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If we include Japanese sources, there is such an extensive literature on Japan’s economy and society that the bilingual observer is often at a loss. She can make this literature accessible to non-Japanese readers—by translating, summarizing, contextualizing. Or she can collect her own primary data—especially in the field of ethnography, where the main insights are supposed to originate from fieldwork. Anne Allison's book does both, but in an unsatisfactory manner. Its topic—precarity and precariousness—doesn't lend itself easily to fieldwork. How do you observe a feeling, a mood, a sentiment, or a lack thereof? How do you assess the way—as Allison defines her topic— "relations with others—of care, belonging, recognition—are showing strain but also, in a few instances, getting reimagined and restitched in innovative new ways"? Having had limited time to conduct fieldwork, Allison had to rely on other people's observations: activists, commentators, social workers, or critics. But she fails to give proper credit to these domestic observers of precariousness—and in particular to build a theory informed by local categories and debates. Instead, she imports the latest fads in social critique and peppers them with Japanese terms to add local flavor, without engaging Japanese thought seriously.
How do you observe precariousness? The answer, for anyone living in Japan, is pretty straightforward: open a newspaper, and you will read many accounts of life at the edge. The "shakai" (society) section of newspapers is full of reports on precarious employment (dispatch, contract, day labor), on elderly people living and dying alone (kodokushi), on young people withdrawing from society (hikikomori), on poverty gnawing at the life of the most vulnerable: single mothers, school dropouts, foreign workers, social outcasts, laid-out salarymen, etc. "Life, tenuous and raw, disconnected from others and surviving or dying alone: such stories cycle through the news these days," remarks the author. Next to the serious reporting on social ills come the sensationalized news items making headlines: "mothers beheaded, strangers killed, children abandoned, adults starved." Japan is the country where social pathologies bear indigenous names: "otaku" live in a fantasy world of anime characters and online chatrooms; "hikikomori" retreat in the private space of their room, withdrawing from school or workplace and avoiding social contact; "netto kafe nanmin" are mainly flexible or irregular workers who, with unsteady paychecks and no job security, are unable to afford more permanent housing and dwell in PC cafes for a low fee.
Likewise, there is not a lack of social commentary, of people analyzing these trends to draw general lessons or recommendations for Japan's future. According to observers, "Japan is becoming an impoverished country, a society where hope has turned scarce and the future has become bleak or inconceivable altogether." Precarity not only affects labor conditions but life as well: it is "a state where one's human condition has become precarious as well." There is a rich vocabulary that describes the difficulties of life (ikizurasa) in contemporary Japan: the insecurity (fuan, fuantei), dissatisfaction (fuman), the lack of a place or space where one feels comfortable and "at home" (ibasho ga nai), the connections (tsunagari) and sense of belonging disappearing from society (muen shakai), the poverty of human relations (ningenkankei no hinkon), the withering of social links (kizuna), the incapacity to achieve an "ordinary lifestyle" (hitonami no seikatsu), the absence of hope (kibô ga nai), the despair (zetsubô). For the Japanese, these terms are highly evocative, and together they paint a bleak picture of a society that has lost its balance. For non-Japanese speakers, the Japanese words add a new repertoire of social conditions that may help put their own society into perspective.
Anne Allison uses several metaphors to describe the current state of Japan under precarity. The first is a bellicose one, a paradox in a country that has banned war in its constitution. Japan is a society at war with itself. More specifically, the country is at war with its own youths, sacrificing them as refugees. According to human rights activists, it is a war that the state is waging by endangering and not fulfilling its commitment to the people—that of ensuring a "healthy and culturally basic existence" that all citizens are entitled to under Article 25 of the Constitution. When the outside world is seen as a war zone, people take refuge at home or in an imaginary world. In 2007, the monthly magazine Ronza published an essay titled "Kibô wa sensô" (Hope is War), in which a young part-time worker described all the humiliations his generation had to endure and concluded by placing his hope in a nationalist war that would restore his sense of masculine dignity and pride. Nobody really advocates war and the return to militarism in Japan; but nationalism is clearly on the rise, and right-wing extremism has found in Internet forums and discussion channels a new venue to vent its regressive agenda. Social scientists describe this reaction as paranoid nationalism: "when, feeling excluded from nation or community, one attempts, sometimes violently, to exclude others as well." The most extreme form of this self-destructing drive is given in the random murder incidents by demented youths who kill passersby as a form of protest.
The second metaphor that runs through the text is the idea of grief and mourning. Here the author draws from Judith Butler, the famous feminist scholar who, drawing herself from Jacques Derrida, has written about the grievability of all life and lives. As Butler writes, "there can be no recognition of a person's life without an implicit understanding that the life is grievable, that it would be grieved if it were lost, and that this future anterior is installed as the condition of its life." Without grievability, there is no life or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. But not all lives are equally grievable: when people live and die alone, nobody is there to register their death (as in the case of the "missing centenarians", who were found to be deceased and unreported by their families who kept the pension payments for themselves.) What counts and who counts as having a grievable life is increasingly dependent on economic calculation and state action. It is the prerogative of the modern state to "make live and let die" (Foucault), and never is this new biopolitical landscape more apparent than in the neoliberal injunction to pursue self-reliance, self-independence, and self-responsibility (jikô sekinin) as a positive agenda.
The third metaphor that creeps in the last chapter is the invasion of mud. The author was knee-deep in it when she volunteered to clean ditches in Ishinomaki after the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tôhoku region on March 11th, 2011. As Allison aptly describes it, "the tsunami rendered the entire northeast coastline a cesspool of waste: dead remains and dying life entwined—animals, humans, boats, cars, oil, hours, vegetation, and belongings." Cleaning up the mess was devoted to the Self-Defense Forces—whose members in uniform had never been so conspicuous in Japanese society—, assisted by the US Armed Forces engaged in Operation Tomodachi and other, smaller contingents dispatched by friendly nations. Then a slew of NGOs, volunteers, and private cleanup operations (many of them employing precariat workers) took on the job in a great upsurge of solidarity. Cleaning the mud from homes and ditches, sweeping it from photographs and personal belongings, is described by the author as an exhilarating experience, a kind of return to a primal scene where social barriers disappear and a new sense of community emerges. This regression to an infantile stage of scatological pleasure is also a move away from the political. The author recognizes it herself: "while tremendously moving, the work we do moves little in fact." But the important thing is "being there": "stress is placed on the immediacy of the action and on the ethics of care." Riding a bus to Ishinomaki, an NGO team leader wondered why people made street protests against the government's nuclear policy: "why not come here and shovel mud instead?"
But there is a politics in shoveling mud, grieving lives, and opposing social warfare. Anne Allison never discusses her adherence to a progressive agenda broadly aligned with the Japanese left. The media she relies on (the Asahi newspaper, mostly), the intellectuals she quotes, the social activists she associates with, and the activities she participates in, are all identified with a segment of Japanese politics. Like it or not, this segment has been on the decline in Japan for the last two decades at least. The moment Allison did her fieldwork, which corresponded to the time politicians from the Democratic Party of Japan were in power, was only a parenthesis in an era dominated by the conservative Liberal-Democratic Party. Japanese conservatives of various stripes have themselves offered comments and remedies about the rise of precariousness and exclusion in contemporary Japan. These views fill the pages of right-wing magazines such as Shokun!, Seiron, Voice, or WiLL. Reflecting these views, which also find echoes among members of the precariat (remember the Ronza article praising war as a solution to poverty), would have provided ethnographic value: we don't need to be reminded about what people like us think. It would also have helped us understand the future: as mentioned, these people are winning the day in contemporary Japan.
Indeed, the range of sources Allison uses and the scope of her fieldwork appear limited. Although the book claims to be based on participant observation, one has to wait until page 124 to begin to see real ethnographic work. And fieldwork is mostly limited to on-site interviews with well-known social activists: Yuasa Makoto, one of the leading figures advocating rights for precarious workers, dispatch workers, the homeless, and working poor; Amamiya Karin, a former suicidal freeter and author in her mid-thirties who dresses in goth; Genda Yûji, the founder of "hope studies" (kibôgaku) at Tokyo University; Tsukino Kôji, a performer and founder of Kowaremono, a music band where each member self-identifies as having a handicap; etc. The Japanese books that are quoted—and there are quite a few in the bibliography—are only scanned in a superficial way, and there are no close readings of key texts that would have given a conceptual framework to the topic at hand. Indeed, it is significant that when Allison needs theoretical references, she turns to English sources and authors like Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Michel Foucault, etc. There is a division of labor by which Japanese sources provide first-hand observation and commentary, but the real concept work—the theory of the theory—is done by Western authors. Allison quotes in passing a few Japanese philosophers who have tried to address issues of social justice and identity politics in innovative ways: Azuma Hiroshi, Asada Akira, Kayano Toshihito, and others. She could have relied more on them to provide a locally-grounded, theoretically relevant and ethnographically innovative account of the rise of precariousness in Japan.