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  • Lifelong Learning in Neoliberal Japan: Risk, Community, and Knowledge by Akihiro Ogawa
  • Robert Aspinall (bio)
Lifelong Learning in Neoliberal Japan: Risk, Community, and Knowledge. By Akihiro Ogawa. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2015. xvi, 237 pages. $80.00, cloth; $26.95, paper.

The lifecourse of a successful middle-class Japanese male in the postwar socioeconomic system began with cramming for exams in school, entering a good university, and gaining a permanent place in a large, established company. This would be followed by loyal and devoted service to that one company until retirement. Most females and over half of the male population were not included in this story, but they benefited from its success by sharing in a general rise in living standards that only came to an end in the early 1990s. Since then, social scientists and government agencies have struggled to find appropriate models to make sense of the new period of sluggish growth and widening inequality and to provide policy solutions that can help ordinary people. Because of the apparent uncertainty and loss of security that characterize this phase of history, some scholars have made use of the concept of "risk" as an analytical tool. Akihiro Ogawa, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Melbourne, is one of these, and in his new book has written a qualitative ethnography which showcases Japan's lifelong learning policy through the lens of two types of risk, governmental risk and socioeconomic risk.

In the case of the first paradigm, governmental risk, the book locates lifelong learning policy within the current political discourse on neoliberalism and identifies it as a governmental project to reframe the relationship between the state and the individual. The second paradigm, socioeconomic risk, is used to shed light on the shift from public to private social security [End Page 504] that is taking place and is linked with Ulrich Beck's notion of individualization (a concept that goes hand in hand with his theory of the "risk society"). In Japan, lifelong learning takes place in citizens' public halls (kōminkan), libraries, museums, public schools, and not-for-profit organizations (NPOs). Hundreds of private "culture centers" are also provided by department stores, newspaper companies, and other private enterprises.

Building upon work done in his 2009 book, The Failure of Civil Society?1 Ogawa argues that the Japanese state has attempted to reorganize the public sphere by the generation of new "disciplined knowledge" based on a strong lifelong learning initiative. In order to build his case, Ogawa analyzes government documents, mostly from the Ministry of Education or related agencies and councils, and then discusses how policy becomes practice in various sites that were the focus of his ethnographic research. The greatest ethnographic detail is provided in chapter 6 in the author's account of a vocational course in Aomori Prefecture provided for salarymen made redundant mid-career. The course was held in an NPO support center, and government grants and loans were provided to those who enrolled after recently losing their jobs.

One of the most visible symptoms of the decline of old certainties is the appearance since the early 1990s of so many mid-career unemployed salarymen. The inability of many of these men to cope with this "failure" is shown by the awful suicide statistics for middle-aged Japanese males. Ogawa found that "[b]etween 1953 and 2003, each single percentage-point increase in the cyclical component of the male unemployment rate led to a 5.39 percentage-point increase in the cyclical component of the male suicide rate" (p. 145). There is clearly an urgent need for mainstream Japanese society to shake off its obsession with the traditional "loyal employee for life" model of employment and to embrace a more flexible "learning society" model in which university graduates understand they will almost certainly work for more than one employer and quite probably have more than one career as the economy shifts and changes in ways that cannot possibly be predicted at any fixed moment in time. In this context, government efforts (which were accelerated after passage of the 1999 Lifelong Learning Promotion Law) to help those faced with sudden redundancy in mid...