Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Shiho Fukada’s Pulitzer Centre project on Japan’s “disposable workers” focuses on people who are precariously employed in casual and “dead end” jobs. They are underpaid, working long hours but without any of the benefits or sense of stability of full time employment. This affects people who are homeless as well as white collar workers who are driven to suicide due to mental and physical exhaustion. I see that Fukada’s photo essay offers an insightful visual critique of economic progress and the rapid increase of an “underclass” in one of the world’s most advanced societies. I argue that Fukada’s work might be understood through the sociological concept of anomie, a term that describes the social alienation that follows a society’s shift in morals and values. In this case, I explore how a cultural change in attitude means that workers are less valued in Japan, leading to socio-economic and mental health problems. I draw a comparison between the Japanese and the Australian workforce. I conclude by showing how sociologists seek to help governments, employers, developers and community organisations work together to better support a sustainable and ethical economic future.

Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre
Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre

Disposable workforce

Fukada is a photojournalist with a BA in Literature. In describing her photographs of Japan’s “disposable workers,” Shiho Fukada argues that Japan is experiencing a dual crisis of social relations and economic exploitation. Despite Japan’s booming economy, the nation has transitioned from a society of workers who grew up expecting full-time, secure employment, to a workforce that now treats people as “disposable bodies” who can be flung away without notice. Many of these workers are homeless, some of them sleeping on the streets, or they seek refuge in 24 hour internet cafés as they have no other place to rest in between their shifts.

Photo by Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre 

Young women also make up a troubling sub-category of disposable workers, with university graduates going into hostess bar work, as they are unable to find professional jobs in their fields of qualification. Fukada reports that these women are stuck in “low-paying, dead end” jobs. She continues:

Critics see women as the embodiment of Japan’s productivity problem. One of the world’s best educated labour forces, stuck in banal jobs that do little to grow the economy. Women see no opportunities to maximise their potential.

Photo by Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre on YouTube 

Photo by Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre on YouTube 

Some societies have normalised the expectation of under-employment and casual work within unhealthy or exploitative conditions. For example, societies such as Australia prioritise a 40 hour work week, where most workers are not afforded the flexibility to achieve adequate work-life balance. Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner and Philippa Williams have explored how this economic expectation forces people to work long hours, while leaving them with less time to take care of their health, their communities and the environment. For example, men in general have little time to care for children and other dependants while women are pushed to balance unequal domestic responsibilities against their professional aspirations. Part-time and casual jobs are one way to work around life commitments, but this often leads to personal or economic stress.

In other societies, longer work hours are expected but there are different trade offs as a result.

Sociologists Ross Mouer and Hirosuke Kawanishi argue that up until the 1980s, social commentators in Western nations erroneously presumed that Japan’s continued economic success was ensured. It was believed that Japanese workers were overly committed to working long hours at great personal sacrifice. The Japanese “cultural paradigm” of work was seen to be connected to feudalistic values such as

group loyalty, a motivation to achieve based on duty and the fear of shame or losing face, and Confucian frugality – and a special sense of community or national census.

Mouer and Kawanishi find that Japanese workers were not as passively committed to their jobs as convention would have us believe. These researchers find that workers and managers had different sets of values that guided their work commitments. It was not some utopian cultural mindset that compelled all Japanese people to sacrifice themselves for the good of their nation. Financial crises in the 1990s called into question economic harmony in Japan. Marxist and socialist groups had been questioning Japan’s class system for decades. Even those groups who enjoyed a high standard of living were facing severe stress and health problems, including karoshi (meaning “death from overwork”). Like Mouer and Kawanishi’s sociological research, Fukada’s photography raises questions about the social consequences of inequitable industrial relations and dominant styles of management in Japan.

“Salary Men”: Suicide as the Price of Disposable Employment

Fukada argues that the relatively privileged group of white collar businessmen (“salary men”) can also be classified as disposable workers. While on the surface, they might be seen to have secure full-time employment, many are driven to suicide, seeing no way out of the endless hours of work. Working less hours is no longer an option for them, as they fear that they may lose their jobs. This has contributed to a rise in recorded suicide rates, which Fukada reports has climbed to 30,000 suicides over the past 15 years. Social isolation, despair and exhaustion contributes to this rise in suicide among male workers. Fukada interviewed one woman who said about her husband’s suicide:

Most  fathers in Japan are workaholics. Many salary men can’t share dinner with their family members. It’s an abnormal work situation where they work until midnight and go to work the next morning.

The personal trauma and grief of such suicides is compounded by the social impact on families. Wives and children are left to deal with the debt, loneliness, secrecy and shame that follows “salary men” suicides. Some of these families report being harassed by their husband’s former companies; such families are intimidated to discourage them from seeking compensation.

Photo by Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre on YouTube

Fukada’s images and interview material might be seen as a potent illustration of the sociological concept of anomie.  

Anomie: Alienation and Social Responsibility

Anomie describes the moral isolation that follows when a society experiences a sudden shift and the existing social norms cannot adequately guide individuals through this social transition. For example, this might happen when a society moves swiftly from a state of slow or steady economic growth to a sudden increase in economic progress. An influx of wealth can be just as devastating as the loss of income, as people’s consumer patterns and personal priorities change their sense of social connection. This might lead them to question their life’s purpose. Anomie therefore describes when a society has changed so drastically that the established cultural values no longer provide social cohesion for group members. Anomie can explain various social problems in modern societies that actually stem from historical and cultural changes. For example:

  • the ongoing trauma faced by displaced people and refugees;
  • the historical effects of postcolonialism on the present-day life outcomes of indigenous populations; and
  • the rapid rise of an underclass, such as with the groups Fukada features.

The concept of “underclass” is used in sociology to describe groups in society who experience the greatest levels of socio-economic disadvantage and exploitation.

Durkheim explored the connection between anomie and the rise in suicide rates around the world in his pioneering research, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. While this work has been much debated for the past century, it is useful to consider with respect to the Japanese “salary men” suicide patterns. Durkheim’s argument also has broader implications to the other groups of disposable workers.

Durkheim studied international patterns of suicide at the end of the 19th Century using historical records and statistical data. He found that societies experiencing a sudden economic boom exhibited higher rates of suicide in comparison to societies that had settled into a long period of poverty. Durkheim argues that social equilibrium prevents suicide patterns from rising. It is not poverty nor wealth per se that affect suicide rates, but rather any dramatic change in the economy – whether that be a sudden rise or fall – that actually disrupts people’s sense of well-being. Other social factors will impact on the social patterns of suicide, such as religion, gender, marital status and political turmoil. Durheim’s work continues to be controversial, however it remains influential because it takes a phenomena that most people understand as an individual choice – to end one’s life – and puts it in broader social context.

Durkheim’s research on anomie and the other social causes of suicide invites us to see the connections between individual action, the labour force, economic relations and how other social institutions affect suicide. It provides a framework for thinking through the varied ways in which different societies structure social morals and our collective responsibilities for looking after community members during times of crisis. In the case of Fukada’s photo essay, we might think about the question: when employers do not look after the health and well being of their workers, whose social responsibility is it to address the problems faced by Japan’s disposable workforce? 

As is the case in many developed nations, Japan faces an increasingly aging workforce that continue to seek out work well beyond the age of 65. This is not simply due to a high commitment to work itself. Older Japanese workers need to work because their pensions are not enough to live on and because older workers see “health” benefits in staying active through work. Specifically, work provides an opportunity to socialise with other people and stave off loneliness.

Older workers have a wealth of experience and knowledge that should be drawn upon – to dismiss these aged workers would be equivalent to treating them as disposable workers. Then again, if after a life time of service, people are forced to work due to meagre pensions or because there is no alternative social network of support, this suggests something is severely dysfunctional about the way in which work is structured. There has to be a better way to achieve economic progress while also valuing workers and meeting their basic rights and needs as human beings.

Sociology Can Help

Societies have a tendency to position people’s economic and personal problems as the outcome of individual choice, illness or misfortune. This includes people who struggle to cope with life alone and workers who are disenfranchised. When an individual’s well being seems to spiral outside of their control, or when people are in so much pain that they decide to end their lives, we see that some personal disaster leads to these outcomes. We look for individual explanations connected to genetics, personal history, poor financial management or plain old “bad luck.” The concept of anomie shows that there are social causes to alienation, poor health and suicide. These result from cultural values, economics, work,  and other social institutions.

In times of prosperity or economic downturn, workers’ health and psychological well being are not simply explained away by individual troubles or isolated issues. Poverty, homelessness and stress are the social consequence of social and economic relations. Social problems require collective action. We can look to Fukada’s photographs and the wealth of sociological evidence as a call to action. My post has focused on Japan with contrast to Australia, but the issue of worker rights are universal. Societies in general need to reposition the plight of “disposable workers” as a social responsibility.

Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner and Philippa Williams argue in the Australian case that governments, employers, developers and community organisations are currently working at odds to address the effects of work on society. The researchers argue that sustainable work practices can be achieved through social policy and industrial relations arrangements that take into consideration:

Reasonable work hours that fit with workers’ needs and preferences…
Reasonable workloads that represent realistic and achievable goals within a reasonable time frame…
Opportunities for flexibility around the work clock and its schedule…
Supports for working mothers and fathers, and for workers who provide other types of care such as to elderly or disabled people…
Supportive workplace cultures, practices and leadership…
A better holiday system…

Pocock, Skinner and Williams argue that because work impacts on health and safety, particularly as people are overworked, employers and governments need to implement a “decent care” system that looks after the well being of workers in a holistic manner. This means providing adequate care during work hours, as well as providing good health resources and infrastructure for workers when they are “off the clock.” From providing access to reliable commuting options to decrease the time spent travelling to work; to making available diverse local services to support the caring and educational responsibilities of workers; and providing healthy meals for workers and as well as affordable housing options. The researchers write:

Our capacity to reduce our environmental impact will be shaped by the innovation, incentives and supports provided by governments and employers who recognise the time and resource constraints that affect workers and their households, and work around them… One thing is certain: too much work creates hazards that many of us suspect and too few truly understand or try to measure. If we want to draw more of our citizens into productive paid work over more of their life-times, we need to change the terms of work, the organisation and practices of home life and the operation of our communities so that these domains can work together – sustainably.  And we need to do this in way that recognises differences between men and women, young and old and higher and low paid.

Watch the video below to see Fukada’s haunting images, and listen to her discussion of this important sociological issue. Fukada’s photography offers a visual critique of the hidden (or ignored) underside of economic and technological progress.

Connect With Me

Follow me @OtherSociology or click below!

Other Sociologist TwitterOther Sociologist FacebookOther Sociologist Google+Other Sociologist InstagramOther Sociologist TumblrOther Sociologist Pinterest


Images by Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre (1 and 2) and the above video (3 and 4).

Visit Shiho Fukada’s website to see more of her striking and highly affecting photography.

Link to video: @26pglt

4 thoughts on “Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

Comments are closed.