image of book goes here
Goodman, Roger (ed.),

Family and Social Policy in Japan:
Anthropological Approaches

Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2002,
ISBN: 0 521 01635 5 (pbk), pp. xvii, 237, $AU39.95

reviewed by Elise K. Tipton

  1. The main title of this book points to its subject matter, but its subtitle indicates that the book has an aim that goes beyond description and analysis of contemporary family and social policy issues. The nine essays collected here originated as papers presented at the Japan Anthropological Workshop held in Osaka in 1999. They deal with topics that are of much concern to both Japanese and foreigners attempting to understand changes in Japanese society since the Second World War and especially during the past 25 years, including: an aging population, a growing resident foreign population, childhood education, child abuse, and death practices.
  2. These topics are familiar ones in works by anthropologists, but Roger Goodman has a more far-reaching aim in bringing these essays together in this volume. Goodman's introductory chapter states the purpose of the book, making the argument that 'anthropology can bring a perception on policy issues that differentiates it from other disciplines' (p. 4). For example, he says, anthropology has 'the ability to unpack the taken-for-granted assumptions that lie behind the production of policy' (p. 4). Furthermore, 'if the anthropology of social policy is the study of meaning, particularly the different meanings that are ascribed to slogans and symbols, it is also the study of practice— to use a classic anthropological distinction, function— of what happens when policies are actually introduced and implemented' (pp. 10-11, emphasis provided). Through participant observation, anthropologists can make a distinction 'between what people say they do, say they should do and actually do' (p. 11). Besides the methodological strength of participant observation and its accounts of 'thick description', Goodman emphasises the influence on policy-makers that anthropology can wield through its holistic approach to society (p. 11).
  3. I doubt that anyone would disagree with the worth of these aims in any analysis of social policies. Whether they are necessarily distinctive or exclusive to the discipline of anthropology is another question. And whether the contributors all share Goodman's disciplinary zeal is another. Certainly the essays in this volume are better integrated than some books of collected articles— many make at least one or two references to Goodman's introduction or to other chapters. Few, however, write their accounts in the mode of 'thick description' derived from participant observation.
  4. This is not to say that the essays are neither informative nor insightful. On the contrary, most succeed not only in describing changes in Japanese society over the past several decades, but also in revealing the assumptions underlying social policies, in analysing the consequences that social policies have on families and social practices, and in demonstrating the complex interaction between the state, social groups and individuals.
  5. Glenda Roberts's chapter on policies to deal with an aging and low birthrate society is a particularly good example of the way that social policies reflect and 'codify social norms and values' (p. 54), and also hold up models for family structure and gender relationships. The government has taken several initiatives to raise the birth rate while encouraging women to work. It inaugurated the Angel Plan, for example, in December 1994 with various measures to extend and improve day care centres, encourage fathers to participate more in childrearing, and support companies that offer married women training and assistance to re-enter employment. So far, however, the Plan has achieved little. Roberts blames the failure on a lack of social consensus, or more particularly, corporations' lack of support for their employees' family needs and gender equality. Moreover, the government's uncertain commitment to gender equality is evident in the lack of penalties for violations of laws such as the Childcare Leave Law.
  6. From Roberts' and other chapters we can see that the family that is assumed and privileged in Japanese social policies is a nuclear family headed by a male breadwinner, with a mother who is primarily a homemaker and child carer. As Carolyn Stevens and Setsuko Lee show, this makes it difficult for foreign mothers to access healthcare, which helps to account for their higher than average infant and maternal mortality and foetal death rates. Death policies also reflect the principle of a patrilineal household that Yohko Tsuji traces back to the Meiji government's efforts to modernise and to facilitate its control over the family and the individual.
  7. From these studies, as well as Victoria Bestor's on civil society and Vera Mackie's on embodiment, we can see that social policies not only affect individuals and family relationships in their daily lives, but also determine their 'position on a spectrum of citizenship' (p. 201). Stevens and Lee, for example, discuss the difficulties of citizenship faced by foreign mothers and the growing number of children of international marriages. Welfare programs that discriminate against such foreigners reveal that Japanese society remains resistant to multicultural development. Mackie discusses this in a broader and more general way. Through examination of various laws, she argues that 'the archetypal citizen in the modern Japanese political system is a male, heterosexual, able-bodied, fertile, white-collar worker ...' (p. 203).
  8. Although these studies generally show how the state shapes or attempts to shape family structures and relationships through legislation and various social programs, Tsuji explicitly argues against the common view of the Japanese state as hegemonic or autonomous. Evolving death policies and practices in recent decades provide a good example of this. In this case, death policies have continued to require implicitly an ie— [household] based burial practice and patrilineal succession of the family grave despite the ie system being abolished in the New Civil Code of 1948. This has created problems for a growing number of people as the patrilineal family in practice has been transformed, leading to unconventional burial practices, such as shizensô, the scattering of bones in the sea or mountains. In the case of shizensô the government responded positively to a media-supported movement to legitimise the practice. Bestor's review of civil society in the postwar period also suggests that individuals and private organizations play a role in bringing about social change. Her chapter calls for more anthropological research on volunteer associations, NPOs and NGOs, which have grown since the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
  9. Other chapters by Eyal Ben-Ari on preschools, Roger Goodman's on the 'discovery' of child abuse since the late 1980s, and Leng Leng Thang's on policies to promote intergenerational interaction between children and the elderly also touch on the themes I have mentioned above.
  10. The question that arises from these essays is their claim to a distinctive anthropological approach. Although Goodman states that these studies are based on intensive participant observation, the rich empirical data from such fieldwork is not very evident. Many are based on analysis of legislation and formal or informal social programs and agencies or alternatively, analysis of the discourse on social issues in the media. One wonders what makes this anthropology.
  11. Nevertheless, the volume provides a number of perspectives on important social issues that have emerged in Japan with the economic and demographic changes of the postwar decades, and especially since the 1980s. The essays demonstrate the impact of social policies on family structures, individual behaviour, and notions of identity, but they also reveal that the relationship between the state and the individual is not simply a one way affair.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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