Book Review: Mary Brinton, “Lost in Transition. Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan”

I recently published a book review in Economic Sociology – The European Electronic Newsletter 13 (2), March 2012: 50-51. While the book doesn’t directly discuss juku, it is highly relevant to an understanding of the educational and career trajectories that contemporary Japanese youth pursue.

Book: Mary C. Brinton, 2011: Lost In Transition. Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In the comparative welfare state and varieties of capitalism literatures, Japan has played a curious role. Its rapid post-war growth entitled it to membership in the OECD and inclusion in purportedly widely-applicable theories about labor, industry, the (welfare) state and interlinkages between these elements that were assumed to constitute a “normal” developed market economy. Some elements of Japanese capitalism endured as distinctive features in many different middle-range theories and their application. The transition from school to work that Mary Brinton writes about with such depth of knowledge is one of these distinctive features.

Brinton focuses on the cultural, social, and human capital carried by organizations rather than individuals. The transition to work is highly structured and involves taken-for-granted understandings of the role of the student, school, and prospective employer. These understandings specifically emphasize the role of the school as a broker in placing students. The central question of the book becomes whether this brokering role has been made obsolete by the end of the labor shortages of the high-growth era and what the school-to-work transition looks like in post-industrial Japan. The surprising answer that Brinton provides is that the institutionalized roles of schools in brokering employment offers continues to serve students in vocational secondary schools well, but it is students at the middling to lower-ranked academic high schools that are turning into the “lost generation” that academics, commentators and policy-makers are increasingly concerned about in Japan.

The book makes a great virtue out of the fact that it resulted from a multi-year process of different research projects that were somewhat interwoven around the central theme of the school-to-work transition from the mid-1990s until the late 2000s. The evidence presented is based on a multi-method approach that is not only convincing in providing readers a glimpse at similar empirical questions from different perspectives, but also in offering a portrayal of the contemporary situation that seems as complete as it could be in just under 200 pages.

The opening chapter sets the stage by discussing the Japanese discourse on the “lost generations” that resulted from several years of a very low intake of new employees into the most desirable and stable jobs in the Japanese economy. Because several cohorts of the mid-1990s faced general hiring freezes at their single point of entry to stable employment, these cohorts are moving through the lifecourse with a significant bulge of unemployment or underemployment, lower job security, fewer benefits and all the social, psychological, and economic challenges that attend the status of being a “lost generation”.

The second chapter discusses the historical roots and institutionalization of the school-to-work transition as it emerged to address severe labor shortages during Japan’s high-growth period. Chapter 3 focuses on the extent to which not just the transition to work, but the entire employment trajectory as it is experienced by men in Japan revolves around attachment to a specific context, or ba. The following chapters continue this focus on the institutional context of the transition to work and present data from a variety of angles including an extended argument for why participants place such great trust in the institutionalized employment system. Chapter 6 as the final empirical chapter presents the life histories of three young men as they have experienced their membership in the lost generation. The conclusion then refocuses insights about the school-to-work transition on the growing awareness of socio-economic inequality in Japan.

The great merit of Brinton’s model is her ability to adapt prominent, predominantly North American theoretical concepts from the sociology of work and education to the particular context of Japanese employment relations. For example, she repeatedly returns to questions raised by Mark Granovetter’s strength of weak ties argument and examines it in the Japanese context.

As I progressed (easily, for it is well-written) through the book, my anticipation continued to build as to what other interesting data Brinton would be able to analyze. Data sources stretch from the census level to illustrate the portrayal of the “lost generation”, to smaller scale surveys that Brinton conducted jointly with some of the most prominent contemporary Japanese sociologists. Because her data collection and conceptualization of her analyses were interwoven with the social scientific discourse in Japan, and perhaps also because this book was originally published in Japanese and thus aimed to connect with this discourse more explicitly than many works, Brinton does an exceptional job at bridging scientific debates between the North American and Japanese contexts.

Brinton is not shy about “revealing” the sometimes haphazard routes by which data presented themselves to her. The story she recounts on pp. 55-56 of how she happened to come into possession of the entire trove of job offers in a local employment office was not only a light-hearted but telling insight into the difficulties of obtaining data. This will be a welcome pointer to some of the graduate students who will undoubtedly read this book that good things will come to researchers who engage a topic with in-depth fieldwork in the actual context of their chosen topic.

I found some aspects of Brinton’s argument less convincing than the overall thrust and structure of the presentation. For example, I am not sure that we need yet another version of what seems like a definition of “institution” in another context, namely Brinton’s use of the term “ba”. While this is a term with many complex connotations that I also encounter in my research on supplementary education in Japan, something as simple as “institutional context” would have served Brinton well. The life histories presented in Chapter 6 do round out the mix of methods employed by including in-depth interviews, but they seem to add very little to the overall argument.

I will be relying on the central empirical chapters of this book in an upcoming seminar on economic and social change to examine education(al policy) as a crucible of the organization of work and society in the Asia Pacific myself and recommend this book not only to readers interested in the specifics of the Japanese case, but to the broader audience of scholars working on employment systems and the welfare state. Brinton will provide you with an engaging overview of the Japanese employment system, but also many insights into the operation of social institutions and individuals’ choices in the context of this system.

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