Precarious Sociality

[The following is an occasional contribution from Anne Allison. Anne Allision is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and, along with Charlie Piot, the next editor of Cultural Anthropology. Currently working on a book on poverty, precarity, and Japanese youth, her publications include Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (Chicago, 1994), Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (California 2000), and Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (2006).]

For a new project on the effects/affects of precarity on Japanese youth today, I have been contemplating the construct of “hope.” As in—who has it, what conditions generate it, and how is it linked to notions of both time (as in the future) and space (as in home). There is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and futurelessness in Japan today, and particularly amongst those stuck in irregular employment—the antithesis of the lifetime jobs of Japan, Inc.. Without the security of a stable job, a salary that is guaranteed to grow (or even last) over time, and a social identity, many youth say they feel stuck in both time and place. Not moving forward and seeing no horizon beyond the dreary here and now, people also complain of lacking a home itself. Though sometimes this is literal (the rate of homelessness is rising as is poverty), more often it is figurative. But what precisely is this—the sense one isn’t at, and doesn’t possess a, home? Certainly, not all Japanese feel this way. But the loss/longing/anxiety is widespread, captured by the claim made recently(by activists of poverty, Yuasa Makoto and Amamiya Karin) that not only is poverty spreading in the country and becoming a poverty as much of the imagination as of material conditions, but also Japan itself is becoming “refugee-d” (nanminka). The whole country is becoming exiled? From what? Itself? So, is this hope that has gotten lost or something else, like national(ist) identity? And why does my partner, who does his research in Togo, find quite a different national mood—one where people actively breath and breed hope—there today despite a degree of economic precarity far more severe than that in Japan? Is it because Togoloese are far less attached to the past than Japanese seem to be today, and far more eager, and willing, to place their hopes on a spatial or temporal outside—whether the end-times of Pentacostalism or the visa lottery everyone plays in the hopes of migrating to the United States? (Charlie Piot, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa in the Post-Cold War, forthcoming, Chicago).

For the book I am writing on this subject, I delivered a paper on what I call “precarious sociality” recently at Cambridge University in the Department of Social Anthropology. The interest, and feedback, was remarkable, cluing me into how pressing this issue is for many of us. I share this here, and invite feedback on any of the issues—precarity, hope/hopelessness, sociality, youth, futurity, home/homelessness—raised here.

[Due to difficulties re-formatting Anne’s paper for the blog, I have opted to post the entire thing as an embedded PDF. It appears below the jump. – Kerim]

Precarious Sociality

5 thoughts on “Precarious Sociality

  1. The conditions described for modern Japan seem somewhat similar to those of Europe during the early 19th century. Consistent low growth, even long term recession following the napoleonic Wars, a divide between levels of society, a threatened middle and lower middle class always on the verge of slipping into poverty, and a failure by governments to respond except by forceful means. But unlike Japan, European populations continued to grow, undermining an expansion in GDP, and increasing the supply of workers for limited jobs. Is the conditions in Japan symptomatic of chronic condition or a transitional generational event? Japan seems to be in an economic malaise due to its financial system (low interest rates, rentier mentality), so much so that Japan Inc. may be the stumbling block to reform and resolution to the ontological despair felt by the dispossesed younger generation of temp workers.

  2. It is easy to blame the financial system. The more fundamental fact, however, is the subzero population growth and aging population. The failure of the base population to reproduce itself is now a given in all of the OECD countries and in other parts of East Asia as well. Taiwan, for example, now has a lower birthrate than Japan.

    The combination of affluence and aging, shrinking populations is unprecedented in human history. There have been shrinking populations before, e.g., during the Black Death during what was the late Middle Ages in Europe. But the combination of shrinking populations in those parts of the world that enjoy the greatest affluence and the greatest concentrations of advanced technology with still-growing populations in the poverty-stricken Global South is a totally new situation.

    Add the effects of climate change on impoverished populations and the outlook for the near-term future (fifty years or so) is stark. Already, the Himalayan glaciers are receding. What will happen to the billion or so people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the Ganges, the Bramaputra, and the Mekong, not to mention the Chinese who depend on water from the Yang-Tze, the Yellow River and the other, smaller rivers that flow into China from the Tibetan plateau?

    How will de-socialized eloi (I borrow H.G. Well’s term) in Japan and other “advanced” countries deal with this situation?

  3. Good point about the effect of shrinking population and de-socalized Eloi and their role in a changing climatic-world. But, first, I don’t think a declining population is necessarily a bad thing, nor that it should occur in societies enjoying some of the greatest affluence in world history. I take your point it may for many become an idee fixe, spelled out in many popular books on the doom and gloom of a Spenglerian fashion, and especially coupled with fears of immigrant “invasion”.

    The contrast though is China, where there is an effort to reduce population, maintain a high GDP growth rate, and pursue a nationalist policy that most chinese would consider postive. I suppose the damming of the Yellow River was one attempt to engineer a solution to future climate impacts, something that reminds me of the construction of the Hoover dam in the US. But for locales without the economy to support engineered solutions, the outlook is dire. Comparativley, I don’t see Japan’s woes as all that great compared to many of the locations you mention. The question arises how can you move a billion people without too much unrest.

  4. We are on the same page. I, too, do not think that a declining population in an affluent country is necessarily a bad thing. As someone who has reached the age of 65, with a paid-off mortgage and national health insurance, the thought of Japan becoming an Asian Switzerland has long been a pleasant fantasy. What bothers me is the thought that national governments will, of course, care most about their own citizens. This will be particularly true of democratic governments that have to keep voters happy enough to keep them in office. We have just seen one likely effect in Copenhagen.

    Last weekend I was at a conference on the subject of “The Right to Move.” The issue was immigration. I learned a couple of things that set me to thinking. First, the UN Convention on Human Rights asserts the right of asylum; but that right is defined with reference to political persecution, allowing countries to refuse asylum to “economic immigrants.” The rights of those displaced by natural disasters are undefined. Furthermore, as a prominent philosopher from Harvard pointed out, even the right of asylum itself is only a “liberty right.” Like the right to marry, for which you need someone willing to marry you, its implementation depends on finding someone who is willing to grant asylum.

    At the same conference I heard a sociologist talking about the difficulties that Chinese immigrants pose for the members of the Japanese community where she is doing her research. Not knowing Japanese ways and rapidly forming an enclave of their own, they don’t know basic things like how to sort the garbage and are indifferent to efforts to get them to conform. I found myself thinking how my anthropological take would differ depending on which group, the Chinese or the Japanese, I took to be “my” people.

    At the end of the day,however, it was the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that shook me. I couldn’t help thinking how trivial the questions of group identity and properly sorting the garbage in a Japanese neighborhood appeared when contrasted with the life and death issues that already confront billions of people around the world.

  5. I am not familiar with the UN convention on asylum, but one thing that struck me is that often those most in need of asylum are most often those unable to take any such action that would ensure asylum, even if there is a host country willing to accept them. I am thinking of situations like Darfur, but even the Maldives, which may soon be under water (also many other Micornesian nations, as well).

    We may be making too many assumptions about what people are able to do from what we wouild ideally like them to do. While we consider migration as a major force in the future, the question remains how many would like to migrate but cannot, and how many even refuse. For many indigenous peoples migration is not an option (not because they can’t), but because they won’t give up what has been their land for thousands of years.

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