A Five-Minute Talk

Filed under: chaos — johnmccreery @ 12:01 am Edit This

I and several other speakers have been asked to give five-minute talks as part of the celebration of the launch of a new journal of Japanese studies, Contemporary Japan. Here is what I plan to say.

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Why study lifestyles? A five-minute talk.
By John L. McCreery (jlm@wordworks.jp, www.wordworks.jp)


Our hosts have asked that I talk about why lifestyles are relevant to academic research? That could be seen as a tough question, since, on the face of it, lifestyles, in the usual mass media sense, are the froth on the surface of social change.


If, however, we pause to consider the economic and political implications of how people live their lives, the topic becomes very serious, indeed. Lifestyles are, after all, where economic and political forces take on material form.


So we might be talking about the demographics of Japan’s aging population, in which people like me, 65 and older, already outnumber children 15 and younger. The implications for Japan’s labor force, companies that sell their products to young consumers, schools with shrinking student bodies, and demand for social services and the funding required to pay for them are staggering.


We might be talking about how generations differ. I think of a conversation between Oka Yasumichi, the founder of Tugboat, Japan’s first independent creative agency, and his friend Odajima Takashi, in a delightful book called Jinsei 2 wari ga choudo ii (20% of life is just right). Oka, who graduated from college and went to work for Dentsu in 1980, says that members of earlier generations found satisfaction in sacrificing themselves for something greater than themselves—the nation or the household. He himself found satisfaction in competition and striving to be a winner. He doesn’t know what to make of his son, who justifiably has no faith in nation or family and for whom competition seems meaningless.


When I think of more recent issues that have caught my attention, two instantly come to mind.


First, is the disenchantment with the automobile that seems to be spreading among young Japanese. For Japanese Baby Boomers, a car was part of the package, a nuclear family, a house in the suburbs, a car of their own, that defined a modern lifestyle. For New Breed men who came of age during the economic bubble of the late 1980s, an imported car was a girl magnet. Now that incomes are stagnant, that kind of toy is too expensive. Taking the train is cool again.


Second is the rise and fall of TV and the still continuing rise of the Internet and digital news and entertainment. In another conversation, Oka Yasumichi is talking about TV with his Dentsu mentor Odagiri Akira, who joined Dentsu in 1961. Odagiri remembers when there was one TV in the living room and commercials targeted families. Oka says that his commercials assume being watched by individuals, who watch them on their own sets or, increasingly, their own PCs or mobile phones. He suggests that TV was once a lover, whose every word demanded attention. Now it is only a friend or acquaintance, to whom you only sporadically pay any attention at all.


As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a’changin.”
Contemporary lifestyles have serious consequences.


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Comment by John McCreery on October 22, 2010 at 6:37am
P.S. In my interview with Oka last week, I brought up what he had said about his son. He said that the son has now found a job and appears to be getting into it.

I take this to be a nice warning about taking what people say on one particular occasion as evidence for sweeping generalizations.
Comment by John McCreery on October 22, 2010 at 2:07am
Francine, I'm delighted that you liked the talk and thanks for the pointer to June Collier. This reference now joins a list forming in the back of my mind. What strikes me about it is that the publisher's blurb could have been used, with minor modifications, for any number of books in a series that might be called "What ever happened to tradition?" It reproduces what has become a standard account of the modernism/urbanization/industrialization economic development model popular in the 1960s: With economic development, people leave villages for cities in pursuit of better lives. Finding themselves among strangers and cut off from the extended families and villages in which they grew up, they acquire the habits of looking out for themselves. "Who am I?" becomes the question on everyone's mind.

I don't think I need to rattle on. What interests me is the evidence this sort of analysis provides for either of two hypotheses: (1) all sorts of social scientists are guilty of projecting models familiar from European history on non-European others, thus missing something profoundly different about them, or (2) that there really are global patterns of response to the changes in the world that modernization brings with it, albeit with local inflections reflecting local circumstance and culture. I.e. the idiom changes, but the underlying model is the same.

Be that as it may. I see the problem that Oka describes as a step beyond the stage that Collier describes. Generations since his have grown up in cities. The clash between tradition and modernity that preoccupied their parents are to them of merely historical interest. "Who am I?" is still a big question; but the answers are nowhere as clear as they seemed given the binary choices between tradition and modernity that used to frame all possible answers.

Just a thought.
Comment by Francine Barone on October 21, 2010 at 12:13pm
John, this is a very interesting five minutes. I like that you pinpoint both specific changes as well as the broad strokes of lifestyle change affecting Japanese society. I am also intrigued by your examination of a shift from emphasis on families to individuals in terms of media audiences as well as this example:

Oka, who graduated from college and went to work for Dentsu in 1980, says that members of earlier generations found satisfaction in sacrificing themselves for something greater than themselves—the nation or the household. He himself found satisfaction in competition and striving to be a winner. He doesn’t know what to make of his son, who justifiably has no faith in nation or family and for whom competition seems meaningless.

Individual motivations, loyalties, aspirations and expectations changing with the times reminds me of a comparative example from Spain. Jane Collier’s From Duty to Desire is a longitudinal study of Spanish village life that explores much the same dynamic. Here's the blurb from the publisher:

In the 1980s, Jane Collier revisited a village in Andalusia, where she and others had conducted fieldwork twenty years earlier, to investigate changes in family relationships and to explore the larger question of the development of a "modern subjectivity" among the people. Whereas the villagers she met in the sixties stressed the importance of meeting social obligations, the people she interviewed more recently emphasized the need to think for oneself: status concerns in choosing a spouse had apparently been replaced by romantic love, patriarchal authority by partnership marriages, parental demands for obedience by hopes of earning children's affection, mourners' respect for the dead by personal expressions of grief. In each of these areas, the author detected a modern concern for "producing oneself," which emerged with changes in how villagers experienced social inequality.

Collier notes that when inheritance appeared to determine social status, villagers protected family reputations and properties by demonstrating concern for "what others might say." Once villagers began participating in the national job market, where individual achievement appeared to determine a worker's income, they focused on realizing their inner abilities and productive capacities. Sensitivity to one's feelings, thoughts, and aptitudes, along with "rational" assessments of the costs and benefits entailed in "choosing" how to use them, testified to a person's unceasing efforts to realize inner potentials. The author also traces shifts in the meaning of "tradition," suggesting that although "modern" people cannot "be" traditional, they must have traditions in order to produce themselves.


This is one of my favorite Spanish ethnographies, for the breadth of the fieldwork and analysis and how it tackles perceptions of lifestyle change much like your examples.

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