This talk narrates the generational contest to define working-class masculine identity that emerged during the era of global youth culture and radical political movements that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s. During the early decades of the postwar era, public and private institutions constructed social roles for blue-collar men that augured the reemergence of a common set of gender practices legitimizing the subordination of women to men and the dominance of some men over others. The resultant hegemonic masculine ideal for the blue-collar “‘working man”’ was nonetheless ideologically flexible: labor leaders found it useful as a means of mobilizing union militancy, corporate managers were able to deploy it to quell union militancy, and the state even found it a useful symbol of Japan’s economic success. By the mid-1960s, work had become the measure of citizenship, employment synonymous with manhood, and Japanese men the breadwinners of postwar society. Higher wages overall also led to a significant change in workers’ aspirations, and by the 1970s blue-collar workers increasingly dreamed of living a middle-class lifestyle. This talk examines two aspects of this historical trajectory. First, it argues that higher wages had the unintended consequence of enabling working-class men of all ages to identify with middle-class notions of masculinity, from older men who wanted to buy cars to young men who wanted to go skiing. Second, it shows how a generational schism also developed within the rank-and-file as younger men increasingly rejected the union’s hegemonic masculine 'family man' norm while expressing bitterness that their wages did not allow them to access the familial and consumer trappings of middle-class life available to their older male co-workers. By analyzing the ways in which middle-aged male leaders of Japan’s Old Left unions perceived politically active, young blue-collar men, the talk shows how generational conflict influenced the ways in which an increasing number of blue-collar men of all ages identified with middle-class cultural and economic forms. One result was the fracturing of the Old Left’s monopoly on class-based ideals of masculinity, which set the stage for a cascade of class and gender confusions that have shaped popular notions of ‘work’ and ‘manhood’ to the present day.
Dr. Christopher Gerteis is Lecturer in the History of Contemporary Japan School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London