“[All] I want to eat is a rice ball.”
This was the last entry in the diary of a 52-year-old man who starved to death in an apartment he had occupied for 20 years. His is just one of many voices of the precarity of everyday life and death that populate Anne Allison’s new ethnography of pain, struggle, and hope in modern Japan. Precarious Japan (Duke University Press, 2013) considers the transformations of the relationship between work and life in Japan that followed its social and economic fall after the financial bubble burst in 1991. The structural unit of the family and the meaning and spaces of “home” were consequently reconfigured. In her study of the spaces and voices of the resulting “precarity” of contemporary Japan, Allison introduces us to a broad range of people working to help themselves and others cope with the consequences of these social transformations, from hikikomori (youths who withdraw into solitary existences), to men and women staving off loneliness in collective meeting spaces like the “Nippon Active Life Club, ” to performers and activists working to help the young and old avoid poverty and suicide. A palpable materiality of this socially precarious existence emerges from Allison’s chapters, the pages of which are sprinkled with mothers’ bones and robot hearts, liquid and chocolate. In a particularly arresting opening and closing, she shares her experience volunteering after the 3.11 tragedy, suggesting a new sense of hope and belonging that has blossomed in the mud of the disaster. It is an important, thoughtful, and moving ethnography that deserves the attention of a wide audience.