Social Inequality in Contemporary Japan

by Sawako Shirahase, University of Tokyo and member of the Local Organizing Committee for the 2014 ISA World Congress in Yokohama, Japan

In postwar Japan, inequality debates were revived in a peculiar way, so that the blurred divisions of class and Japanese uniqueness were oddly drawn together. Japan was the first Asian country to successfully industrialize. The period of rapid economic growth, which began in the 1950s, transformed the nation’s industrial structure and made Japan a leading economic power. Of particular significance was the book by the American sociologist Ezra Vogel (1976), Japan as Number One, which praised many Japanese institutions and delighted many Japanese readers by appealing to their sense of superiority. In the economic dimension, at least, Japan could hold its head high. Discussions of national character took a boastful turn: it was precisely because it was Japan, precisely because we were Japanese, that we were able to achieve unprecedented economic growth. With those very special Japanese characteristics being given such causal importance, differences from other countries came to be exaggerated as being absolute and categorical.

From the 1970s and into the 1980s, the notion of the “all-middle-class society” became buzzwords. Although there was some decrease in the growth rate, average incomes continued to rise; the majority came to be able to afford household electrical appliances and cars. In a comparative study of income distributions in 1976, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found Japan to be the most egalitarian country (Sawyer, 1976). This was taken as further evidence of Japanese “exceptionalism,” and the characterization of Japan as a wholly middle-class and homogeneous society was given further impetus. Such confident assertions of Japan as an egalitarian society started to fade from the late 1980s into the 1990s against a background of growing doubts about the degree of social equality.

Japan entered a period of long economic recession after the collapse of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s. The unemployment rate, particularly among fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds, who were at most high-school graduates, had sharply risen from 6.6 percent in 1990 to 12.8 percent in 2002. More importantly, the traditional Japanese employment system, which had previously been represented by seniority and lifetime employment, was no longer guaranteed. One of the major driving forces that facilitated high economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s was the favorable economic environment in which companies could afford to train newly employed young workers immediately following the completion of their education, and to provide them and their families with a secure livelihood. The seniority system offered workers, young and middle-aged, secure future prospects to the extent that they could plan their future on the basis of employment security. However, at present, almost half of the individuals aged fifteen to twenty-four years who are not at school are engaged in non-standard jobs and are therefore unable to live an economically independent life.

On the one hand, young men claim they are not ready to marry due to a lack of economic security, which prevents them from being able to support their family. On the other hand, however, young women claim that their reluctance to get married and give birth stems primarily from a fear of losing their freedom. Evidently, gender inequality, which is deeply embedded within family systems, is a significant contributor to social inequality in contemporary Japan. The family is one of the most critical Japanese social institutions and has played a major role in providing basic security. Having one’s family to rely on can reduce socioeconomic hardships. In fact, single mothers without family help and elderly widows living alone face high risk of severe economic hardship.

Gender and generation are key factors in structuring class inequality in Japan, but such studies of inequality from a macro perspective have been rather few even though they are very important in examining various social and public issues. Indeed, we can say that all industrial societies face social problems that should be discussed within frameworks of social inequality, frameworks that illuminate both the differences and similarities between countries.


Sawyer, M. (1976) “Income Distribution in OECD Countries” OECD Employment Outlook.

Vogel, E. (1979) Japan as Number One. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Japan, Volume 3, Issue 3

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