Recherche Carnet de chercheur Hiroko TAKEDA


Risky Business?: the discursive politics of ‘family risks’ in twenty-first century Japan

Takeda Hiroko
School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield
National Institute of Japanese Studies, White Rose East Asia Centre


Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So you gotta let me know
Should I cool it or should I go?
---The Clash
The Clash’s 1981 hit song, Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?, is about a troubled love affair. Or more precisely, the drive of the song stems from an acute dilemma: the anxiety and frustration involved in taking decisions about love. Should one continue or terminate a relationship? Either way, it is likely that a lot of trouble will result. There are no clear criteria to mitigate the risks of this decision, and hence, there is no way to make up one’s mind (to the extent that one feels compelled to subject oneself to the other’s will). All in all, getting involved in a love relationship is risky.
For a long time, the ‘family’ was understood as being opposite to such unstable and distressing love relationships. Although it is commonly believed that the love relationship is the most essential component in the formation of a family, love bonds within the family are either fated (nobody can chose to which family one is born) or legally, administratively and normatively institutionalized, often in the form of marriage (including common-law marriage). This is to say, the family was meant to be a unit in which individuals could escape from the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’, and hence guaranteed a sense of both emotional and material stability to achieve a ‘risk-free’ state.
Unfortunately, recent studies on families across different disciplines in industrially advanced countries have revealed that this assumption, which was once shared by many people, is no longer valid. Through demographic and lifestyle changes (e.g. fewer marriages and childbirths, more divorces and more women in the labour market), the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver nuclear family model has lost its hegemonic position in both statistical and imaginary senses, and more importantly, the premise of a long-lasting commitment is no longer plausible. Furthermore, the rise of a social and psychological malaise (for example, the increase in suicide, various forms of addiction, and mental illnesses such as depression), particularly among young people in rich nations (Fisher 2009), implies that the family no longer provides shelter from the economic and social pressures of late capitalist societies. In other words, individuals today continuously encounter the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’ throughout their family lives. There is now simply no escape from anxiety and frustration.
When examining these trends, some scholars, notably Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, have noted that contemporary families have become a source of economic and social risks rather than a risk absorber (Beck 1992; Giddens 1992; also see Taylor-Gooby 2004; Bonoli 2005; Lewis and Sarre 2006). In brief, the key points in this kind of argument are twofold: first, ‘individualization’, and second, the transformation of the economy into a neoliberal ‘New Economy’, both characteristics of a ‘liquid’ late modernity (cf. Bauman 2000; Bauman 2005). ‘Individualization’ refers to a state in which individuals are encouraged to be enterprising agents who autonomously manage and optimize their lives. Combined with the economic transformations that emphasize the importance of a flexible labour market and market competition, this tends to intensify the fluidity of human relationships not only at work but also at home, including intimate relationships, since individuals are urged to ‘move on’ in order to maximize their life opportunities (cf. Sennet 2006). Furthermore, as Zygmunt Bauman has commented, current views which conceptualize intimate relationships in economic terms, such as ‘investment’ and ‘profit’ --- i.e. the financialization of not only the economy (cf. Marazzi 2008) but also intimate relationships--- are prevalent in popular relationship counselling discourses in the mass media (Bauman 2003). That is to say, we invest our resources (e.g. time, energy, and money) in our intimate relationships to try to reap as much ‘profit’ as possible. Thus, the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’ appears to be not only persistent, but also fundamental when managing intimate relationships to maximize ‘profit’ while mitigating risks.
Yet, Bauman’s penetrating observation does not miss the ironical consequences of this way of viewing intimate relationships. In many cases, Bauman argues, the ‘profit’ that individuals try to gain from an intimate relationship is a sense of security. But this sense of security needs to be an outcome of an agreement with the other party who is also attempting to maximize their ‘profit’ by working on the relationship according to the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’. The immediate logical consequence is that there is no longer a clear boundary drawn between a ‘troubled’ and a ‘happy’ relationship. Moreover, Bauman writes;
The smaller your mortgage loan, the less insecure you’d feel when exposed to the fluctuations of the future housing market; the less you invest in the relationship, the less insecure you’d feel when exposed to the fluctuations of your future emotions.
(Bauman 2003: 21)
Following this logic, the formation of a family appears to be nothing other than the worst kind of risky action as it certainly requires a heavy long-term commitment (a large-scale investment!) that may not be rewarded sufficiently due to ‘future fluctuations’. The only way to manage this risk is to identify the point of ‘I should go’ wisely.
In this way, the academic discourses produced by influential European social theorists have exhaustively demystified contemporary families through pointing out that committing to family life involves the running of a multitude of risks. Interestingly, in the early 2000s, Japanese academics and policy-making elites started to adopt the view that the family is a source of risk, but they did so with a particular emphasis on the economic and social risks posed by the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver family model. For example, a leading family sociologist in Japan, Yamada Masahiro, published a book entitled The Family as a Risk (Kazoku to iu risuku) in 2001 (Yamada 2001), and also repeated his idea of ‘the family as a risk’ in subsequent publications, A Hope Divided Society (Kibō kakusa shakai) in 2004 (Yamada 2004) and A New Equal Society (Shin byōdō shakai) in 2006 (Yamada 2006), with reference to works by Giddens, Beck and Bauman. Yamada’s main concern in these books was the risks generated by the presence of housewives and so-called ‘parasite singles’ within the family. Housewives and ‘parasite singles’ are, Yamada argues, economically dependent on the breadwinner, and this makes the whole family vulnerable in a flexible economic environment where job security has been undermined. To manage this risky situation, Yamada urges individual members of the family to become more economically independent and responsible.
Around the same time, the national government, which was striving to press forward the agenda of ‘structural reform’ (kōzō kaikaku), was attuned to Yamada’s discussion when advocating the need for a ‘structural reform of everyday family life’ to mitigate the economic and social risks that Japanese families are facing. For example, Takenaka Heizō, the then Minister in charge of economic reform, penned the preface of the 2002 Whitepaper on the Quality of Life (Kokumin seikatsu hakusho) which highlighted the risks that individuals would face by maintaining the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver family model in an economic environment where flexible employment practices have become more prevalent. According to Takenaka, these risks can be managed by enabling individuals (both men and women) to chose their working patterns freely and autonomously, concluding that labour deregulation should therefore be promoted. Considering that many scholars have long pointed out that the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver family model has been the core component of postwar Japanese social and family policies, in which the family has played a vital role through unpaid domestic care work carried out by the female caregiver (Esping-Andersen 1997; Miyamoto 2008; also see Takeda 2005; Takeda forthcoming), the discussion in the 2002 Whitepaper indicates a major paradigm shift in family policy-making. Subsequent government documents repeated this particular line of argument, and in so doing, underscored the importance of sharing breadwinning responsibilities between married partners (for a more detailed discussion, see Takeda 2011).
While the emphasis placed on the need to share breadwinning responsibilities is easily recognizable in the Japanese governmental discourses portraying the family as a risk in the early 2000s, the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’ --- the fundamental question regarding today’s intimate relationships which the European academic discussions have articulated--- appears to be excluded. As discussed above, the European discussions linking the family with social and economic risks were a response to demographic changes that indicated a diversification of family lifestyles exemplified by the decline of marriage and the increase in lone-parent households. In contrast, the Japanese discourses give a very different impression, as the governmental documents scarcely ever touch upon the topic of divorce, cohabitation or lone-parent households. For example, a report submitted to the Prime Minister in December 2002, The Great Voyage, the Guidelines for a Future Life (Seikatsu daikōkai, mirai seikatsu eno shishin), featured seven stories of different families living in 2030 to project a vision of future family life in Japan. Interestingly, all of the seven families introduced in the report are based on happy heterosexual marriages between Japanese people (again, for a more detailed discussion, see Takeda 2011). In other words, lifestyles outside the conventional idea of marriage are displaced from this discursive framework, and thus the governmental discourses in the report function normatively to gloss over the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’: a question which is by no means uncommon in contemporary Japanese families.
Summing up, the ways in which the discourses link the family with the notion of risk in the Japanese political process in the 2000s exhibit two curious differences from those in Europe. Firstly, Japanese discourses tend to emphasize the importance of becoming a double-income family to avert the social and economic risks of the flexible ‘New Economy’. Secondly, these discourses are completely silent about the risks examined in European discourses concerning families outside the conventional family model. The Japanese discourses therefore sound as if the diversification of family lifestyles would never happen, even in 2030. Combining these two points, we are led to understand that the Japanese governmental discourses in the early twenty-first century suggested to Japanese people that they could have happy and relatively risk free family lives as long as they stayed within the ‘double-income standard family’. Here, we can observe the underlying logic of family policy reform in the early 2000s.
This leads us to the final but most important point, i.e. the political nature of risk discourses that work in a way to instil a normative framework within political communities. As discussed earlier, the Japanese discourses of ‘the family as a risk’ appears selective, in terms of identifying a point where the family becomes a source of risk, because they efface the risks faced by ‘non-standard families’ such as lone-parent households. In so doing, the institutional problems of today’s welfare state system, caused by the discrepancies between people’s family lifestyles and state regulations, which the European discussions on ‘New Social Risk’ have already well articulated, are disguised. Instead, so-called ‘family risks’ tend to be attributed to personal behaviour concerning the management of families rather than institutional defects. In this way, the discussions about family policy reform in Japan in the 2000s  ignored the structural issues surrounding contemporary families, assuming that today’s families are still immunized from the question of ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’.
As such, investigation of governmental and academic discourses that portray the family as a source of risk opens up a series of questions which lead to a better understanding of the logics behind the policy-making process in Japan. And in this sense, discourses matter when we analyze Japanese politics.

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