The Postmodern Salaryman: An Ethnographic Study of Changing Masculine Subjectivities for Elite Men in Japan


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date30 Mar 2023


This study is a sociological account of the gendered identity work of young Japanese salaryman amidst neoliberal change. Whilst located primarily within the discipline of men and masculinity studies in Japan, this study complements a dominant investigative trend within global critical men and masculinity studies (CSMM), concerning the broader institutional shift from modernity to late/postmodernity in global-based societies, and the problems this poses for men where what it means to 'be a man' and 'do' masculinity have become difficult due to the disruption of various material-discursive resources. Research of this nature on Asian men and masculinities is underdeveloped, which is particularly true of the Japanese context. In recent years various studies on the country's ongoing postmodern-neoliberal turn suggest this process has led to various problems for typically elite young salarymen in the construction of their masculine identities - a situation framed as leaving them without the ability to realise either post-war or contemporary 'neoliberal' ideals in earnest. However, similar to trends in broader global CSMMs, subsequent research has tended to focus on groups of (subordinate) masculinities outside this demographic. Accordingly, this study focused on the lives of young 'elite' Japanese salarymen and sought to better understand how their masculinities as practice and subjectivity had changed in relation to reported neoliberal developments. Focusing primarily on key aspects of the Japanese male identity - economic rationality, gender relations, and ikigai/life purpose, this study adopted three research questions; how have conceptions of ideal masculinity changed among young salarymen as a result of neoliberal shifts? In what way has salaryman masculinity as practice and subjectivity relative to post-war iterations changed as a negotiation of reported material-ideological difficulties under neoliberalism? Of these developments, which (if any) represent a barrier to realising gendered aspirations for these men, and how is this experienced in their day-to-day lives? This study's theoretical approach was guided by a combination of materialist and poststructuralist frameworks derived from related scholarship on men, masculinity, and neoliberalism. Participant interviews and observations were carried out across several months with 20 university-educated, white-collar male employees from both Osaka and the Greater Tokyo Area, with further background information accrued from several female informants.

Briefly, findings suggested evidence of continuity and change in salaryman masculinity. First, the group's gendered aspirations showed a hybridisation and splintering of ideal(s) relative to past understandings; the men's economic ideal now characterised by a much more companyist-neoliberal model, their construction of subjectivities in and around gender relations governed by a commitment to both hegemonic and caring logics, and the group's life purpose shaped by past company-oriented commitments and desire for neoliberal self-actualisation. Second, findings revealed ways in which the men had adjusted to reported neoliberal barriers as a means to realise these aspirations. This included a more 'neoliberal' approach to job stability via in-house competitiveness and cultivation of market portfolios; long-term wage stagnation 'negotiated' by new neoliberal-competitive behaviours and eschewal of these acts in favour of deconstructing respective discourses; in gender relations, various material adjustments to accommodate for these same challenges; the realising of caring ideals within traditional spaces through similar forms of deconstruction; in ikigai and life purpose, barriers to neoliberal individualism in the workplace met with various forms of performative resistance; the desire for non-work life purpose involving a reframing of occupational self-development for self-actualisation. Accordingly, paired with tentative material shifts, the major 'net' finding to emerge from the group's negotiation of neoliberal challenges could be seen in deconstruction - a re-authoring of hegemonic discourses around largely unchanged behaviours in favour of neoliberal aspirations. Nonetheless, findings also suggested evidence of conflict in the men's lives. Contrasting with past assumptions that the gendered experiences of 'hegemonic' men are unproblematic, several informants struggled with various neoliberal trends - ambiguity around the stigma of low-wage earning ability, female-led changes in at work, and several men unable to realise a traditional work-based identity.

Seen together, these findings contribute toward an emergent body of CSMM scholarship in Japan and research on Asian men and masculinities more generally, concerning the neoliberalisation of gendered practices, identities and male lived experiences in this region. In contrast to mainstream framings of elite masculinity that often stress homogeneity, findings suggested a tessellation and hybridisation of past hegemonic forms under neoliberalism. On the one hand, findings show a more textbook neoliberal salaryman masculinity characterised by self-responsible,
entrepreneurial, and competitive economic-rational traits that combined companyist with neoliberal material techniques into working lives to address concerns about economic wellbeing; a concerted receptiveness to caring ideals in home and workplace; and 'performing of' neoliberal self-actualisation through re-authoring of individual pursuits and relationships. Alternatively, this study also hints at the presence of a hegemonic-neoliberal salaryman masculinity indicative of a much more tessellated male identity within this space comprising both past and present logics - a self-responsible and entrepreneurial albeit largely-companyist economic subject that addresses concerns about job stability but constructs a masculinity resigned yet resistant to market conditions; a relational masculinity committed to caring subject positions and hegemonic aspirations; and a masculine life purpose shaped by neoliberal aspirations and albeit-eroding access to work-based belonging. Accordingly, this study carries possible policy value, with findings showing how previously hegemonic lifestyle no longer guarantees a successful masculinity under neoliberalism.