One Japanese film offers a window into the lived experience of the country’s recessionary period.
In 1989 through 1991, the Japanese Stock Exchange fell by 60 percent; gross domestic production followed suit, declining precipitously. From the famed double-digit growth of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, and a steady 4 percent annual rate during the 1980s, economic growth dropped to 1.5 percent by the year 2000 and dropped to negative rates by the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. As Japanese banks and businesses began to fail—for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s—terms of financial instability and failure, like bankruptcy and restructuring, identified in Japan with other countries like the United States and China, began to appear with regularity in the Japanese news. The financial plummet was met with domestic and international disbelief. It’s just a correction, wrote many international economists at the time; the Japanese will figure it out.
The financial downturn of the early 1990s led to a decade-and-a-half–long recession, constricting of the job market for young adults, and restructuring of the lifetime employment system.
When large amounts of government spending did not correct the downward cycle, interest on large risky loans that had been freely allowed during the heyday of Japanese capital surpluses compounded, and that which had seemed so certain and knowable—economic success naturally emerging from the predictability of an educationally managed life course—began to seem insecure. The financial downturn of the early 1990s, which led to a decade-and-a-half–long recession, constricting of the job market for young adults and restructuring of the lifetime employment system, set the stage for pervasive societal unease.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 film Tokyo Sonata stages this strange new ordinary at the dinner table and between parent and child, teacher and student, boss and subordinate. The main characters—salaryman father, housewife mother, and older and younger brothers—live a contemporary life full of sudden changes for which they appear completely unprepared. The mother and father in Tokyo Sonata cling to their roles and the common sense of their generation, only to be forced to acknowledge when they reach their sometimes fatal limits that the recession has altered the future irreparably and the former ways of the past are obsolete.
As the film opens, the father, Mr. Sasaki, is at the office. His activities and relations with others suggest a middle management lifetime employee. He is suddenly called into the boss’s office, where he is asked what he will do once he leaves the company! Literally unable to speak, Sasaki packs his few belongings and exits the office. We see his replacement, an impeccably dressed young Chinese woman with nearly flawless Japanese, who will work for half of Sasaki’s salary. The scene is a terrifying enactment of replacement on many levels: Japan taken over by a China that can produce not only cheap but quality labor; the destruction of the lifetime employment seniority system; the rendering meaningless of the developmental time of Sasaki’s generation; and a change in representation itself, as Sasaki encounters recessionary language and expectations.
From one scene to the next, we witness the devaluation of the salaryman.
This is the beginning of Sasaki’s reeducation. It continues when another out-of-work peer suggests he head over to the new employment offices. We see the salaryman—the one-time icon of Japan’s twentieth-century economic success and so-called economic miracle—reduced to the status of the precariat, the disposable and exchangeable part-time labor force (known as the furītā) regularly ridiculed for their inability to find work. The flexible labor regime and its neoliberal lexicon of discreet and mobile skills suddenly confronts Sasaki, a product of the credential and seniority society of the past. From one scene to the next, we witness the devaluation of the salaryman—the product of a system of cultural and national training—and all he (and it) have stood for.
Tokyo Sonata trailer, English subtitles.
Sasaki’s son, Kenji, meanwhile, seems out of place in the ordinary arenas for children his age. Insubordinate to his elders, he takes up an interest in piano and begins to learn how to play, defying his father’s wishes. Within a very short time he has become a prodigy. His teacher is amazed. Suddenly transformed into a mature pianist (even his hand position is that of a long-studied player), he excels at the entrance performance for a renowned music school, seemingly overturning the relationship between time and value that in many ways has been a central theme of the film all along.
At the end of Kenji’s performance of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” the audience is left with a sense of the separation of individual and national time. The separation is made further evident by the figures of the young who are not products of any developmental, progressive scheme of reproduction (like Sasaki’s generation) but are instead set adrift in a sea of uncertainty to make it on their own. This is the time of prodigies: those who find their own latent potential. For the others, the world of recession is a time in which the sacrifices of adults and children—women as mothers, men as workers and fathers, and children as educational laborers—no longer add up to the perceived lifetime guarantees of the past.
Whereas before, Japanese society was characterized by a complacent trust in the economic prospects of a tried-and-true education-to-lifetime employment pipeline, the recession wrought dramatic changes. The psychology of dependence gave way to one of insecurity, atomization, and uncertainty for future generations. Recession in Japan produced a series of effects: the rendering of the familiar strange; strangeness assigned to the form of the child; schools and education made the psychological objects of government reform; the young generation’s lives saturated with neoliberal value production and its requirements.
What Tokyo Sonata captures is a time of shared experience and identification unraveling. It reveals how the violence of the world of recession has turned inward, bearing down on the individuated, independent subject, who because independent only has themselves to blame. Kurosawa’s film does not romanticize silence and forbearance as examples of national character. Rather, the film situates its characters and their actions and reactions fully within the changing scenes of the recessionary period, eerily so at times: sudden employment redundancy, the reserve army of young part-time labor, full-time housewives presented with a future without the security of male full-time breadwinners, and young children who seem more prescient than their parents.
Kenji—and youths from other Kurosawa films—make life decisions that seem to take little from the system of their parents’ generation, as if they live in a completely different time, one severed from postwar and prewar unifying frames. The independent individual, an entrepreneur of the self, has been handed the responsibility, formerly of government, for self-work. There are no set rules for how this is to be done.
Tokyo Sonata succinctly distills this snapshot of a family in transition from the broader transition of Japanese society. In the new economic order the self-developing young take on the position of knowledge. From the mid-2000s, terms of individual development—independent individual, the heart, latent frontiers, self-development, and responsibility—created by the coming together of education and psychology became keywords not only in education but also of the critical post-education phase of life this generation entered on its own.
Self-responsible for their own human capital development in a highly speculative system, within which limits are unknown, employers, like the government, have shifted responsibility for training and workforce investment to the independent individual. The representation of the adult as the instructor has disappeared—this is the age of prodigies, like Kenji; old-timers, like Sasaki, beware. The past, the so-called track (rairu) of development that had signified national, cultural, and historical continuity and commonality, has shifted with the new discursive constructs of independence and the heart.
The effects of recession have left many Japanese on their own in a world that discredits the postwar past of homogeneous identification and replaces it with independence and endless self-development. This time without direction or guidance, a time where each individual is responsible for him- or herself, has created a sense that the future does not exist, as in the fictional, but nevertheless fearful battles of Battle Royale, the Sasaki family in Tokyo Sonata, and the legions of real-life young part- time or temporary workers.
But neoliberal reforms in Japan are also producing, often out of necessity, a small consciousness revolution. When income no longer covers more than the rent in the major cities, a young person must turn elsewhere. The movement to create alternative spaces and livelihoods I saw taking place represents more than just a turn away from metropolitan spaces of life. Members of the recessionary generation are rethinking notions of convenience and remaking forms of reciprocity and mutuality to create lives in and for the present and not in a race for the future. There is a sense of possibility in these spaces young people are creating, in their making lives within a difficult set of conditions. These are important stories of this moment in Japan, and many more still waiting to be told.
This post was adapted from The Strange Child: Education and the Psychology of Patriotism in Recessionary Japan.
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