Rips in Fabric of Japanese Society

Often the media report that Japan since the 1990s has been going through its deepest economic recession in half a century, but little is said of the nation’s inward distress and violence as outcomes of Japan relinquishing its dominant economic position in the world.

And with the collapse in the belief of Japan as an economic miracle, scholars say young people feel the county has lost its way.

This picture of the “darker” side of Japanese society was the topic of discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Feb. 20 when several Japan scholars described various aspects of a troubled and violent society.

The themes ranged from the link between organized crime and violence in the political order to the social deviancy of youth, low birth rate, high suicide rate, and “permanent” part-time employment. An example of extreme distress peculiar to Japanese society is the “hikikomori” phenomenon, whereby youth withdraw in their rooms, unwilling to venture out and hold a job or go to school or speak to friends and lead a normal life.

Eiko Maruko Siniawer, assistant professor of history at Williams College, described the origins of the Yakuza, the name of Japan’s organized crime, and how it became a violent arm of political parties with nationalistic sentiments.

Ms. Siniawer said that in the late 17th and 18th centuries, men running gambling dens formed mafia-style “families,” and powerful gang bosses emerged. Some dubious merchants, selling shoddy goods, had a similar need for protection in controlling areas. These two “criminal”-type businesses attracted violent men for protection and they evolved into “political ruffians.” In Japan these men became an integral part of the political scene, bringing violence onto their political opponents.

In pre-World War II Japan, the Yakuza would break up strikes and oppose Leftist parties and thought. Siniawer said the Yakuza’s violence contributed to the decline of political parties in the 1930s.

The Yakuza were reborn after the war and, until lately, retained their violent nature. This violent tendency began to recede in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s when the public became more intolerant of the violence of the past.

Despite being engaged in illegal activities, the Yakuza have become institutionalized in the practice of politics. Siniawer argues that for much of Japan’s modern history, political violence is so institutionalized and accepted that Japan can be characterized as a “violent democracy.”

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