Chapter Three: Town social and political structure

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener

Complex social organization arising from feudal agrarian history

"Industry" in the classic sense suggests a social hierarchy of industrial leaders and workers, but the landscape of social organization in Sakaki surrounding industry is a much more complex system taking into account historical factors, the role of local government, and relations with the outside world. This broader view of the social organization of the town helps explain the origins of industry in the town, the meaning of present issues, and possible futures.

Had an industrial structure evolved in a virgin territory devoid of an existing social system, perhaps the status differentiation resulting from it would be more central to the organization of local society, but in the case of Sakaki, the centuries of previous history provided a mesh within which the new status systems accompanying industry have fit. Owing to the agrarian background of the majority of its present residents, the pre-existing agrarian status system has had an important role in the shaping of industry in the town. While many of the industrialists and workers in the town's factories have come from farming families, there have been tensions since the very beginning of the bifurcation of the local economy.

From a simple description of Sakaki as an industrial "miracle" of the post-war era, one might be led to assume that the social organization of the town is dominated by the typical relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat. What one finds after deeper investigation is a very complex social hierarchy based on class relationships with origins in the feudal and pre-feudal periods which has adapted to modern industry.

Central to the town's social organization is the family system of the agrarian class. In any neighborhood, any store, any factory, one comes upon the same surnames over and over, names like Kasuga, Nishizawa, Takeuchi, Tsukada, and Yanagisawa. These are among the surnames of farming families that go back generation upon generation. They permeate not only the names of workers and industrial leaders, but the names of the companies themselves.

Sakaki's core families trace their origins to farming families that settled fairly high on the hillsides of the valley. These neighborhoods are now some of the most outlying settled areas of the town, considering that the center of the town has shifted to area surrounding the river. As commented earlier, in Chapter One, the structure of these families is partitioned in terms of the stem (honke) and branch (bunke) family form whereby headship of the stem family is passed on to the eldest son and branch families evolve from the other male siblings. It is still common to find in Sakaki's neighborhoods the house of a central stem family surrounded by its various branch families. Often a branch has broken off and settled in another part of town. Usually the trend has been to settle in previously unsettled areas further downstream and closer to the river. These branch families then form there own kind of stem family with the same kind of elaboration of branches found in the other neighborhood. For this reason while many people may share the same surname in the town, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between them.

Differentiation of elite groups

The population of Sakaki according to the 1985 national census was 16,918; at the same time, the number of households was reported to be 4,555 making the average household size 3.7 persons.

I would identify the following categories of elites in the town (with estimated membership denoted to the left).[1]

1,000 Regional and town government bureaucrats.
This includes employees of the town government, various service organizations run by the town and collectives of local governments, officials and elected officials of the prefectural government who live in Sakaki, etc.

2,000 Entrepreneurs and top-level managers.
According to a 1988 town survey there were 360 factories employing 6,618 persons (making average number of employees at a factory 18.4 persons). The smallest factories are husband and wife operations. In firms which are average size the predominant form is that management is entirely dominated by family members (wife, offspring, siblings, in-laws, extended family members). Therefore membership in this class is almost entirely determined by family ties. Only in the largest of Sakaki companies (200-500 employees) do you begin to see non-family members in the highest ranks; this phenomenon is not only connected to firm size but dependence and strength of relationships to outside firms. Companies which have strong links with keiretsu, are large independents, or are managed by bankruptcy courts are more likely to have to have non-family members among their upper management.

50 Religious officials.
This group is predominated by the priests of local temples. There are at least 8 temples in the town. I believe jodoshu is the predominant sect. In the case of all of these temples, the dominant pattern is for the temple to be managed by one household; the head of household being the head priest. There are 3 major shrines in the town; as far as I can determine the priest's of shrines are less influential but might be considered elite nonetheless.

20 Educators.
As far as I can determine this is not a major category for elite in the town. The high school is the lowest of a range of public schools to which local children may be sent; the teachers tend to be younger, freshly graduated from teaching colleges and short-lived in their careers within the town (as they are routinely rotated out). There are some elite figures among grade-school and perhaps junior high school levels. The head of the educational system and school principles are predominantly out-of-towners who have apparently been appointed by the Monbusho (Ministry of Education).

The above reckoning of membership in elite groups accounts for 3,100 individuals or about 10 and 15% of the entire population of the town. In numbers clearly the bureaucrats and entrepreneurs are the largest groups.

Bureaucratic elite

Local government bureaucrats are the old guard elite with status tracing back far before the pre-modern period. Educators may be considered along with bureaucrats since they come from similar backgrounds and also serve as government employees. Perhaps this is the better way to organize the above list since educators are government employees and since in both government and educational organizations there are probably a goodly number of what G. William Domhoff (1983) would call "false positives," i.e. persons with the attribute of being an educator or bureaucrat suggesting elite status who by further investigation of their background, one can identify as not truly belonging to the elite group. I would say that the young high school teachers (who I have excluded above) are one such group of "false positives," so perhaps are some of the employees of the town government and other organizations run by local government.

"False positives" can be eliminated if one considers a second attribute, namely land ownership. In all cases, the elite individual must be the heir to a large land-holding family. Land is important because the present status system is based on that which pertained during the two-hundred year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1867). During this period farmers were attributed the highest status among the residents of the town. The town's status system was based on official edict by the central government by which society was divided into four classes: military bureaucrats (samurai), farmers, artisans, and merchants (below whom were the eta or out-castes, today referred to by the somewhat more academic term burakumin). Though Sakaki might once have been the home of several samurai/farmer families before the Tokugawa era, the Tokugawa government specifically stipulated that bureaucrats reside only in castle towns; therefore the highest status in towns like Sakaki was left to farmers. Within the agrarian farmer class, those farmers with the largest holdings accorded the greatest power and status. These farmers did not farm all of the land they owned themselves; the land was farmed by tenants. The tenants were branch families formed by younger male siblings of the heir.

The post-war reconstruction of Japanese society was a very critical period in shaping today's social structure in Sakaki. One single national policy pushed through by the American-lead SCAP government had an far-reaching impact on Sakaki and rural towns all over Japan. This was the abolition of the tenant-landlord system. The policy forced on towns like Sakaki was that agricultural land ownership was to be determined by who actually farmed it. Elite stem families were forced to relinquish ownership of the land that they did not farm themselves; ownership was transferred to the branch families who actually farmed the land.

Had not other policies been enacted, the old landed elite might have lost their status in the town. Coinciding with the great social and economic upheaval created by this government edict, the national government began to set up a new system of regional government. Local government functions until this period had been performed by temples and elite families of the hamlets that are scattered throughout the town. The authoritarian nature and collusion between religious and government functions was unacceptable to SCAP. In the place of old systems of local autonomy, a town government was created.

Agrarian elites were systematically stripped of their land and their authority over their hamlets, but they were also well positioned to take a new role as bureaucrats in the town government. It was in a sense a natural transition for them to assume positions in the newly formed local governments since they already held the respect of their stem families and the agrarian community at large.

Entrepreneurs and directors of industry

If agrarian elite are the old guard who have cleverly maintained their high status throughout the pre- and post-war eras, the new industrial elite are a sort of nouveau riche. Interestingly, however, they both come from the same original farmer class and they are related by blood and extended family linkages. The primary differentiation is that the bureaucratic elite invariably come from the stem families of the old agrarian dozoku system whereas the entrepreneurial elite come from branch families.

Within the entrepreneurial group there are several categories. The majority of the earliest entrepreneurs of the town, now in their 80s or already deceased and replaced by successors, were the younger sons of Sakaki farming families who left during the pre-war era and returned to start companies in the town. They left the town initially to seek employment in the cities because they stood to inherit little or nothing from their families. Pre-war Tokyo was a teaming industrial center with an acute labor shortage and jobs in factories were easy to find. They became "jacks of all trade," engineers in the classic sense who had a knack to design and construct almost any gadget. Some of them went so far as to start their own factories in the city.

These Sakaki sons and others with wives and similar connections to the town returned during the war years. The earliest relocations were responses to labor shortages in the cities and the danger of fire bombing during the war itself. Post-war relocations were perhaps also in response partially to acute food shortages in urban areas.

The second wave of entrepreneurs in the town didn't start their enterprises until the boom years of the 60s. These individuals were primarily landed branch families who, watching the success of the earliest industrialists in the town, decided to supplement farming income, erratic from year to year, with industrial income. Whereas farming income was largely dependent on environmental factors, industrial income was tied to the quality of one's work and amount of dedication to it. In all cases, these one-time farmers eventually gave up farming altogether and converted their fields and paddies into their present-day factories.

Town government and relations between elite groups

Town government has evolved as an organization which caters first and foremost to the interests of the agrarian class. Industry and the wishes of industrial leaders definitely figure into the local political formula, but not in as direct a manner as one might assume. It would be going too far to say that the government is anti-government; the town of Sakaki certainly owes much to the success of industry. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Sakaki is one of the few local governments in the whole nation that can boast that it does not receive allowances from the national government to cover shortfalls in its budget. This is primarily thanks to the significant tax base generated by local business; government officials thus must be careful not to alienate business, though the ultimate constituency to be answered to is the old agrarian class.

The subtlety of this situation is evident in priorities assigned to infrastructure improvement and other town activities. Roads and other infrastructure required by industry are slow to be produced; when they are they must demonstrably benefit farming communities as well. In the late 70s an "industrial road" was constructed from one end of the town to the next to accommodate trucks delivering parts and finished products, but this only with substantial effort. Supporting infrastructure was one of the major complaints about local government about which shacho often freely voiced concern to me.

The case of one company, Tsuzuki, is demonstrative of the problems that local companies face and the reluctance of government to help them. Tsuzuki is one of the original companies of Sakaki. Unlike many other plants which relocated to more accessible areas, Tsuzuki is still in the original location; in fact some of the facilities appear to be original. Having not been fortunate to own property abutting the industrial road which was widened to accommodate trucks, Tsuzuki has to perform shipping and receiving functions via a narrow road it faces. It has petitioned the local government to widen the road, and indeed drainage on either side of the road has been covered over offering several additional feet of width from what one can imagine the road's original width might have been. However this is still very tight. To widen the road would require claiming land from adjacent fields and private residences, difficult to justify for the purpose of this single firm. So Tsuzuki inquired privately whether the owners of a grape vineyard immediately behind the plant abutting another less obstructed road might be convinced to rent their property to the company. The answer was a resounding negative. Faced with these kind of pressures, many Sakaki companies are strongly considering relocation of their physical plants.

Another common problem of the physical plants of local companies is that they are not only aging and unattractive, but they were also built hurriedly, cheaply, and incrementally as workloads increased. While companies seek new land to develop, little or none is available within the town borders and the government only reluctantly organizes "industrial tracts" which are sold out even before they are offered. Local government is slow to organize this land, because in all cases it means converting land heretofore used for agriculture. Local government primarily represents these agricultural interests.

Elected officials

Town bureaucratic positions and elected bodies are stocked with individuals from agrarian backgrounds in the town. The agrarian class still makes up a majority of the population; most of these families are still tied to agriculture though members of their family may also hold jobs in factories. Furthermore, companies do not vote, and while they may make their presence known in political contributions and endorsements, their influence is dwarfed by that of agricultural interests.

I was fortunate to be able to witness the elections for mayor and town council. The latter was a race between two former town bureaucrats, the former a race between 20 candidates for 18 positions. The single determining factor was family and extra-family relationships among the members of the former agrarian class.

The position of mayor is not even normally a race. In the years since the end of the war, there have only been a very few elections in which more than one candidate made a bid. In the single candidate elections, the endorsement of predecessor and other local leaders as well as the candidate's background in town government and other local organizations are the determining factors. The election that I witnessed highlighted the importance of family networks.

Neither of the two candidates ran on a slogan or any firm promises. Some, especially younger members of the community, were prone to criticize them on this basis, but for most people voting was simply a matter of allegiance based on obligations to and affiliations with an influential members of the community. These obligations and affiliations fall exactly along family lines, so that the successful technique is to win over key members of the intact agrarian family systems. In this way, the strategists of the political campaigns for the candidates could count heads. By winning over this family, a certain number of votes could be counted on; to win over a stem family was usually to be able to also count on all of the branches. The population of almost the entire town could be tabulated on this basis.

Endorsements by key industrialists occupied a distinct secondary position to those of the agrarian community, but that is not to say they were not sought. The industrialists' role seemed much more peripheral. They could be expected to influence the voting behavior of other industrials who in turn might influence yet others and indeed the upper management of their companies, but in general the workers of the companies were counted as members of their families and their familial obligations were expected to override any endorsement that might occur in the work place or in rational terms in the form of particular programs to promote industry.

The outcome of the election was somewhat evident from the very beginning. Both candidates had similar backgrounds in town government, but one was in a sense the hand-picked successor of his predecessor and collected most of the major endorsements. The outgoing mayor was actually prevented from officially endorsing his choice because of the spirit of discontent with his performance, but his presence in rallies and other functions made clear his sentiments.

The challenger to the heir apparent was banking on discontent with the current leadership resulting from a slump in the local economy and the ineffectiveness of current leadership. His position was a delicate juggling act because he had to distinguish himself from the other candidate who had been his colleague in the town government and the present mayor under whom both men had worked. On the other hand, he would risk alienating large groups of voters by directly criticizing the past leadership or making concrete proposals.

The race was one of collecting the most endorsements from key figures, mobilizing family and extra-family relationships throughout the town, and tabulating the outcome. Had the discontent been more specific, or the economic situation more threatening then ominous dark clouds, the outside candidate might have won, but the overwhelming endorsements by key members of the community and the extensive family network of the unofficially-endorsed candidate tended to favor him. He won by a clear majority.

The race for the town council was similar except that it was a dead heat for the finish line between 20 candidates, all but two of whom were assured posts in the body. A majority of the candidates were farmers with no other employment. There were few specific slogans. Again endorsement by town figures, exposure to the community by other posts and services performed were important, and ultimately the relationships between families throughout the town held the key to victory.

The Chamber of Commerce

Despite tensions between agricultural and industrial interests, there are organizations which serve to alleviate them and to provide a structure for cooperation and central planning. The Chamber of Commerce is the primary focus of this activity.

Early industry in the town did not have the benefit of such a government liaison organization. Furthermore, since the farmers were initially guarded toward incoming industrial activity, the early industrialists formed their own informal social group, the koyukai, which has become a local legend regarding the town's industrial development. The koyukai eroded as more farmers became involved in industry, not only as workers but as industrialists themselves. Sakaki industry expanded beyond social relations which could be maintained in a small congenial group.

The Chamber of Commerce organized in 1960 filled this void but provided a very different function. It was started in a room of the town hall as the sort of industrial relations office for the town. Whereas the koyukai peer group of the early days was informal and consensual, the Chamber is a hierarchical organization with a paternal concern for the good of local industry. The Chamber of Commerce has long since moved out of the town hall and into its own building. That building was also expanded and modernized several years ago. It has a full-time staff of eight: five men and three women. A chairman and board of directors are appointed from among local industrial leaders to direct its overall activities. These individuals are for the most part from Sakaki's larger and mid-sized firms.

The chairman of the Chamber during my stay was a retiree from the largest firm in Sakaki, a company called Nissei Plastics (employing 860 employees), which manufactures plastic production machinery. In practice, the Chamber's primary clients (or those who benefit the most from its programs) are not the larger companies which provide their own insurance programs, have other industrial or banking relationships to negotiate borrowing, and stand to benefit less from technical training offered at the Chamber. There is a danger of larger companies becoming aloof and hostile toward town government and its agrarian constituency. Appointments like that of the chairman tend to reinforce the smooth relationship between the town government and these larger firms.

In so much as the government is aligned with the interests and concerns of the old agrarian elite, the Chamber constitutes a mechanism by which they can continue to exert control in the industrial sector into which many lower agrarian class individuals have entered. If the Chamber's function is paternalistic toward small Sakaki firms, many of which are family operations, it is a reflection of the social organization of the old agrarian class.

Conflict between bureaucrats and industrialists

If these lower-status members of the original farmer class elevated their status within the scheme of the town social system, it was not because of the encouragement and fostering of the former old guard. Though the town did make infrastructural improvements which benefited industrial plants, for the large part, town government policy has been focused on the needs of agriculture with disregard and sometimes even contempt for those of industry.

Visiting Sakaki today, the rift between industrial and agricultural elites is not immediately evident. The outsider invariably visits the Chamber of Commerce first, where members of the bureaucratic elite boast of the achievements of their town. The visitor is then perhaps offered the standard tour of factories meeting some of the renowned shacho (company presidents) of Sakaki's industrious companies. Though I was accompanied by the secretariat of the Chamber in my earliest excursions, it became clear to him that if I was serious about visiting companies throughout my entire year and a half stay that I had best go along unaccompanied. It was on one such occasion that I was told by a certain company president that regardless of the flowery language of the bureaucrats, Sakaki's industrial growth was achieved in spite of their best efforts to prevent it. Though this comment might be a slight overstatement, it does belie tensions between agrarian and industrial interests which divide the two major elite groups of the town.

These tensions are evident throughout the post-war history of the town and even showed themselves during my limited period of residence. The most poignant examples of this tension have resulted in the relocation of several prominent factories out of the town. These events illustrate how much the bureaucratic elite recognize on the one hand the economic importance of industrial activities, but nonetheless refuse to yield to the interests of the new industrial elite.

The earliest such relocation occurred in 1962. Miyano, the very first factory that moved from Tokyo to Sakaki in 1941, is a company that makes machine tools and today employees over 700 employees based in its plant in the neighboring city of Ueda. The circumstances of its removal from the town are still a thorny issue, so the events leading to its departure can only be sketched vaguely, but the issue is the same one that has lead to another recent departure, i.e. the inability of the town government to provide industrial-use land. In the case of Miyano, the founder and president had let it be known for some time that he was in need of additional space in order to rationalize and expand his operations. The town government had amassed a large tract of industrial land in the southeastern end of town in the late 1950s but refused to sell it to Miyano favoring instead an outside textile company, Azuma Spinning, which ironically went bankrupt in the mid-1970s. Miyano left in 1962 (soon after the decision to sell the land to the Azuma) and the scar is not yet healed almost thirty years after the skirmish.

Another relocation occurred during my stay. Hioki Electric is another of the vanguard companies of the town, founded in 1945. Today it employs over 500 employees manufacturing electronic test equipment. The circumstances of its departure are similar to those of Miyano. The management of Hioki had been consulting for some time with town government in order to acquire a larger tract of land on which to relocate its factory. The town was unhelpful and so Hioki approached other contacts, eventually convincing a prefectural official to encourage the neighboring city of Ueda to put together a large area. Hioki moved into its new facility in April 1991.

Besides these examples of outright conflict, other occurrences during my residence were further indicative of the lack of cohesion among industrial and bureaucratic elite and their interests. I was fortunate to be able to witness elections for both the town council and the mayoral post. Like the posts of appointed officials, these elected positions are dominated by persons with largely agricultural interests. Industrial concerns seem to take a definite secondary consideration, if only for the reason that the constituency is still essentially agrarian and that the most viable channels of co-opting votes are through remaining dozoku networks, not through relatively superficially industrial relationships.

The ideal of the election process of a democratic society presupposes that candidates present platforms and the electorate votes for the candidates that appeal most to their values and concerns. Sakaki's local elections had little to do with platforms and ideas, a criticism that I only heard from a small number of younger individuals. The election of mayor and town council members that I witnessed was largely determined by the number of votes one could garner through a judicious use of the agrarian dozoku networks.

Actual policies have little to do with the decision to vote for a candidate. The decision process is an emotional accounting of the net social debt to the representative of the candidate who makes the request. Campaign success is based on the astuteness of a candidate's election committee to employ networks of obligations in their favor to wield the largest number of votes. The members of a well chosen committee have accumulated much social debt to other influential members of the community (many of whom are the heirs of stem families) who in turn can be counted on to co-opt large blocks of votes associated with extended family relations and community standing.

Industrial networks played a secondary role in determining election results. Individuals can be more easily coerced into voting according to the entreaty of members of their extended family. Several industrial leaders notably played roles in election committees of winning candidates, but they seemed to target relationships among the community of entrepreneurs and industrial leaders rather than being able to marshal the votes of workers of their firms.

Apparently, the entrepreneurs did once try to carve a niche in local government by successful campaigns to elect several of their members. Although they were able to elect three or four entrepreneurs to the town council, they were still unable to affect town policy in a way that they felt benefited their own interests. Most entrepreneurs I spoke with expressed a form of resignation to town politics, that town policy would always favor agricultural interests first and that it was only a waste of time to engage in the mechanisms of elected town government in order to promote interests of industry.

Other strata of class

I have spoken only of the most influential members of the community above, the only ones with whom one, as a scholar or journalist visiting the town for a short period, might have contact. The rest of the community can be broken into a number of groups roughly ranked according to prestige and status within the town social system.

New farmers
The owners of small shops
Landless workers
Outcasts and marginals

I will describe the members of each of these groups in fuller detail below.

New farmers

This group constitutes members of branch families who received land under the edict of SCAP in the immediate post-war years. While they own the land now, they have not usurped the status of their former landlords who have astutely entered other roles of leadership in town government. If their status is inferior to these bureaucratic elite and they are perhaps not in most cases as well off as the industrial elite, they are nonetheless economically comfortable.

As discussed in the prior historical and geographical treatment of Sakaki, the town is relatively poorly suited to rice-based agriculture and consequently has a long history of other cash crops. The contemporary crops with highest value are apples, grapes and flowers. Apples and grapes are best grown along the Northern slopes of the town where they receive the longest direct sunlight. The low lying areas south of the river are covered with enclosed greenhouses growing carnations and roses. A tour of Sakaki's major factories makes one acutely aware of the continued profitability of agriculture in such a highly industrial town. Abutting the physical plants of Sakaki's factories, one finds orchards, vineyards, greenhouses and paddies. Many farmers support themselves totally from the profits of their agricultural endeavors. These families have adequate holdings of profitable crops to provide a steady enough income. In addition, like most others with some access to agricultural land, they have allocated a small amount of their fields to growing fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. Produce prices on all products are quite high throughout the country and self-production is a very effective strategy to shave living expenses.

I know of only one case of an agricultural holding in the town farmed by a company and it is an experimental greenhouse for growing mini-tomatoes. It is more a showcase than a profitable enterprise.[2] Farming is organized by family unit; since the war the units have changed from the dozoku (stem and branch families farming collectively) to the nuclear branch family (teams of husband and wife). Younger generations are only occasionally seen in the fields, orchards and paddies.

Another dominant pattern among new farmers which seems to be a strategy to improve and ensure steady income through lean years is the double-income family. While these families have large holdings, several male members may be employees of local factories. The dominant pattern is for the husband and wife to spend early mornings and late evenings together in the fields. During the daytime, the husband departs for work in a factory while the wife does the remaining processing and transport of crop to the local farmers' cooperative. Since most families have only a single crop, harvest seasons are short and for most of the year, farming does not occupy much of their time. While members of the bureaucratic elite and single-income farmers tend to live in what seems abject poverty, in pre-war houses that have seen only limited and spurious improvement, these double-income farmers have often used their income to rebuild their homes in the most modern forms with built-in heating and western-style toilets. In cases that single children have grown up, are working and still living at home, they are rarely asked to participate in agricultural activities of the family, but usually hold factory jobs in Sakaki or a neighboring town.[3]

Single-income and double-income represent two strategies by this middle class strata. Members of the former group tend to be more dependent and respectful of their former landlords if only for lack of not only status but the economic means of breaking from status system. The latter strategy is in a sense a way of using income to elevate one's status. I will discuss forms of mobility in the next section.

The owners of small shops

Small shop owners in the town (tobacco stands, grocery stores, liquor stores, clothing stores, hardware stores, electrical stores, etc.) fit into a strata that has lower status than the present-day farmers. Commerce has become an increasingly difficult form of income to these families because outside customers who once traveled the road from present-day Tokyo have ceased to pass through the town, as well as the fact that the automobile has made the nearby cities of Nagano and Ueda more accessible to Sakaki's inhabitants. The predominant pattern of income generation in this group is similar to that of the double-income farmers. Many of these stores are run by wives whose husbands hold jobs in nearby factories.

While my above analysis of elite groups has painted a picture of agricultural background, in fact a small number of elite from both the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial groups come from merchant backgrounds (dating back to the Tokugawa period). In most cases, these individuals came from relatively high-status merchant families. Within the larger town social system today their status tends to be inferior to that of individuals from the original farming class.

Two prominent individuals are excellent examples of this complicated status differentiation. The chairman of the Chamber of Commerce comes from a family that used to run a high class inn along the road to Tokyo. After the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s his family became bankers; he was sent to school out of town (a luxury unthinkable to most farmers). Upon returning, he worked in the post office and eventually became postmaster, but decided to join a local engineer to help him operate his firm. This firm is now the largest and most famous in the town. Though the chairman is well known, his views and background are sharply different from that of the bureaucratic elite who run the government and the predominant number of business leaders with farming backgrounds.

The case of the challenger in the mayoral campaign illustrates the demonstrable power of agriculturally-based extended families. He and his opponent were both former bureaucrats in the town government who had similar resumes of posts held during their careers; if anything he was perhaps the more outgoing of the two and therefore presumably the better known. But none of this had much effect on the election. Though both candidates could expect to marshal huge blocks of votes in the election, the numeric advantage of the dozoku connections of his opponent won him a clear advantage.

Landless workers

Another large group of individuals does not own substantial farming land and has no family claim to any commercial or industrial business. Members of these families are the workers of Sakaki's factories. Most of these families at very least own their own homes and sometimes even a small plot of land on which they grow produce for their own consumption. The pattern is for male members to be full-time employees of factories and female members to either take piecemeal work at home or have part-time jobs[4] within the factories.

The backgrounds of these individuals are diverse. A large number of these persons come from the farming class, but were younger siblings of poor branch families which could not afford to support all their offspring. Some of these individuals left Sakaki during the pre-war era later returning to start businesses; these are the ones who have elevated their status and wealth within the town's social structure. Many others have by circumstance remained poor cousins of their relatives who farmed land through the war are were given that land by the occupational government. Other members of this group clearly come from the lower classes of the Tokugawa era: merchants, artisans and perhaps, although this is virtually unspeakable, the burakumin. Once traffic along the road to Tokyo died down, so did the establishments which supported them.

Outcasts and marginals

The final group which is least visible is comprised of individuals marginalized and stigmatized in the larger community. The single factor of differentiation between these individuals and the landless workers is that the male members of marginalized groups do not possess full-time employment in local factories and do not have other sources of steady income such as agriculture or business income.

I know least about these individuals because they were the least likely to be introduced to an outsider, nonetheless a foreigner, like myself. Most people I met were very reluctant to discuss the existence of former or present categories of outcaste individuals. The town did host an annual seminar titled, "solving the burakumin problem," but this event was largely symbolic charity and did little to discuss concrete problems arising within the community due to the stigmatization of outcastes. Even the areas that were the former neighborhoods of large burakumin communities were only vaguely discussed. In no case was any individual identified specifically as burakumin.

I only met two individuals I would label as members of this marginal group. Both shared the common attribute of living in the mountains above the town, although they lived on the opposite sides of the valley. Both of them did odd-jobs and frequently visited the Chamber of Commerce to plead for some sort of work (which is how I met them). Both individuals were very interested in befriending an outsider, perhaps because no one with a sense of their social position in the town would befriend them on a more or less equal basis.

Preservation of status and social mobility

The preceding discussion of categories of social class in Sakaki demonstrates that the social system is under continual pressures for change as members of particular groups re-negotiate their status relative to other reference groups in the ranked system. The social system can be viewed as a closed system as above, with net flow of population in and out of the town ignored, but this perspective misses crucial indications about how Sakaki is changing today.

As I have discussed above, members of the bureaucratic elite were remarkably successful in maintaining their status superiority over other groups through a period when they lost the economic basis for their status and struggled to find a new, viable basis. In this effort, they made use of external requirements for the formation of local jurisdiction in order to continue to justify their superiority.

The entrepreneurial elite have similarly re-negotiated their status within the town social structure by making use of external industrial relationships. Many industrialists spent several years working in factories in the cities where they learned engineering skills. They have returned to the town to forge a new social identity for themselves with the skills that they acquired outside.

External relationships and experiences therefore play a major role both in preserving status and providing a basis for social mobility within the town's social structure. This phenomenon is becoming more pronounced in younger generations. Young offspring off all status groups are now leaving the town in greater numbers for educational purposes. The greatest proportion and earliest such departures were among the bureaucratic elite. The present generation of government leaders invariably only graduated from local high schools. They have sent their children however to universities in the cities. This practice has been emulated increasingly by the industrialists and others. The risk is however that unlike individuals who have not gone on in education after high school, university-graduates are less likely to return to the town. University graduates are thought to be better suited to desk jobs than labor in a factory, so many of these individuals find jobs in the city and do not readily return.

For a period of time, some companies were able to attract these university graduates back to Sakaki with sales and white-collar jobs. The most famous of these companies was one called Soar, which was founded in the late 70s by a top-level manager of Hioki who left because he was passed over for leadership of the company on the retirement of the founder. Soar manufactured electronic test equipment and directly marketed it throughout Japan and overseas. The initial generation of products was successful, but later products were not able to sustain the rapid growth of the firm through the period when the yen doubled in value in the mid 1980s. Soar went bankrupt in the mid-80s and its employees scattered, mostly into companies outside of town.

The emphasis on maintaining an unbroken line of heirs which runs across all status groups places pressure on young male offspring to return to the town after outside education. In most cases, the eldest son inherits title to the family and responsibility for observance of religious responsibilities to the ancestors. Since family size is now quite small (two to three children), in most cases there is only one son and pressure is exerted on him by his parents to return to the town upon graduation or after an initial period of employment in the city. Since the demise of companies like Soar and the end of the bubble economy of the 1980s, however, it is increasingly unclear whether these young individuals will return and what jobs they will seek upon return.

The case of my homestay family, the Yanagisawas, is an interesting illustration of the issues facing the social reproduction of these status groups. The father of the family is secretariat of the Chamber of Commerce and was a career bureaucrat at the town hall before his retirement several years ago. The family is clearly a member of the bureaucratic elite. Mr. Yanagisawa's father was the landlord of a large holding of mulberry fields (for silk) and apple orchards, but was forced to transfer title to much of the land to the branch families that farmed it. Mr. Yanagisawa, therefore, upon graduation from a local well-respected high school in the years just after the war, took up a position in the town government.

Mr. Yanagisawa married the daughter of an elite farming family in the next town over. It was arranged through relationships between the members of government in both towns. The Yanagisawas have two daughters, now both graduated from colleges in the city. Since they had no sons, they were preoccupied with finding a heir for their family.

Normally, in such cases a son is adopted through marriage to a daughter. The Yanagisawa's first daughter pleased her parents by indicating that she wanted to come home after graduation from college and a brief excursion for a home stay in California. She refused the offers of her father to find her local employment through his connections and instead took a job at Soar which at that time was in its most expansive and energetic phase. There she met the son of a family in a removed area of Nagano near Matsumoto. After the company went bankrupt they both found employment in Tokyo and began to date each other.

When she announced her intentions to marry to her parents she had already asked her boyfriend whether he would be willing to take her last name and become heir to her family. Since he was the child of a branch family and the older of two sons (the second son will now take heir to his original family), he was able to convince his parents to allow him to marry into the Yanagisawa family.

The wedding occurred in March 1990. Since he was being symbolically adopted into the family, the wedding was conducted by Yanagisawas in a special wedding hall in the neighboring city of Ueda. Over 200 persons were in attendance, though friends of the bride and groom totaled no more than 20 persons and the family of the groom numbered less than a dozen. The majority of the guests were representatives the Yanagisawa branch families, married female siblings, and town government officials (including the mayor). The ceremony was more a celebration of the preservation and continued unbroken line of the Yanagisawa stem family than that of the union of two persons.

Since the wedding, the young couple continues to live in Tokyo, both working at the jobs they had before marriage. Though they return for the New Year's holiday and summer festival in addition to other holidays and family social functions (weddings, etc.), it is not clear when, and indeed whether at all, they will return to Sakaki. The elder Yanagisawa couple talk hopefully about the day that their children will return, a topic which comes up in conversation when local townspeople and kin visit their home. Their curiosities are always peaked by mention of employment opportunities that might be attractive to the couple in Tokyo, and these are often mentioned during the periods when the young couple are visiting Sakaki.

There is substantially less pressure for the younger daughter to marry and return to Sakaki now that her older sister has brought an heir into the family. The younger daughter works for a foreign trading house in Tokyo and has much more experience overseas than her older sister (one year in a university exchange program in Washington state and several months after graduation from college in a homestay in Germany). Unlike her older sister, she has not been reluctant to indicate her preference to never return to the town although she is dating someone she met in high school who is from the neighboring city of Ueda. Both the younger daughter and her boy friend are working in Tokyo, and they return separately during holidays, often embarking for skiing and road trips almost immediately upon returning.

The case of the Yanagisawas is not representative of the majority of families of the town since they are members of the bureaucratic elite, but elements of their experience are found in other status groups. As lower status groups and especially members of the industrial elite began to have the means to send their children to colleges in the city, the old elite themselves mimicked urban trends to send children overseas for short home stays and university exchange programs. These trends are further replicated among lower groups who if they do not have the means to send them overseas for long periods will at least humor their children's requests for money to travel in foreign countries during college vacations.

Another trend which threatens the viability of the town social system is a kind of aversion of the young for the kinds of livelihood earned by their parents. In the case of farmers, this means that their children are not learning agricultural skills. Compounding changes in the attitudes of the young to these activities is the reluctance of parents to press them to engage in them.

Here the illustration of another family is apropos. The Tomiyamas are a branch family of a larger family who acquired substantial holdings on which they grow grapes today. The husband works at a local factory during the day. When I first visited their house, I was surprised by its newness and modern comforts, as opposed to the quaint farmhouse of the Yanagisawas which was built in the 1920s. It was explained to me that the house was literally "made out of grapes."

I was able to join the Tomiyamas in the vineyards one morning. The husband and wife awoke before dawn and rode out to the vineyards to pick a truckload of grapes. Upon returning a little after seven o'clock, Mrs. Tomiyama made breakfast while Mr. Tomiyama picked through the bunches pruning out any bad grapes. Their daughter joined them for breakfast and she and her father left for work while Mrs. Tomiyama returned to the shed and finished the cleaning of the grapes and transported them to the Farmers' cooperative.

It was interesting to me that they did not encourage their children to help them, but this protective pattern of child-rearing is common not only among the farmers, but among other groups including the entrepreneurs. It is thought that coercing one's children into participating in the family livelihood is a distraction from their studies; schooling is seen as the primary vehicle to status preservation for the very elite and mobility for other groups. What began as a course of outside education for the children of elite has become a status marker not only for elite groups, but for lower-status groups, because performance is directly tied to achievement not to status, wealth or connections. In the process, parents have relinquished much of the final responsibility for their children's upbringing to the state.

The experiences of higher status groups is mirrored in that of their status inferiors. Of those young people who do not escape to the cities for college, or indeed who do return to the area for employment, the tendency is now toward employment outside of town. In previous eras when bicycles and public transportation were the primary modes of transportation, employment was limited much more by geography, but today's youth invariably own automobiles and prefer to work outside of town away from the influence and watchful eye of extended family networks.

Indeed another common trend is for children to return to the area but live and work out of town in a neighboring area. In addition to the two companies that have moved to the adjacent city of Ueda, others have moved north to the city of Koshoku which is on the southern tip of the city of Nagano. Both cities have more youth-oriented entertainment and apartment houses are much more readily available than in Sakaki.

Young people are not socialized so much as members of their families (and therefore residents of the town) but as citizens of the modern industrial state. The external orientation of the offspring of all status groups in the town, while itself a perceived mechanism for social mobility and status preservation within the town's social structure, also threatens to destroy the autonomy of the town and the continuance of the structure itself.


[1] For this purpose I have multiplied the number of male occupants of these positions by 3.7 to include their family members who also ascribe status from the male head's status.

[2] Kayama Industries (mentioned in the next chapter) produces metal cases for several large stereo companies, one of whom is now trying to sell hi-tech greenhouses which pipe in music to the plants to supposedly make them "grow better."

[3] This is also true of children of single-income farmers.

[4] Here the term part-time is only classificatory because the number of hours worked may approach that of a salaried, full-time employee, but such positions are neither offered to nor sought after by most women. Part-time workers are paid on an hourly basis and receive no health insurance or other benefits.

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 2004 by Christopher Romig Keener.

         CHAPTER 1
         CHAPTER 5