Precarity as Freedom? Youth, Neoliberalism and the Dissolution of ‘Japan, Inc.’

by Shuto Fukuoka

It would not be an overstatement to say that the Japanese youth of today are significantly foreign to the one a couple of decades ago, in relation to their lives, values, and consciousness. Throughout the post-war period, and particularly the past two decades, Japan witnessed dramatic socioeconomic transformation. Japanese society was founded on long-lasting jobs, marriages, and quite-uniform connections under the order of ‘Japan, Inc.’ ‘Lifetime employment’ (shushin koyō) and the ‘seniority-based payment system’ (nenkō joretsu) served as the very bedrock of Japanese corporate philosophy – a system underpinned by both hierarchies of age and, at the same time, an egalitarian approach to human relations.


After the economic bubble burst in the 1990’s, the ‘reform’ movement morphed the overall system into a more fluid and flexible one, dismantling traditional ‘Japan, Inc.’ New slogans such as ‘deregulation’ (kisei kanwa), ‘competition’, ‘transparency’, became the mantras of politicians and the focus of mass media. The neoliberal reform movement have a radical impact, not only on the politico-economic sphere, but also on the sociocultural and psychological worlds of individuals, metamorphosing them from lifetime-waged labourers to entrepreneurial subjects. Japanese intellectuals, together with government, shared in the pervasive celebration of this neoliberal ideal and its heroic citizenry: ‘strong individuals’ (tsuyoi kojin) ready to take risks while taking responsibility for their own risk-taking actions (jiko sekinin).

Heterogenous Consciousness in a Homogenous Place

Japanese workers were of course not alone in their experience of social transformations and rupture brought on by neoliberal economic reforms; the liquidation of ‘Japan, Inc.’ to some extent mirrors similar processes of flexibilisation in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the present Japanese corporate world is a place of unique amalgamation in which neoliberalisation fuses with enduring conventional corporate practices. Different generations oddly coexist in the same arena: elderly employees who witnessed Japan’s economic heyday in the post Fordism era and youth directly undergoing global-scale corporate neoliberalisation. Structurally, elders continue to wield power in a multitude of Japanese enterprises and the hierarchical composition nurtures youth’s sense of aversion, alienation and oppression. One of my former co-workers, a young man in his in late 20s captured the sense of such a deeply rooted hierarchy and the experience of subordination in an ‘elderly world’:

Decision of those ‘above’ is everything in this corporation. No discretion could be allocated to us. We can’t do anything until we become elder and acquire managerial positions. So, I definitely climb the hierarchal ladder in order to accomplish my goal. I persevere now, because we’re currently in ‘such a stage’ (April 2014, Osaka).

Authoritarian corporate politics, of the kind Osaka described, remain dominant even within the kind of ‘global enterprise’ in which we worked with over 200,000 employees all over the world. The endurance of the spiritual and moral values surrounding the firms in the face of neoliberal reforms seems to attest to their deep rootedness in the very fabric of Japanese society, going well beyond the institutional frameworks of the labour market that are shifting and being transformed.

Boas maintains that it is natural that our own civilization should become the standard, that the realisations of other cultures should be measured by our own ‘Cultllrbrille’ (glasses bound by each culture). I argue not only spatial, but also temporal distinctions could engender the ‘Cultllrbrille’ in the Japanese corporate world; the generational gap would be a pivotal catalyst of cultural varieties. Lifestyles and cultural values of youth are beyond elderly employees’ rational imaginations, since they no longer share the same ‘our-own-culture’ consciousness. As a consequence, both elderly and young individuals are working, on the one hand, in concord with the homogeneous corporate system, but are viewing that corporate world from quite contrary psychological and moral perspectives, on the other.

Diversifications and Neoliberal Subjectivities of Youth

Subject to increasing levels of economic competition coupled with hierarchical control, office workers are increasingly choosing to withdraw from their corporate ‘cages’ in pursuit of a new autonomy as independent neoliberal subjects. Psychologically and morally detached from their companies, more and more young employees are increasingly willing to take on the financial risk and losses they may incur in leaving their companies; picking precarity over corporate constraint in a determinedly self-motivated (if not quite positive) manner.

In 2002, during a decade-long recession, the Japanese government enacted its radical reform of national education. Accentuating ‘the establishment of the individual’ (kojin no kakuritsu), ‘pioneering spirit (senkusya seishin)’ and ‘strength to live’ (ikiru chikara). The objective of the new education was to create new, globally aware, individuals that would not wait for the schools, or government to care for them. Neoliberal subjectivities have, and continue to be, embedded in Japanese youth from this nation-driven educational evangelism, whereas group harmony or solidarity, which had been the signature elements of ‘Japan, Inc.’, were gradually dispensed with as core values to be instilled in tomorrow’s workforce. From a Foucauldian perspective, the educational reform of the Japanese government has shifted the attribution of risk from the government to the individual transforming it into a problem of ‘self-care’. Yet, at the same time, those very same soldiers of the new young generation who received Japan’s renovated neoliberal education, are ironically struggling with precarisation and the sense of socio-cultural arbitrariness it brings which are in large part consequences of neoliberalisation.


Nevertheless, I suggest that the individual’s real dream (yume) has been diversified in new and unprecedented ways. Previously, in the age of Japan’s economic miracle, individuals shared the orthodox ideal of an ‘ordinary lifestyle’. The road map towards this ideal was, to some extent, determined by social dogma, parents’ expectations, and the booming economic climate. In contrast, not only is the door to substantialize the normative ‘Japan, Inc.’ model closed (or fast-closing) for the current generation of neoliberalised youth in the first place, but the model itself has been subverted by their own entirely heterogeneous cultural ideals and aspirations. As the uniformed cultural model of work dissolves in entirely new conceptualisations of life and labour, so social forms can no longer keep their shape for long because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them. For Japanese youth then —no longer objects of waged labour but entrepreneurs of their own lives — the precarity of neoliberalism promises (even if it fails to deliver on) a freedom in which they might anticipate, design, and supervise their worlds of their own making.


Shuto Fukuoka is a graduate student on the Masters in Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex, UK. Before coming to Sussex he worked for 3 years in the global marketing department of Japanese transnational corporation, responsible for sales of the US and Mexican subsidiaries.


Allison, A. (2013) Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Arai, G. A. (2005) The Neo-Liberal Subject of Lack and Potential: Developing “the Frontier Within” and Creating a Reserve Army of Labor in 21st Century Japan. Available at: (Accessed: 6 January 2017)

Bauman, Z. (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity.

Boas, F. (1904) ‘The History of Anthropology’, Science, 20(512), pp.513-524.

Bourdieu, P and Passeron, J. C. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Dore, R. (1999) ‘Japan’s Reform Debate: Patriotic Concern or Class Interest? Or Both?’, Journal of Japanese Studies, 25(1), pp.65-89.

Lemke, T. (2001) ‘‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neoliberal governmentality’, Economy and Society, 30(2), pp.190-207.

Mathews, G. (2004) ‘Seeking a career, finding a job: How young Japanese enter and resist the Japanese world of work’ in Mathew, G. and White, B. (ed.) Japan’s Changing Generations: Are Young People Creating a New Society? New York: Routledge, pp.121-135.

Miyazaki, H. (2010) ‘The Temporality of No Hope’ in Greenhouse, C. (ed.) Ethnographies of Neoliberalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.238-250.

Photo credits:

Picture 1:

Picture 2:—Japan-woman-work.jpg


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s