The film ‘Tokyo Sonata’ captures the very essence of Japanese society. It has now become a nation tortured by the myth of a middle class society.
Most of its people live under the guise and are willing to go through great lengths in order to maintain that perception. The main character in the film –Ryuhei Sasaki and his wife Megumi illustrate the harsh realities of this collective self deception.
Economic stagnation and its effects on the people of Japan
Ryuhei has lost his job as a medical supplies administrator because it has been outsourced to China. All the crises, twists and turns in the movie have been brought on by that one external factor.
The film was therefore illustrating how Japanese authorities’ economic decisions have turned against their own people. It is crucial to understand when and where this outsourcing trend emanated from. In the 1990s, Japan underwent a difficult period of economic stagnation. In fact, historians have come to call this the lost decade.
At that time, the government deregulated its industries thus causing a vast number of its manufacturers to outsource their jobs to other economically viable countries in their continent like China (Ohtake, 2000). In fact, in the movie, one of the characters remarks that a Chinese worker can do what two Japanese staff can. Therefore, the main character in the film is bearing the brunt of a wider economic problem in the country. He had given so much to his firm but that very firm and by default his country turned against him by rendering him redundant.
The myth of the Japanese middle class
The people of Japan keep thinking of themselves as a middle class society owing to a series of historical events. The Pacific war contributed a great deal to this perception since it led to equalization and distribution of wealth. Furthermore, Japan’s leaders instated land reforms in rural areas so that a majority of its citizens could become land owners. This was also supported by the ‘zaibatsu’ dissolution.
The ‘zaibatsu’ were industrial conglomerates that were owned by the select few. The country’s laborers were also protected through worker unions that minimized wage disparities tremendously. American occupation after the pacific war also affected this nation because those authorities instated a taxation system that greatly strained the high income earners. In the 1970s, the country was highly educated with about ninety percent completing high school and a vast number gaining access to tertiary education.
During the 1980s, the Japanese government introduced state pension systems as well as universal health care and these measures all affected class consciousness in this society. Indeed, it may have been true at that time that most Japanese were middle class. It should be noted that the main character in the film i.e. Ryuhei and his wife may have benefitted from these positive social and economic factors.
Their mentality could have stemmed from nostalgic moments of the 1980s and 1970s when things seemed alright for the average family. However, wage disparities between men and women started affecting single families as women earned significantly less than men in Japan. Furthermore, the population began aging and this issue greatly increased income inequalities.
As if that was not enough, limited social mobility meant that most people could only rely on their employers for survival. In the 80s and 70s, most blue collar workers were quite enterprising. They would leave their jobs and start their own business.
During the economic stagnation of the 90s, workers could no longer do that and they started depending on their jobs for survival. This put them at a great danger because they lost financial control of their lives. Such was the case for Ryuhei who depended solely on his job for survival.
After losing it, he was reduced to an indigent who had to queue for free porridge. Prior to the 1990s, most people in Japan actually belonged to the middle class but as the recession started, a rising underclass became a reality. Relative poverty i.e. the percentage of people who depend on less than median income levels became so great. This implied that the country was no longer classless or as many thought of it – predominantly middle class (Aaron, 2009).
Therefore, anyone who wanted to continue living that way was deceiving himself or herself. Studies indicate that thirty three percent of all Japanese workers are not permanently employed so most of them could be relinquished from their jobs at any time. Clearly, these are all realities that reflect class distinctions in this country. The Japanese themselves are awakening to the reality that they are not as homogenous as they were. Those people who were born into such devastation are well aware of this but those who were not and have had to adjust to a lower level of income may keep holding on to the middle class myth.
Such was the case with Ryuhei; here was someone who was accustomed to the middle class, comfortable life. When he lost his job, he could no longer bring himself to telling his wife and his children because he was brainwashed or deceived by the middle class myth. Most of the challenges that cropped up in the movie could have been avoided if Ryuhei accepted his new status as it was and adjusted accordingly. But doing that can always be difficult when one has been brainwashed by a falsehood that has existed for a very long time. It was much easier for him to wear a suit and leave home as if nothing had happened just so that he could cling to that imaginary picture of a middle class income earner. This film reflected some of the repercussions of media and state indoctrination. Ryuhei was not the only one living in a fantasy land; even his friend Kurosu was doing the same thing that he was so they decided to have dinner at his place in order to convince Megumi that they were both normal, working men.
However, if one understood the social realities of Japan, then one would not be so judgmental about these two gentlemen’s behavior. In the country, media houses and channels appear to be pitching to the same kind of consumer. It is almost as if all Japanese think in the same manner. Corporate Japan created this perception because it would be easier for them to create goods which cater to a homogenous group (Pulvers, 2005). Indeed these messages pervading the media have tried to portray Japan as one big family.
Such kind of thinking started in the 1960s when the government told its people that they were homogenous and hence greatly united. That caused them to work really diligently while remaining loyal to their employers. Those notions stuck in the minds of their citizens until today. Furthermore, the authorities also perpetuated the ‘churyuishiki’ which was a term that implied that the Japanese lived, ate and talked in the same way. These myths of solidarity and great loyalty continued even when times were rough. In the film, Ryuhei was committed to his employers who could not care less about him.
He even played a major role in some of the reforms instated in his former workplace. Little did he know that all that diligence would backfire on him. Ryuhei was simply acting out of some of the preconceived notions that many Japanese of his age held onto; they were loyal to their employees and tried to avoid creating too much trouble. He must have been affected by all that talk about Japanese and its strong middle class. Even when realities contradicted these assertions, Ryuhei still remained committed to that lifestyle.
His existence was different from that one flaunted around by authority figures yet he still clang onto it. The myth of the Japanese middle class is indeed a mask that hides the real goings on in some of the homes of this nation. This film brings them out so successfully.
The film under analysis illustrates how external circumstances can have dire effects in the family unit. The main character is a victim of the economic and social values of his time. He clings onto a reality created by years of indoctrination by corporate Japan and the Japanese government yet his life is dramatically different.
Aaron, T. (2009). Japan, the myth of the middle class, poverty and single mothers. Tokyo: Easypublishers Ohtake, F. (2000).
Income differentials in the 1990s. Japanese studies journal, 8(1), 29-72 Pulvers, R. (2005). What lies beneath the myth of middle class consciousness. Japan Times, 30 October