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What Happened to the Discourse on Social Inequality?
Toward Measures with a Long-term Perspective

Kenji Hashimoto
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

The Decline of the Discourse on Social Inequality in Japan

Three years have passed since the Tohoku Earthquake. Japanese society underwent a dramatic change after the earthquake, as did people’s concerns. While people here have become more concerned about disasters and problems with nuclear power plants, there are quite a few problems they have come to forget. One of these is the problem of kakusa (inequality).

If you remember, the term kakusa shakai (social inequality) was in vogue before the earthquake, and Japanese society was abuzz with a discourse called kakusa shakai ron (discourse on social inequality ). Several books on the subject were published each month, and while the quality of their contents varied widely, each secured a certain number of readers. People started to share the view that inequality and poverty were issues that needed to be resolved in present-day Japan. Since the earthquake, however, the word “social inequality” has disappeared like a quickly receding tide. Incidentally, I used to receive a stream of requests to write books on social inequality before the earthquake. Recently, however, I get none at all and am often greeted with a frown if I propose such a book.

Forgetting Inequality Because of the Earthquake

The dramatic change in Japanese people’s consciousness is also apparent in the results of public opinion surveys. As an example, let’s look at the results of the Public Opinion Survey Concerning People’s Lifestyles carried out each year by the Cabinet Office. The survey is well known for posing the question “How is your standard of living viewed by the general public?” There are five answers to choose from: “high,” “medium-high,” “medium-medium,” “medium-low,” and “low.” The media often refers to the total of the “medium-high,” “medium-medium,” and “medium-low” responses as the number of people with “middle-class consciousness.” Obviously, you get a higher percentage if you add up the responses for the middle three options. While the idea that this figure represents the “middle class” is problematic, the survey can help us detect changes in Japanese people’s consciousness.

For example, people who respond with “high” or “medium-high” think of themselves as “above average,” while people who respond with “medium-low” or “low” think of themselves as “below average.” Thus, the percentages for these groups reflect trends in inequality. Indeed, from the late 1990s onward, the percentage of “medium-medium” (average) responses decreased, while the percentages of “above average” and “below average” responses increased. The widening gap between rich and poor was reflected in people’s consciousness.

After the earthquake, however, the “medium-medium” percentage jumped, while the “below average” percentage decreased. Of course, this did not mean that the gap had narrowed or the number of low-income earners had decreased. According to the Survey on the Redistribution of Income conducted in the summer of 2011, economic disparity in Japan as a whole remained at the same high level as it was in 2008, before the earthquake. While the gap decreased slightly among the elderly due to the progression of income redistribution from pensions, it clearly widened among young adults, reflecting an increase in non-regular workers and unemployed people. So what created the change in people’s consciousness?

According to the same survey, the percentage of people who felt their present lifestyle was “satisfactory” remained low from the beginning of the 21st century until 2011, the year of the earthquake, when it started to show a striking upward trend, surpassing 70% in 2013. Did people’s life satisfaction increase despite the earthquake and continuing economic recession? When we look at people’s demands for the government, demand for “disaster prevention” grew considerably, while demand for “measures addressing the aging society” and “measures addressing employment and labor problems” fell considerably.

It appears that the earthquake created a shift in the consciousness of Japanese people like the following: “Compared to people who lost their lives and houses in the earthquake and had to live in evacuation shelters, we’re doing just fine. Let’s try not to think of our standard of living as “low.” Issues like life after retirement, employment and inequality can take a back seat to earthquake reconstruction and disaster prevention.” In this manner, the foundation for wide acceptance of the discourse on social inequality was lost.

Inequality Is a Curse that Lasts for Generations

We cannot afford to forget the problem of inequality, however. To put it simply, “inequality is a curse that lasts for generations.” This isn’t a bad joke. Let me present the results of one survey. In 1965, there was a survey called the “National Survey on Social Stratification and Mobility.” The survey has actually been carried out every ten years since 1955, but the survey for this year had more detailed questions than in any other year, asking respondents about their occupations, as well as the occupations of their fathers and grandfathers, and the educational attainment of their children. In other words, we can use the data from this survey to ascertain the effect inequality has on people’s descendants three generations later. In the case of farming families, respondents were also asked if they were landowners, independent farmers or tenant farmers. The survey was not analyzed in great detail back then due to technical difficulties, but a detailed re-analysis of the data resulted in the following findings.

The educational attainment of the respondent’s father was higher when the grandfather was a landowner and lower when he was a tenant farmer. And the respondent’s educational attainment was higher when his father was a landowner and lower when his father was a tenant farmer. Up to this point, the results are fairly unsurprising. So what effect did the grandfather’s educational attainment have on the educational attainment of the respondent’s children (the grandfather’s great-grandchildren) three generations later? Among great-grandchildren of landowners, 35.7% of males and 36.4% of females went on to college (including junior college). The corresponding figures were 17.0% of males and 14.6% of females for independent farmers and 11.1% of males and 4.3% of females for tenant farmers. Thus, there is a difference in college enrollment of 3.2 fold for males and 8.5 fold for females.

One of the most important issues in the discourse on social inequality was the “entrenchment of inequality.” Inequality among parents affects the higher education and career options of their children, producing unequal opportunities for the second generation. Thus, the children of wealthy parents tend to go on to be wealthy, and the children of poor parents tend to remain poor. If such problems exist, we cannot simply say, “As long as equal opportunity is guaranteed, there’s no need to worry about inequalities resulting from competition.” The gap in the results of the parents’ generation gives rise to a gap in opportunity for the children’s generation. And the results of the analysis discussed above show that this gap in opportunity affects not only the second generation, but the third and fourth generations as well. In other words, once the gap widens, it affects several generations. Inequality is literally a curse that lasts for generations.

Right now, the gap is widest among adults in their twenties and thirties. The gap within these age groups, which are starting to form new families, is producing a gap in their children’s generation. Ten years from now, this gap will manifest itself as a gap in opportunities to get a college education. In ten more years, the gap will turn into economic disparity. Thus, the widening gap of today will continue to cast shadows on Japanese society several decades into the future.

The reduction of inequality is an urgent issue facing Japanese society. As we preoccupy ourselves with earthquakes and nuclear power plants, we are running out of time. We don’t have a moment to waste.

Kenji Hashimoto
Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Hashimoto was born in 1959. He graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1982 and completed a graduate course at the same university in 1988 without receiving a degree. After working at Shizuoka University and Musashi University, he assumed his current position in 2013. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Musashi University. He is the author of A Post-war History of “Disparity” [“Kakusa” no Sengo Shi], Class Society [Kaikyuu Shakai], Class Cities [Kaikyuu Toshi], A Tipsy Study of Modern Society from Izakayas [Izakaya Horoyoi Kougengaku], and Class Structure in Contemporary Japan, and a co-author of Amusement Centers Born out of the Black Market [Sakariba wa Yamiichi kara Umareta].