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Expert insights on Japan’s changing society

25 Feb 2022

China and Regional Studies Joint Webinar Series

Two distinguished speakers with a special interest in developments within Japanese society kicked off Lingnan University’s China and Regional Studies Joint Webinar Series with the University of Turku on 11 February 2022.

Their presentations shed new light on important areas such as gender inequality, participation in the workforce, the aggregate level of skills, and subjective well-being (SWB). And, with reference to traditional attitudes and recent studies, they highlighted where different approaches or a change in emphasis could help to address existing structural problems and overcome persistent obstacles. 

Leading the way, Dr Yoko Demelius, a social anthropologist and researcher at the University of Turku’s Centre for East Asian Studies, looked at Japan’s “compromised” work-life balance, long a subject of intense national debate, and why improvements, especially by achieving greater diversity and fluidity in labour practices, can have a positive impact on social sustainability.

She pointed out that Japan’s structural rigidity is often expressed in terms of the conventional gender-role discourse, which adversely affects women. Over the years, there have been steps to address this, most notably with an Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1985 and the Basic Act for the Gender Equal Society in 1999.

However, in many day-to-day scenarios, ethics and habits have been lagged behind. Clearly, more must still be done at the policy level to tackle gender inequality and ingrained thinking about traditional roles. But it can also be argued that the solutions to certain obstacles can be found in the way organisations and individuals have responded to the restrictions imposed by Covid-19. The pandemic has given new perspectives on how people can participate in the labour market, and these possibilities now point the way ahead,

“A World Economic Forum report on Japan comments that the Covid-19 crisis is a great chance to create a well-structured, forward-thinking society,” said Dr Demelius, whose research interests focus on social platforms, gender role negotiation, and the ethnicity claims of minorities within the framework of a homogeneous Japanese national ideology.

“The country’s structural rigidity stems from stakeholder capitalism in the post-war context. It serves loyalty rather than performance and shields companies from outside pressures. But there are changes in the balance of power in the labour market and the vertical chain of command. Foreign investors are demanding [more attention to] the environment, diversity and work-life balance. And the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals should start to influence and transform the decision-making processes.”

She noted too that the effects of Covid-19 are indeed proving a real game changer. Even before, young employees were beginning to ask for better terms and conditions. But now, more have been obliged to take on additional “side jobs” to make ends meet, engaging in the gig economy or turning to digital platforms for new ways to earn.

The possibilities of remote work have also caused a reconfiguration of ideas about commuting, space, and the ordering of personal priorities. And this is changing the concept of an “organisation person”, or soshikijin, by weakening the corporate identity and sense of loyalty towards any single company and allowing, or forcing, employers and workers to be more flexible and innovative.  

“Among the potential implications are changes in the contractual arrangements for women and young workers, a redefining of gender inequality, more ‘expertise-based’ jobs, and performance-based compensation,” Dr Demelius said. “Also, with the shrinking workforce, the bargaining power of workers is likely to increase and work-life balance will change.”

In his presentation, Professor Satoshi Araki, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University, spoke about the connection between skills, life satisfaction (LS) and the “Japan Paradox”. He noted that scholars have long investigated the structure and determinants of subjective well-being and, more recently, a “happiness index” has been regularly produced, ranking countries based on broad feedback and findings.

More specific research, though, has argued that skills are the key to the socio-economic success of individuals and societies, leading to everything from improved labour market outcomes to better health and SWB.

By using large-scale survey data from 25 countries, Professor Araki has been re-examining links between the aggregate level of skills diffusion in different societies and the LS of individuals there. Overall, his work confirms a positive association between the two, with the populations of more highly skilled societies having higher LS.

The one obvious outlier is Japan, where LS is significantly low despite it being a country with a generally high level of skills.

“Why is it not happening? This is the Japan Paradox,” Professor Araki said. “There might be psychological and cultural perspectives that contribute to it. There might be socio-demographic aspects, which I would call a ‘skills trap’.

The macro structure behind this is that Japan has an ageing population, which has been seen to lower overall LS. The micro structure is that while more skills are usually linked to higher income, better health and greater job satisfaction, here they are more often associated with longer hours and greater stress.   

“Only in Japan, the negative link is detected for both men and women and is one form of the skills trap,” Professor Araki said. “Highly skilled women may also face the unfair labour market structure.”   


For coming seminars to be held in Mar and Apr 2022, please click here for details.