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Japan's New Middle Class: The Salary Man and His Family in a Tokyo Suburb

Japan's New Middle Class: The Salary Man and His Family in a Tokyo Suburb

by Ezra F. Vogel

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University of California Press
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Japan's New Middle Class

The Salary Man and His Family in a Tokyo Suburb
By Ezra F. Vogel

University of California Press

Copyright © 1971 Ezra F. Vogel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-02100-2

Chapter One

The Problem and Its Setting

Among the non-Western nations, only Japan has reached a level of industrialization and urbanization comparable to the advanced countries of Europe and America. From a nation that only one hundred years ago was voluntarily isolated from the developments of the rest of the world, Japan has become an important member of the international community. In a single century, Japan has not only introduced modern technology but kept pace with continuing Western progress. At the same time, modern systems of education, government, business, transportation, and communication have become firmly implanted in Japanese society.

The Japanese people in this century have adjusted not only to these fundamental changes, but to a series of natural disasters and national crises. The contemporary Japanese adult has faced a staggering number of difficulties. The standard of living which was rising in the 1920's was disrupted first by a terrible earthquake and later by the devastating effects of a world depression. The increasing political freedom in the 1920's was gradually stifled by an oppressive military rule which required increasingly severe sacrifices until the end of World War II. During the war, many small children were separated from their parents and sent to rural areas to escape air raids, and many families had their only wage earner killed. After the fighting, many families, already undernourished and short of funds, provided for relatives, friends, and even strangers who returned from the military or the overseas colonies. Not only did they live with severe shortages of food, clothing, and shelter, but they had to renounce their former leaders and traditions and accept new patterns of life imposed by the victors.

In the face of these crises and the rapid social change, it is surprising how successfully the average Japanese has been able to maintain an orderly life free from despair and disorder. In spite of these problems, much publicized by the press, the Japanese have made a successful adjustment, economically, socially, and psychologically. The period of peace and prosperity since World War II has made it possible to consolidate many of the social changes, and for the newly emerging social order to achieve some degree of stability.

An important element in the new social order is the emergence of a large "new middle class." The "old middle class" (the small independent businessman and landowner) has been declining in power and influence and is gradually being replaced by this "new middle class," the white-collar employees of the large business corporations and government bureaucracies. The small independent entrepreneurs who comprise the old middle class have generally played a central role in small local communities because of their influence and power, but their perspective has remained focused within this narrow social microcosm. Although some have profited indirectly from Japan's economic prosperity since 1955, few members of the old middle class have had the motivation, ability, and resources to expand their enterprises to take advantage of Japan's rapid economic growth. They are, rather, being superseded by, or affiliated with and subordinated to large business corporations which have the resources and entrepreneurial skill to play the key role in the recent economic growth. The old middle class has not yet died out by any means, but the trend of the times has been obvious, and many have urged their children to become white-collar workers in the large bureaucratic organizations in the cities. The income of the white-collar worker is less affected by economic fluctuations or by the whims of an arbitrary paternalistic employer than that of the employee in the smaller industries. Because the income of the new middle-class citizen is guaranteed in the form of a regular salary, he has come to be known as the "sarari man" (salary man). This word is not used in Japan to include all who receive a salary, but only white-collar workers in the large bureaucracy of a business firm or government office. Although the two words "salary" and "man" are not ordinarily used together in English, the term "salary man" will be used throughout the present work to convey the Japanese meaning of sarari man.

The roots of the salary man can be traced at least as far back as the Tokugawa period, for after 1600 when Japan achieved internal stability, the military functions of the samurai withered away and many samurai became, in effect, administrators working for the clan government. With the abolition of samurai class distinctions in early Meiji, many ex-samurai became white-collar workers in government offices and government-sponsored industry. The similarity between the samurai administrator and the salary man has led many Japanese to refer to the salary man as the modern samurai. His brief case is compared to the samurai's swords, his company with the feudal fief, his readiness to uphold his company's interests with the samurai's readiness to do battle for his feudal lord. But the salary man is the product of a different social setting. The concept of the samurai retained a warrior flavor, and the ideal was to be bold, courageous, and capable of independent action. The salary man, being a part of a large bureaucratic organization, is more concerned with complex administrative and technical problems, has less room for independent movement, and is likely to be more cautious and susceptible to influence.

The word "salary man" had already become popular by 1930 although the white-collar class remained relatively small until the rapid expansion of government bureaucracies and war-related industry before and during World War II. During this period, the number of white-collar workers grew rapidly, and this growth has continued with the economic prosperity after the war. Now that the social upheaval resulting from the war has passed and the patterns of the salary man have become stabilized and clearly identifiable, it would seem to be an opportune time to examine the nature of his life.

The Double Structure

The salary man's pattern of life stands out in the Japanese context because of the sharp disparity between the large modern organization where he works and the more traditional small- or medium-sized enterprises. Japanese scholars, struck by the coexistence of the modern bureaucratic patterns of large organizations and the more traditional patterns of the small- and middle-sized enterprises have named this phenomenon the "double structure" of Japanese society.

Although some small enterprises have made technological advances and are offering high salaries because of increasing labor shortages, in the typical small enterprise, the worker tends to have a more diffuse relationship with his employer, a relationship that permeates all his life. The employer has some responsibility for looking after the personal needs of his employees, such as providing housing, helping arrange marriage, or giving special assistance in time of trouble. In return, the employee must be available for work at any time, and his personal life is continually subject to the employer's surveillance and approval. What security he has rests on the good will of the employer, which is not always sufficient because the small enterprises are subject to the fluctuations of the market and offer tenuous prospects for long-term security. Although smaller organizations are more paternalistic, workers are not only less satisfied, but there is a greater turnover of labor. At best the paternalism of the small enterprise is restricting and at worst it is a guise under which an opportunistic owner can pay lower wages and exploit his employees by offering a few personal services.

In contrast, the salary man not only receives higher pay and regular wages, but he has regular hours with time off. His promotions occur to some extent automatically on the basis of seniority and skill, and although responsive to wishes of superiors by American standards, he need not be so responsive as workers in smaller enterprises. Because he belongs to a large, stable organization and the firm is committed to him for life, he knows that his job will be more secure against the fluctuations of the business cycle. When he compares himself to the workers in small organizations, he feels proud and satisfied that he is a salary man.

Until recently there has been almost no movement of workers between the small and large organizations. Fundamental differences in methods of work and the accompanying way of life have made it difficult for an employee of a traditional organization to move to a large one and unlikely for a salary man to want to move to a small one. Even within the large organization there has been a similar barrier between the permanent white-collar workers who form the core of the organization and the temporary and manual workers who may be discharged when the company has economic difficulties. Once a man becomes a manual worker in a large firm, he will not rise to become a white-collar worker. Japanese firms value loyalty and prefer to recruit and train their own white-collar workers who become skilled in the way their particular firm operates rather than to take on employees who have acquired different habits in other firms. With the exception of a few technical specialties, university training is not geared to preparation for a specific vocation. Training for work is generally acquired within a firm and is, therefore, less easily applicable to another firm. Because the supply of young workers has always been plentiful, firms have been able to recruit their employees directly from schools. Therefore, the traditional smaller businesses have been able to continue in operation without fear of losing their workers to higher-paying modern organizations, and the worker who is dissatisfied with being in a small organization concentrates his energies on making it possible for his son to become a salary man. The lack of free movement between small and large organizations has made it possible for a wide gap to exist between these two types of organization.

How long this double structure of the Japanese economy can continue to exist is an open question. In the last few years, since the labor shortage has caused some large businesses to look to the smaller enterprises for employees, there have been signs that the double structure might begin to break down. To keep their workers, the small enterprises may have to raise their salaries and improve their working conditions to match the larger enterprises. Some Japanese social scientists are beginning to talk of a second industrial revolution-one which would destroy this double structure. The first industrial revolution went relatively smoothly because it meant only that large organizations grew up alongside the small, but the second industrial revolution might prove more disruptive because it would mean the collapse of the smaller enterprises. Indeed the economic uncertainty and pessimism that persist in Japan amidst the amazing prosperity and industrial development can be explained partly by the mood of the smaller enterprises which fear destruction because they will be unable to survive the economic squeeze if they are forced to offer higher wages and shorter hours.

In the context of the pessimism of the smaller traditional enterprises, the salary man represents for most Japanese the "bright new life." The salary man's career is not a rapid and glorious rise to such great heights that it appears beyond their reach, but a secure path to moderate success. Able and enterprising young men willing to take risks and look out for their own future have the possibility of rising more rapidly, earning more money, and living more luxuriously by working on their own or joining small firms. But most Japanese have no such confidence in their own talents and long-term economic prospects even if they were to have such an opportunity in the short run. For the vast majority of Japanese the life of the salary man seems to represent as high a standard as they can reasonably hope for. The young Japanese girl hopes to marry a salary man even if his salary were lower because his life is steady, he has leisure time, and she can be free of the anxieties and work connected with independent business. Independent shopkeepers, craftsmen, and farmers complain that they cannot compete with salary men in attracting desirable brides. The importance of studying the salary man is not only for understanding this group per se but for understanding the aspirations of other Japanese.


Excerpted from Japan's New Middle Class by Ezra F. Vogel Copyright © 1971 by Ezra F. Vogel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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