Before the 1990s, Japanese routes to adulthood appeared to be well structured and strongly linked to the school-to-work transition and other status transitions, such as marriage, parenthood and home ownership. However, with significant changes in employment practices, a weakening of school-to-work transitions, and the rapid increase of the irregular labour market to 38.2 % in 2012, there exists a greater acknowledgement of a diversity of routes into the world of employment and adulthood. Freeters, part-time workers aged between 15–34 who are neither students, nor housewives, have been at the epicentre of these discussions. By drawing on participant observation and interviews conducted since 2007, this paper explores male freeters’ understandings of adulthood through their views on employment, responsibility, meaning and action. It argues that male freeters’ focus on adulthood as constituted through action rather than as the successful result of status transitions is reconfiguring ideas of adulthood in contemporary Japan.
Berardi (2009) argues that the organisation of life via a capitalist market model has led to people being reduced to competitive productivity. Through the rise of “post-Fordist modes of production” that “takes the mind language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value” (2009:21) work has become something to be identified with psychologically and emotionally. It is imbued with meaning rather than estranged from (or refused) as was the case during Fordist modes of production as exemplified by workers’ struggles during the 1960s and 1970s.
For example Ishida et al. (2013) found that “finding employment” (shūshoku suru koto) marriage (kekkon suru koto) and having children (kodomo o motsu koto) continue to be linked to adulthood with 61 % of their respondents suggesting that finding full-time employment was particularly important in becoming an adult.
In their study Ishida et al. (2013) found that 94 % of respondents believed: “I take responsibility for my actions and the consequences of those actions” (jibun no kōdō no kekka ni sekinin wo motsu) to be a characteristic of adulthood. The second most significant aspect was “I am financially independent from my parents” (oya kara keizaiteki ni jiritsu suru koto) (88 %) followed by “I can always control my emotions/feelings” (jibun no kanjō wo itsumo contoro-ru dekiru koto) (66 %). In contrast to US studies living independently of parents did not factor highly into understandings of adulthood in Japan reflecting long-standing cultural practices of living with and caring for elders.
In2013a television drama titled “Furītā ie o kau” (Freeter buy a house) illustrated just such a narrative. Initially it showed the protagonist as a picky childish youth who was unwilling to continue working at a job he did not like and causing discord and heartache within his family ultimately being the trigger for his depressed mother to have a breakdown. However over the course of the series we begin to see him mature into “full” adulthood through both his labour and by taking responsibility for a mortgage to buy his parents a family home. He consequently transitions from thinking only of himself to thinking about the welfare of others in his movement into adulthood.