Class and Work in Cultural Capitalism: Japanese Trends (part 2)

The debate over the performance model flared up because it started affecting the elite sector; ‘Japanese-style’ management has never applied to small businesses which adjust their employment structure according to economic fluctuations, with workers moving from one company to another with considerable frequency. An increasing number of non-regular workers, those part-timers and casuals with no long-term employment base, are hired and fired depending upon performance and output. One should, therefore, examine the debate over the competing models of work with a conscious focus on the lower end of the labor-force hierarchy.

Cultural Capitalism: An Emerging Mega-sector

Culture has become big business around the world with advanced economies increasingly dominated by the information, education, medicine, welfare and other cultural industries that specialize in the world of symbols, images and representations. Japan’s capitalism has been at the forefront in this area by producing fresh value-added commodities in the face of growing competition from Asian countries to which the centers of industrial production had shifted. No longer the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, Japanese capitalism has carved out new and enormous markets through expertise in the worlds of software technology, visual media, music, entertainment, hospitality and leisure. In these fields, Japanese companies continue to hold comparative advantage and claim international superiority, thereby releasing a constant stream of cultural products into the global market and reshaping the Japanese economy.

One may argue that Japan has now developed cultural capitalism, which relies upon the production of symbols, knowledge and information as the guiding principle of wealth creation and focuses upon cultural attractions and activities as the primary motivating factors underpinning consumption. The debate over ‘soft power’ and ‘Japan Cool’ has arisen in this context. To provide a map of the comparative features of emerging cultural capitalism as distinguished from conventional industrial capitalism, Table 2 contrasts the modus operandi of the two types of capitalism in existence today. It should be stressed that the features in the cells do not denote exclusive properties of each type but exhibit the relative points of emphasis of the two for comparative purposes.

As early as the 1980s, market analysts were quick to point out that the patterns of Japanese consumer behavior were becoming diversified in a fundamental way. Previously, manufacturers sold models standardized for mass consumption, successfully promoting them through sales campaigns and advertisements. Recently, however, this strategy has become ineffective as consumers have begun to seek products in tune with their personal preferences. They have become more unpredictable, selective, and inquisitive. The notion of the Japanese as uniform mass consumers does not effectively account for their consumer behavior patterns today. A consumer behavior study21 suggested the emergence of shōshū – individualized, divided, and small-unit masses – as opposed to taishū, the undifferentiated, uniform, and large-scale mass. The research institute of Hakuhōdō,22 a leading advertising agency, also argued that the notion of bunshū (segmented masses) would account for the behavior of consumers more effectively than the conventional view of them as a homogeneous entity. In short, cultural capitalism thrives with mass customization, the production of many different commodities tailored for specific focus groups, unlike industrial capitalism that is built upon the mass production of a small number of standardized goods. If industrial capitalism survives on the relative homogeneity of consumer lifestyles, cultural capitalism rests upon their differentiation. Mobile phones, for instance, are frequently revamped with different functions, designs and colors, fashioned to fulfill the distinct desires of particular and shifting demographics.

Contents of takeout box lunches sold to office workers at convenience stores are highly varied to satisfy the diverse tastes of youngsters, women, middle-aged men and other socio-economic groups.

Such differentiation of consumer motivations mirrors alterations in the criteria of class formation. Hara and Seiyama, leading experts in social stratification, argue that inequality has been removed in contemporary ‘affluent’ Japan as far as ‘basic goods’ are concerned, while the nation is increasingly stratified in pursuit of what they call ‘upper goods.’23 Absolute poverty was eradicated when the population’s subsistence needs were met. Almost every household can now afford a television set, telephone, car, rice cooker and other essential goods for a comfortable daily life. Virtually all teenagers advance to senior high school and fulfill their basic educational requisites. In the meantime, community perceptions of social stratification are becoming multi-dimensional. The different sectors of the Japanese population are increasingly divergent in their respective evaluations of status indicators. Some attach importance to asset accumulation, while others regard occupational kudos as crucial. Still others would deem quality of life the most significant dimension. In each sphere, what Hara and Seiyama call ‘upper goods’ are scarce, be they luxury housing, postgraduate education or deluxe holidays, with these expensive commodities being beyond the reach of many people. Thus, social divisions in Japanese society today derive not so much from the unequal distribution of commonplace and mundane industrial goods as from that of prestigious and stylish cultural goods.

It is an established convention to divide economies into three sectors of activity: the primary sector (including agriculture and fisheries) which transforms natural resources into products, the secondary sector (comprising manufacturing and construction) which produces finished goods from the output of the primary sector, and the tertiary sector which offers services or intangible goods and encompasses industries ranging from retail, wholesale, finance and real estate to the public service. Given that some 70 percent of workers in Japan are now employed in the tertiary sector,24 this sector needs reclassification according to internal varieties. Specifically, the recent expansion of areas that make knowledge-based, informational and value-added products form what may be categorized as the quaternary sector which branches off from the conventional tertiary sector. Though no governmental statistics are based on such category, on a rough and conservative estimate, approximately one quarter of Japan’s workforce operates in this sphere, ranging from employees in the information and telecommunications industries, medical, health care and welfare sectors, restaurants, hotels and other leisure businesses to education and teaching support staff, and government workers. As Table 3 suggests, the number of employees engaged in the quaternary sector is on par with that of those in the manufacturing and construction industries that are typically classified as the secondary sector. These figures are admittedly very crude approximations.25 Nevertheless, broadly speaking, cultural workers undoubtedly predominate as much as industrial workers in the landscape of Japan’s workforce today.

In tandem with these domestic shifts, Japan is now seen internationally as a superpower in terms of cultural ‘soft power’ that exercises a significant influence around the world in various areas of popular culture, including computer games, pop music, fashion, architecture, not to mention manga and anime. In the field of education, the Kumon method which has spread across at least forty four countries and territories uses special methods to tutor children in a variety of subjects. In music, the Suzuki method is marketed as a unique and special approach to enhance musical talent. Even in sushi restaurants, Japanese cuisine techniques constitute the core of business activity.

Nintendo is now a household name around the world, and computer games made in Japan enjoy immense popularity. So do Sudoku puzzles initially actively commercialized in Japan. These developments reflect the sharp edges of the emerging international division of labor in which the production of cultural goods occupies a crucial position in advanced economies in general and Japanese capitalism in particular.

All this signifies that the knowledge-intensive skills that are based on exclusive patents, copyrights and intellectual properties take on increasingly profound significance and attach greater significance to the cultural dimensions of production.

Cultural capitalism goes hand in hand with cultural nationalism. Japan’s state machinery regards the expansion of its cultural capitalism as a global strategy to enhance the nation’s position in the international hierarchy. In particular, the popularity of Japanese cultural goods has a special meaning in Asia where competing historical interpretations of World War II still cause contention. Even though memories of the past and the cultural trade of the present are two separate dimensions, it is a part of the master plan of the Japanese state that the prevailing popular image of Japanese cultural commodities in Asia will aid Japan as a nation in gaining general acceptance in the region in the long run. The notion that Japan as the most advanced country in Asia should lead other nations in the region concurs with the worldview of the Japanese establishment, even though the idea sometimes conjures up the wartime Japanese ideology of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

It is also worth noting here that an increasing number of workers in the cultural sector, if not all, can produce their commodities without being bound to a particular physical place of work. If industrial capitalism originated from the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, cultural capitalism exploded with the Information Revolution in the late twentieth century, accompanied by the sudden expansion of the internet and the proliferation of mobile phones. Cyberspace technology enables cultural workers to be de-localized, and this tends to facilitate the above-mentioned casualization of employment. At the same time, the creative expertise of cultural products can easily be copied without authorization and pirated inter-territorially. To confront the situation, the ‘Basic Law of Intellectual Properties’ was enacted in 2002 to safeguard not only Japanese patents but also the nation’s contents industry that produces original texts, images, movies, music and other creative data, while strict state regulation of cyberspace continues to be a near impossibility.

In this environment, workers become fragmented, with their work life becoming increasingly compartmentalized. Labor unions which used to be the bastion of worker solidarity have gradually lost membership and power, and individual employees attempt to defend themselves by being self-centered, resourceful and entrepreneurial. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Japanese are concerned less with the survival and subsistence issues that govern industrial capitalism and more with the precariousness of their sense of identity and reality, the existential issues that characterize cultural capitalism. This trend forms a backdrop against which people attempt to carve out a new form of community in expanding civil society.26


Asahi Shimbun ‘Lost Generation’ Shuzai-han 2007, Lost generation: smayou 2-sen mannin (The lost generation: straying twenty million). Asahi Shimbunsha.

Chiavacci, David 2008, ‘From class struggle to general middle-class society to divided society: Models of inequality in postwar Japan’, Social Science Japan Journal, vol. 11, no. 1: 5–27.

Chūō Kōron Henshūbu and Nakai, Kōichi (eds) 2003, Ronsō: Gakuryoku hōkai (Debate on the disruption of academic ability). Chūō Kōronsha.

Fujita, Wakao 1984, Sayonara, taishū (A farewell to masses). Kyoto: PHP Kenkyūsho.

Hakuhōdō Seikatsu Sōgō Kenkyūsho 1985, ‘Bunshū’ no tanjō (The emergence of segmented masses). Nihon Keizai Shimbunsha.

Hara, Junsuke and Seiyama, Kazuo 2006, Inequality amid Affluence: Social Stratification in Japan. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Ishida, Hiroshi 2010, ‘Does class matter in Japan?’, in Hiroshi Ishida and David H. Slater (eds), Social Class in Japan, London: Routledge, pp. 33–56.

Kenessey, Zoltan 1987, ‘The primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary sectors of the economy,’ Review of Income and Wealth, vol. 33, issue 4: 359–85.

Kōsei Rōdōshō (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) 2006, Heisei 18-nenban rōdō keizai no bunseki (Analysis of labor economics, 2006).

Kosugi, Reiko 2008, Escape from Work: Freelancing Youth and the Challenge to Corporate Japan. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Morioka, Kōji 2009, Hinkonka suru howaito karā (The impoverished white collar). Chikuma Shobō.

NHK Special ‘Working Poor’ Shuzai-han 2007, Working Poor: Nippon o mushibamu yamai (The working poor: the dicease that gnaws away at Japan). Popla-sha.

Satō, Toshiki 2000, Fubyōdō shakai Nippon (Japan: Not an egalitarian society). Chūō Kōronsha.

Shirase, Sawako 2010, ‘Marriage as an association of social classes in a low fertility rate society, Hiroshi Ishida and David H. Slater (eds), Social Class in Contemporary Japan. London: Routledge, pp. 57–83.

Tachibanaki, Toshiaki 2005, Confronting Income Inequality in Japan: A Comparative Analysis of Causes, Consequences, and Reform. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Tōkei Sūri Kenkyūsho (Institute of Statistical Mathematics) 2009, ‘Kokumin-sei no kenkyū: 2008-nen dai 12-kai zenkoku chōsa’ (Studies of national character: the 12th national survey, conducted in 2008). Tōkei Chōsa Kenkyō Report.

Yoshio Sugimoto is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, La Trobe University and Director, Trans Pacific Press Pty Ltd

He drew on material from his Introduction to Japanese Society to prepare this article.

His Recent books include An Introduction to Japanese Society, third edition (2010) and The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture (2009).

Recommended citation:Yoshio SUGIMOTO, "Class and Work in Cultural Capitalism: Japanese Trends," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 40-1-10, October 4, 2010.

Articles on related subjects:

Nobuko Adachi, Ethnic Identity, Culture, and Race: Japanese and Nikkei at Home and Abroad

Stephanie Assmann and Sebastian Maslow, Dispatched and Displaced: Rethinking Employment and Welfare Protection in Japan

David H. Slater, The Making of Japan's New Working Class: "Freeters" and the Progression From Middle School to the Labor Market

Recommended citation: Yoshio Sugimoto, "Class and Work in Cultural Capitalism: Japanese Trends," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 40-1-10, October 4, 2010.


1 This article is based on material drawn from An Introduction to Japanese Society, third edition (Cambridge University Press 2010) and submitted at the invitation of Japan Focus.

2 For an excellent analysis of the paradigm change, see Chiavacci 2008.

3 Satō 2000 initiated the debate.

4 Tachibanaki 2005 is one of the best studies in the area.

5 Shirahase 2010.

6 Tokyo Daigaku Kōhō Iinkai 2008. The data were gathered in 2007.

7 Japan’s relative poverty rate, an indicator of the percentage of low-income earners, was 14.9 percent in 2004, the fourth highest among the OECD’s thirty member nations, and rose to 15.7 percent in 2007. The relative poverty rate represents the percentage of income earners whose wage is below half of the median income.

8 See Tōkei Sūri Kenkyūsho 2009, Table 1.8.

9 See Ishida 2010.

10 The total index of structural mobility records a consistent upward trend throughout the postwar years. The agricultural population provides the only exception to this propensity, showing a consistent downward trend. The total index arrived at its peak in 1975, reflecting a massive structural transformation which transpired during the so-called high-growth period starting in the mid 1960s.

11 Morioka 2009.

12 Satō 2000. Some experts dispute this thesis. See, for example, Hara and Seiyama 2005, pp. xxiii–vi.

13 Chūō Kōron Henshūbu and Nakai 2003.

14 The Labor Force Survey conducted in 2008 by the Ministry of Welfare, Labor and Health.

15 See NHK Special 2007.

16 For details, see Kosugi 2008.

17 Asahi Shimbun ‘Lost Generation’ Shuzai-han 2007.

18 Kōsei Rōdōshō 2006. The figures are calculated from data collected in 2002.

19 Tōkei Sūri Kenkyūsho 2009, Table 5.6. In the 2008 survey, 81 percent support the former type and 15 the latter.

20 Tōkei Sūri Kenkyūsho 2009, Table 5.6b. Both in 2003 and 2008, the figures were 53 percent versus 44 percent.

21 Fujita 1984.

22 Hakuhōdō 1985.

23 This is a major theme of Hara and Seiyama 2005. See pp. 164–7 in particular.

24 Labor Force Survey in 2007, conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

25 The so-called ‘compound’ and ‘other’ service industries include cultural enterprises, such as ‘political, business and cultural organizations’ and ‘religion.’ Some researchers of the quaternary sector – such as Kenessey 1987 – include ‘real estate’ in this sector. Our approximation here is quite conservative, and we simply wish to show that the quaternary sector now forms an independent, expanding and sufficiently large sector in its own right.

26 The thesis is examined in Chapter 10 of the book
by mihaela_romania | 2010-11-19 01:53