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Lower-Class at Home or Upper-Class Globally: How to Judge Japan’s Less Well-Off Citizens [ 2006.03.29 ]

Recently The Nikkei Weekly conducted a survey in Japan asking the nation’s citizens to reveal which economic class they thought they belonged to. Incredibly from this observer’s viewpoint 37 percent of respondents believed that they are lower-class citizens. Interestingly a similar poll conducted way back in 1987 showed at the time only 20 percent of Japanese people thought that they were stuck in the lowest economic category. So what has happened in the last 20 or so years to make the population of Japan that much more uncomfortable, and in the grand scheme of things is the poorest Japanese person really that poor?

Well it seems, via a quick check of the history books, that no matter what society you live in there is always going to be a couple of billionaires and a fair few destitute folks mixing it with a vast sway of everyone in between; the so called lower, middle, and upper classes. After this fact, if you grab your nearest map of the globe and take a close look you can really mark out where the money has somehow come to be welled, which is of course in the loosely termed Western World. Ok so Japan is actually in the East (assuming the Eurocentric point of view), but rest assured it is a wealthy country. Quite remarkable for a nation with very limited natural resources and precious little arable land. What is more, they made it hard for themselves by biting off more than they could chew politically and militarily and ashamedly being beaten into submission 60 years prior. Japan, like so many other nations, has learnt the hard way that developing massive military might does not guarantee massive social success. Every bullet manufactured means one bowl of rice less with which to the feed the populace. It really is nothing short of an economic miracle that Japan has gone from a shunned and deflated island chain to a world powerhouse and of course much credit must go to the decision-makers down the years who have worked no doubt tirelessly to make Japan once again an ultra-proud nation. Observing from within Japan’s cities and metropolises it is very difficult to witness a class division. Regardless of relative income people dress and act much the same. It is only when you reach the peripheries of towns and enter the rural districts that you begin to notice a slightly different appearance of Japanese person. Where the rice paddies still rule and the neon lights are yet to conquer. Back in the cities though and regardless of whether you work in an office or a factory floor you are essentially the same citizen. The same cannot be said in the western world where the difference between these types of citizens is remarkable. Whereas in Japan, despite level of income you will appear as a fairly unified population, in Australia for example you will dress, act, and speak quite differently according to your wage packet. Australians who are relatively poorer will tend to wear unfashionable clothing, eat far more junk food, drink and smoke more, and tend to use more foul and incorrect language. These so called lower-class citizens really stand out as different when placed next to the middle and upper classes from within the same city. So to be lower-class in Japan is clearly different to being lower-class in the West. Japan has some sort of cultural inhibitor preventing most people from straying from the image of a model Japanese citizen. There is a strong ethos of pride in that no matter what I may or may not earn I am equal with my fellow Japanese neighbor. How much this stems from traditional Japanese social practices is up for anthropologists and historians to discuss but there certainly does appear to be a much more egalitarian form of social standing than in the clearly defined class systems of the western nations, notably the United States and the United Kingdom. Japan is a small country and with space at a premium it is difficult to display wealth in terms of material possessions, like the mansions and vast gardens that California’s rich reside within. The question remains then, is a so-called lower-class Japanese citizen really struggling in this world of ours?

In 2002 Japan’s gross domestic product per capita was $US 26940. Whilst this put them at only 14th in the world it put them far ahead of all other Asia-Pacific nations excepting the United Sates and Australia. In fact only Singapore and New Zealand came close and some distance behind at 30 was South Korea with $US 16950 per person. Then you have to go down the list all the way to number 50 to find the next Asia-Pacific nation, Malaysia ($US 9120). Eventually if you scroll down the list you find the other regional members languishing near the bottom finishing with Nepal at 132 with $US 1370 for each citizen to earn and spend each year. The point is simple. A Japanese citizen may feel that there are people in his or her society who are richer and perhaps live with some higher degree of luxury like a bigger television or a newer computer, yet every other fellow Asian is far beneath them in the same situation. How lower-class can a Japanese person feel knowing that the rest of Asia is much worse off then they are on average; that the majority of people in every other neighbouring country have a smaller, older television set, or no TV at all, let alone the power to run one? This is put forward not to embarrass or accuse the Japanese of being selfish. They do after all provide more foreign aid than anyone else on this planet. It is but a reminder to be thankful that whilst you may work long hard hours, you are in fact rewarded exceptionally well compared to peoples near yourselves who work just as hard but for much less reward. It takes the same amount of time and energy to manage a financial institution, run a business, or plough a field in Japan as it does in Nepal, yet the two countries will provide you with vastly differing financial gain. If a person from Japan wants to experience true lower-class conditions perhaps they should spend some time in a nearby country where trains don’t run on time, where supermarket shelves can go for days with out stock, and where the idea of owning a new car is just a distant dream. Of course there are people in other Asian nations who are richer than some members of the Japanese population but by far and away Japan’s society is catering well for its people. Roads and transport, hospitals and medicine, schools and universities; all these things are of the highest order in Japan. So even though one Japanese family may have a lower income than another, both have access to excellent social facilities and thus both have an exceptionally high quality of life. I doubt very much if the same can be said for two random families in most other Asia-Pacific nations where social equity is a far stretch from becoming a reality through differing political, religious, elitist, and sometimes corrupt values and beliefs.

So is it that since 1987 more Japanese people are being left behind financially within their own country, or alternatively are they seeing a certain number become increasingly richer and feel upset that they aren’t following suit? Maybe it’s a little of both. One could argue that in this world of ever increasing globalization the big business is getting bigger and the small is getting left by the way side. Theoretically Japan should be well served by this since countless world renown organizations had their birth in Japan, from automobiles to electronics to finance. No doubt individual Japanese citizens have profited hugely and indeed Prime Minister Koizumi has had to fend off recent criticism about the rise of perceived corporate greed domestically, however just because somebody is much richer than you does not make you poor. Arguably Japan is the best country in the world to reside in given its hugely efficient and harmonious governance and industry, and the locals would do well to remember that if they are feeling jaded they can always pack up and move. Perhaps the relatively tiny Japanese global diaspora proves that the Japanese are content with their lot in life, and if so maybe next time they are surveyed they should admit that they are not doing to badly after all.

By Bernard Laidlaw


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