Academic journal article Ethnology

Volunteering as a Lifestyle Choice: Negotiating Self-Identities in Japan(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Volunteering as a Lifestyle Choice: Negotiating Self-Identities in Japan(1)

Article excerpt

This article considers how people in Japan create themselves from a range of available identities. Decisions to adopt particular identities are channeled by the institutions of society, historical circumstances, and local contexts. Because selves and societies mutually fashion one another, the ways in which selves construct an identity are commentaries upon transformations in society. The identity of the volunteer (borantia in Japanese) has emerged in Japan in recent decades as an alternative and supplement to mainstream life paths. The article also explores how people living in a middle- to lower-middle-class residential neighborhood integrate the volunteer identity into their life narratives. (Japan, social role, self-identity, gender, life narratives, volunteerism)

How societies shape the way people construct themselves and how self-identity is fashioned from a range of available choices are the focal concerns of this article. People create their selves in a continuous process of reflection and revision (Giddens 1991:52; Bruner 1986:12; Battaglia 1995:3), yet decisions to adopt particular identities (e.g., blue-collar worker, artist, or charity organizer) are shaped by the institutional arrangements of society. In postwar Japanese society, the institutions of school, work, and family have channeled men into the roles of salaried employees and women into the roles of family caretakers.(2) The identities of the full-time housewife and the white-collar husband working at a large company remain compelling and widely held symbols of middle-class success, even though postwar institutions have insured that access to these identities is limited to a minority of Japanese (Kelly 1993:203). Transformations in global and national social and economic structures in recent decades, however, have given rise to popular questioning of the validity of these postwar identities. Public media frequently weigh alternative identities on a scale of whether they represent selfishness or social contribution, yet no clear alternative set of identities has emerged. This article focuses on an identity that has gained national recognition over the past two decades, that of the volunteer. Based on fieldwork conducted for eighteen months in 1993-94 and two months in 1999 in a residential neighborhood in Yokohama, Japan, I explore how people in Japan volunteer as a strategic choice in developing self-identity, with the aim of considering how life-strategy decisions comment upon larger social transformations.

The Japanese word borantia, from the English word "volunteer,' generally refers to an individual who on his or her own initiative helps others in a spirit of goodwill. From a word virtually unknown twenty years ago, borantia has become a socially recognized identity and an accepted part of national policy, popular consciousness, and everyday vocabulary. Individuals acting as borantia routinely participate in the operations of government, nonprofit organizations, schools, and corporations. Libraries and bookstores are stocked with handbooks offering advice and encouragement to would-be volunteers, national newspapers regularly feature articles on individuals who volunteer at grassroots and international levels, and employers (including the government) offer "borantia leave," during which employees may volunteer on company time.

Volunteering has emerged in Japan over the past decade as a highly recognizable and respectable activity for historically specific reasons. Stated briefly, Japanese postwar prosperity brought increased acceptance of the idea that individuals may choose from a diversity of lifestyles, just as mass middle-class consumerism of the 1960s gave way to diversified consumer choice in the 1980s and 1990s. The prolonged economic recession of the 1990s, combined with the aging of the Japanese baby-boomer generation born after the war, challenged the validity of the ideals of material achievement that shaped postwar life. …

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