, explaining sources of unrest are not the same as living them—of feeling them and experiencing their weight as either an impetus for action, or more [End Page 371] often, a burden that steadily wears one down. The challenge Allison takes up in the book under review is, then, to make us feel it. Understanding this aim is critical to reading and, I will argue, evaluating this important work.
What Allison wants us to feel is what she calls precarity: “the sense of an insecure life and the sense that it could, and sometimes does, turn quickly to death. Precarity that registers deeply in the social senses: of an affective turn to desociality that, for many, feels painfully bad” (p. 15). Within the body of literature on precarity, the concept was first used to describe European social and labor movements in the 1970s, where work conditions were experienced as “uncertain, unpredictable, and risky” (p. 6). Drawing on the work of Lauren Berlant, Allison explains precarity in relation to “a particular notion of, and social contract around, work … that is secure; work that secures not only income and job but identity and lifestyles, linking capitalism and intimacy in an affective desire for security itself” (p. 7). Precarity ensues when this sense of security is lost. With the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy in 1991 and the subsequent decline and then stalling of the economy, Japan entered a long period in which those components of life that had defined personal and financial security during the era of rapid economic growth—home, family, and lifetime employment—became precisely the things that were now most in jeopardy. From the mid-1990s, a turn to flexible employment led to a “liquidization [ryūdōka] in socioeconomic relations” (p. 7). Economic insecurity seeped into the intimate spaces of interpersonal relationships and individual identity, creating a sense of persistent unease and anxiety that has increasingly characterized life in contemporary Japan. Importantly, the “contemporary” Allison describes includes the transcription of anxiety through the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Although her manuscript was all but completed when the earthquake struck (and a final version submitted to her editor soon thereafter), a visit to Japan in the summer of 2011 led her to not only include a chapter on the disaster but to “reshape the entire book” (p. 18). Readers will no doubt benefit from the extra time and care she took in finalizing the text.
Allison begins her work by providing us with a historical contextualization of precarity in today’s Japan, demonstrating how a sense of unease becomes intricately coupled with national imagining and identity. To her credit, she does this while avoiding the temptation to attribute these feelings of insecurity to postwar Japan more generally. While many accounts of Japan’s recent history note a sense of national anxiety residing just below the surface of its national rhetoric throughout the postwar period, if not also earlier, Allison takes care in describing how this contemporary sense of precarity is an effect experienced in the aftermath of the more recent historical rise of “Japan, Inc.”—“the corporatization of its social economy and the ‘marriage’ between the social factory at home and the postindustrial factory at work that fueled its off-the-charts productivity” (p. 21). Integral to understanding precarity is that it...