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The New Individualism and Contemporary Japan: Theoretical Avenues and the Japanese New Individualist Path


  • Correction added on 26 June 2012, after first online publication on 30 May 2012. Affiliations for author, Anthony Elliott, have been updated. An acknowledgement note has been added at the end of the article. The errors have been corrected in this version of the article.


Recent social theory has identified various institutional forces operating at a global level promoting novel trends towards “individualization”, “reflexive self-identity” and “new individualism” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2001; Giddens, 1991, 1992; Elliott and Lemert, 2009, 2009a). This article develops an exploratory overview of the theory of new individualism with reference to Japanese sociologies of self specifically and contemporary Japanese society more generally. Detailing the large-scale societal shift in Japan from traditional forms of identity-construction (based on a citizenship model of social order) to post-traditional forms of identity-construction (promoted by globalization and neoliberal policies), the article distinguishes between four discourses of the self in post-war Japanese society: the age of the ideal; the age of the dream; the age of fiction; and, the age of fragmentation. Moreover, the article examines the Japanese employment system and the emergence of new individualist employment, as well as considering the emotional impacts of a rise in suicides in contemporary Japan. The argument is that the new individualist thesis can contribute to a sociological understanding of recent social transformations in Japan. However, situating new individualism in the context of Japan also highlights significant tensions in processes of new individualism, tensions between individual initiatives and institutional pressures.