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Negotiating Marginalization, Ordinariness and Aspiration in Contemporary Japan

By Judit Kroo, co-author of Linguistic Tactics and Strategies of Marginalization in Japanese

My encounter with marginalization in the Japanese context was in some ways by happenstance. I was engaged in long-term fieldwork with university students and while my stated focus was on the ways in which younger Japanese adults were experimenting with alternative identities and social personae, I was repeatedly struck by how many younger adults seemed distinctly uninterested in alternative ways of living and were rather focused on finding a way to live ordinary lives. In contrast to university students in places like the United States, who see university as a time to ‘find themselves’ or to try out a range of identities and lifestyles, for many university students in Japan an ideal way to navigate life seemed to be one that made it possible to live futsuu ni ‘in the ordinary way’. The term futsuu ‘ordinary’ itself has a strong social meaning in Japan, one that is not at all negative, and indeed for many younger adults the state of being a futsuu ningen ‘ordinary person’ is a site of desire and a kind of achievement. 

This is because younger adults in contemporary Japan confront significant societal precarities including continued wage deflation, job insecurity, and population decline. Taken together these changes have put once taken-for-granted social practices out of reach for many individuals. For example, wage deflation and increases in so-called hiseishain ‘contract, non-regular worker’ jobs mean that many younger adults are excluded from the social benefits that make core practices like marriage, family creation and home ownership possible. In this way, rather than aspirational lifeways that are based on success (financial, social etc.) or growth, many younger Japanese adults construct ordinariness as its own form of aspiration. To follow Elizabeth Povinelli (2011), younger Japanese adults seemed to be trying not to be different but just to stay the same. The formulation of ‘ordinariness’ as an end goal, as that which is frequently out of reach and as something to be desired, is closely connected with the ways in which younger adults are marginalized from ordinariness itself. In the context of Japan, ordinariness and marginalization seem frequently to be paired—the risk of marginalization, of falling out of ordinariness structures younger adults’ sense of future possibilities. These younger adults reject notions of successful futures as those based yaritai koto ‘the things I want to do’, and rather feel that a successful future is one that merely avoids marginalization. 

At the same time, and completely contrary to the ways in which marginalization structures younger adults’ sense of a risky, unstable future, recent socioculturally-informed research by my colleague Keiko Tsuchiya (2021) has demonstrated the ways in which individuals or groups can choose marginalization—that is to say, they may agentively self-marginalize. Tsuchiya carefully analysed the linguistic tactics of female politicians in Japan and found that these politicians may use self-marginalizing language as a way of insulating themselves from even more damaging forms of marginalization by their male colleagues. 

It is this contradiction or perhaps possibility that draws me to the notion of marginalization. Marginalization can be used to gather up a diverse array of experiences of the world—experiences that frequently seem to run counter to each other. The connective tissue that unites these seeming contradictions—for example, the experiences of female politicians and university students in Japan—is that invoking marginalization means shifting our perspective, considering social formations from the perspective of the outside rather than the center and thus re-working our understanding of what actually ‘counts’ as the center and what counts as the edge. When we look from the center, the margins might appear peripheral and even unimportant, but if we shift our perspective to the edges, we gain a new perspective and what had once appeared familiar acquires a new cast. I think this perspective on marginalization and on the ways in which marginalization is put into contrast with other discourse structures like ‘ordinariness’ offers many possibilities for considering important questions of how individuals are understood as ‘counting’ in society, of the ways in which individuals at the edge of society might actively place themselves there (for example to avoid other forms of marginalization), and of the ways in which the ‘edge’ can organize individuals understandings of what kinds of life are desirable or even possible. Looking from the margins and examining the multitude of meanings that they carry, we can begin to re-see.

Judit Kroo is Assistant Professor of Japanese Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies at Arizona State University, USA. Her current projects consider the social construction of standard or desirable gendered adulthoods in Japan and Korea, alternative economic practices among younger Japanese adults, and the construction of mediatized social personae.


Povinelli, Elizabeth (2011). Economies of Abandonment. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tsuchiya, Keiko (2021). Epistemic primacy and self/other-marginalization in a Parliamentary debate: A case study of female Japanese politicians. In J. Kroo and K. Satoh (Eds.) Linguistic Tactics and Strategies of Marginalization in Japanese (pp.113 – 139). London: Palgrave.