Social Risk Discourse and Japan: The State of Reflexivity and Individualization

Social Risk Discourse and Japan: The State of Reflexivity and Individualization

Mika Markus Merviö (Kibi International University, Japan)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1807-6.ch015
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In terms of risk society, Japan is following the rest of its peers in entering the world risk society, but in a selective way of ignoring some parts of the discourse. This chapter will show how long of a process it was for the concepts of risk society, reflexivity, and individualization to enter Japanese social and political discourses. As a result, the public policies in many areas have lacked in direction and coordination. In Japan, the risk discourses have often failed to go much beyond the security risks and natural hazards. However, there has also been new research on social risks, such as on so-called new risks-associated individualization and with family and work. The common theme is that traditional social institutions are eroding while both individualization and traditional (family-based) values coexist. However, the enormous significance of environmental risks for the future has, unfortunately, not been taken seriously enough in social and political discourses in Japan and, consequently, the public policy responses reflect these weaknesses.
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The Japanese Model Of Risk Society (Nihongata Risuku Shakai)

As a consequence of globalisation, all risk societies and regimes (using Ulrich Beck’s term) are an integral part of the world system and include social risks ranging from economic risks to ecological ones. However, perceptions of these risks differ considerably between societies. Japan is usually seen to be a centralised state since the role of national government and especially the ministries has been so central. Furthermore, at first glance it may appear that things are very much under control in Japan and, therefore, there must be some public authority that is able to manage things so effectively. However, compared with most European countries the role of the Japanese state is quite weak when it comes to welfare society and many other functions. In short, family and business corporations and increasingly also volunteer organisations take care of functions that the public sector prefers to neglect. Taxation remains at relatively low levels and it is politically very difficult to raise taxes, although most people in Japan know very well that sooner or later there will be increased taxation and that the present levels of fiscal deficit. Japan’s official public debt ratio of Gross Domestic Product in 2017 was already 253 per cent (Trading Economics, 2018) and such a world record debt burden itself greatly restricts available policy choices. While the Japanese state has used its power and financial resources without hesitation in some fields such as public construction it has conserved resources by making people face many social risks, such as most family-related risks and unemployment, the best way that they can. If people fall ill or face other individual problems Japanese society often has surprisingly little room for such values as social solidarity and compassion. On the other hand, there have been social practices that have served to soften the image of Japanese working life practices, such as the strong emphasis on lifelong employment and relatively small wage differences among employees, especially among the elite salarymen (sararîman). However, the downside of dependence on employers and family means that such values as social equality and equal access to services remain weak. Consequently, the Japanese ideas of democracy and human rights reflect the rather underdeveloped social welfare sector.

The characteristics of the Japanese model of risk society are that the weak political leadership muddles along with the rest of the societies with globalisation and most sectors of the society need to adjust to the changed realities the best way they can. On the one hand Japanese society has its cultural values emphasising the merits of social harmony and virtues of intersubjective practices. However, conflicts have always existed openly or been managed under the facade of harmony and the new era of even weaker national governance, accelerated by the process of decentralisation (chihô bunken) has imposed individualisation on Japanese people from above (for more on chihô bunken, Shindô 2002). This individualisation has already encompassed every corner of Japanese society and the new changed balance between individuals and families can also be found in the more conservative rural areas in Japan while in the large cities the situation proceeded even further and can be characterised by the term atomisation. Individualisation and change of family is part of international trend that is linked with modernization and social risk (see e.g. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). The stated objectives of decentralisation in Japan have related to the lofty goal of enhancing citizens’ participation and democratisation. However, the other part of the programme is to find local solutions to problems ranging from local economy to ageing society and environmental problems. However, the real motive for the national government to push through the change, regardless of which party has been in power, has been to stop the deterioration of the nation’s fiscal state and reduce dependency on subsidies funnelled through the national budget. In the process the poorest regions are at risk of being left without current levels of help from the economically more prosperous regions and the present Japanese fiscal conditions simply do not allow lavish spending to keep voters content. In short, the modern Japanese political system built on collusive relations between politicians and businesses is about to reach its limit. However, the real citizens’ participation and democratisation is still far away as politics is strongly dominated by the ruling party and its allies.

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