Recently I have read the following. The book summary and my comment are as follows:
Book title: Sawako Shirahase. 2014. Social inequality in Japan. London and NY: Routledge.
According to Sawako Shirahase, from the 1970s to the 1980s, the buzz-word to describe Japan was: “the all-middle-class society” (p.3). In 1977 Murakami and Tominage both argued that there was a great homogeneity of lifestyle and outlook in Japan (p.4). Yet such confident assertions of Japan as an egalitarian society started to fade from the late 1980s into the 1990s (p.4).
Is the degree of inequality in Japan something so very different from those industrial societies of the West? Was its degree of inequality high or low? These were the major questions which the author wanted to take up in this book (p.5). Shirahase deals with these questions in seven separate chapters.
Chapter 1 of the book tackles the question of how unequal a society Japan was. Japan was used to compare with countries such as the America, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and Taiwan. The author’s concern was where Japan stood among them (p.13). Chapter 2 was about female participation in the laborer force. Ch. 3 examines income inequality among households that had children. The chief explanation of the decline in fertility since 1990 was the reduced fertility of married couple. This chapter examines where the income gap had increased most, through looking into changes in the income distribution in families with children (p.14). Ch. 4 concentrates on unmarried adults in relation to the decrease in fertility. In the 1990s many people talked about the “parasite singles”. Since 2000 the media focused at the worsening of the youth labor market. The chapter looks at the economic welfare situation of households containing adult singles, distinguishing between the relatively young and the old. Ch. 5 looks at one aspect of the family as a basic social institution with its own normative structure, and examines the gender division of labor, and attitudes towards mother working outside the home. The chapter also looks at the attitudes towards working mothers in various countries and the relation of those attitudes to social structures. Ch. 6 looks at changes in income inequality in relation to the aging of population and generational changes. The chapter looks at the relation between the old age and household composition, using international comparisons to illuminate the differences in economic well-being among the aged. Ch. 7 concentrates on single-person household and compares Japan with other countries in respect to income distribution among the aged. This chapter also looks at the changes within three-generation households, and the difference it made, comparing with the situation in Europe where it was not the general practice for old people to live with their children (p.15).
To conclude the book Shirahase brings together the observation made, and views expressed in the seven chapters to answer the questions: First, was inequality in Japan representing a social problem that was shared by other major countries? Second, was inequality due to a process of population aging simultaneously with a falling birth rate a common feature to all countries, or merely a feature peculiar to Japan? Third, was the discussion and concern expressed over increasing inequality, and its relation to the ageing/lower fertility, a feature special to Japan only, or was it a social problem common to all countries? (p.16).
Looking at the inequality in Japan, primarily economic inequality and comparing with other major OECD countries, the book confirms that inequality was everywhere (p.188). The structure of equality was rooted in the social institution created by the society, and as such it was changeable and controllable.
The book shows that the degree of inequality in Japan was neither especially high nor low. Although there were nothing stood out on inequality in Japan as a society, three unique features could be noted. First, there was more perception of inequalities than the degree of actual income distribution warranted. Second, a distinctive feature of Japan was that, in the labor market and within the family, gender differences were very great. Labor participation rate among women was not particularly low, but the gender wage gap in Japan was the highest among the countries. The third distinctive feature was the high poverty rate among single person households, and also among single-parent households. It was here that Japan had deviated from the norm.
It is especially noted that in Japan nearly 90% of the mothers of single-parent families had a job. The poverty was not because they did not work, but because they were the working poor. What helped them to survive was often by living with their parents instead of going out to work. This was a distinctive characteristic of Japan (p.193).
The thoroughness of his research is amazing. The book reminds me that more than one hundred years ago Emile Durkheim, using the statistics, explored the differing suicide rates among European countries. Through a process of elimination, Dirkheim had successfully argued that it was the stronger social control among Catholics that was responsible for a lower suicide rates in their society. Conversely the Protestant society had a higher level of suicide because of its lower level of social control. Shirahase, like Durkheim, using charts and graphs, has convincingly given answers to the questions raised by her. Also, she is able to point out the solutions to the problems of social inequality. Overall it is a very good book.