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Bibliographic Data: Gordon, Andrew. The Wages of Affluence: Labor and Management in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Main Argument: Gordon's main argument in this readable, strongly researched account is that the postwar Japanese labor system endured not because of innate economic superiority or better treatment for its workers but thanks to the concerted operation of oppressive political and ideological practices. These practices created a gyroscopic hegemony that was well able to adapt to changing conditions and that was more durable than many commentators in the 1990s realized, but at the same time, its emergence was not a foregone conclusion; alternatives existed.

Historiographical Engagement: Gordon's main sources are the company and union archives of Nippon Kôkan (NKK), as well as interviews with many of the people involved in the events he describes conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What price prosperity? )

Critical assessment: This is an excellent, readable (by which I mean, very light on theory), and informative book; I'd read Gordon's history of modern Japan in undergrad, and would unhesitatingly teach from it, and would do the same for this book as well. I particularly appreciate Gordon's insistence that the current Japanese labor system was not a predetermined outcome, but rather the product of specific actions taken by specific people under specific conditions. This is no more than good historiography, but Gordon's combination of sources gives it a particular verve, and his linkage of labor and social norms is insightful--in some ways, this to me is a historical complement to T.J. Pempel's Regime Shift, which looks at some of the same phenomena from a political science perspective. In light of that book and of the class for which I read it, my one question for Andrew Gordon would be, What does "democracy" mean?

I can answer that question based on my own reading of Gordon (i.e. like just about everyone he follows Maruyama Masao's vision of 'democracy' as a society of politically active, independent-minded citizens), but he never defines the term in text, and while I agree with him and with Maruyama to an extent it also seems important to remember that to some extent rather than being illiberal and undemocratic Japan got the democracy it chose for itself, one featuring low citizen input in return for high economic output. Certainly many features of the Japanese political system and the socioeconomic order it created now look inadequate, perhaps more so than ever before, and Maruyama ultimately lost his famous wager on democracy as he defined it. But the Japanese are still citizens, not subjects, and the relation of work and democracy is not necessarily fixed in any country.

Further reading: Andrew Gordon, The Evolution of Labor Relations in Japan and Labor and Imperial Democracy in Prewar Japan (volumes 1 and 2 of his so-called "labor trilogy"), Fabricating Consumers (forthcoming), Nihonjin ga shiranai Matsuzaka mejaa kakumei


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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