27 June 2024

Liberalism and the “Spoilt Children” of the Japanese Bubble Economy

The process of liberalisation that occurred in Japan in the 1970s–1980s led to the emergence of the “Bubble generation”, a term referring to the citizens who came of age during the 1985–1990 economic and financial bubble. Japanese policymakers, in an effort to protect and extend individual freedoms, had engaged in the promotion of rapid social and economic changes that came into conflict with existing behaviours and values. Today, Japanese people largely believe that the Bubble generation, which grew up in an excessively liberal environment, is self-centred, materialistic, and hedonistic. In his PhD thesis in International History, Kai Habel traces why and how liberalisation made this Bubble generation possible.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Being Japanese, I had a vague knowledge of the Bubble period (1985–1990), which is considered the peak of Japan’s economic success and the beginning of its decline, and I had regularly heard about the various (negative) stereotypes attached to the Bubble generation. It was during my Master’s thesis, dedicated to the evolution of nationalisms in Japan from the 1990s, that I started considering the Bubble period as an important research topic. I had observed that nationalistic movements, which were particularly weak during the 1970–1980, reemerged and gained momentum after the bursting of the bubble in the early 1990s. I had the feeling that post-Bubble Japan had embraced a conservative turn, and that the Bubble period and its generation had come to represent an excessively liberal, decadent Japan that had forgotten its traditional values and mores. I had seen some TV shows that depicted the Bubble as a crazy time when Japanese people had lost their hardworking and humble identity. One of the symbols of the Bubble period was the sudden success of clubbing: in just a few years, dancing and flirting in nightclubs had become an extremely popular activity among the youth. All academic works that focused on the Bubble period did it from an economic perspective. Therefore, I wanted to study the Bubble in its entirety, taking into account sociocultural phenomena as well.

Can you describe your thesis questions and your methodology?

The thesis tries to answer the following question: why and how did the process of liberalisation, defined as the protection and extension of individual freedoms, lead to the emergence of the Bubble generation? I wanted to understand why the 1970s–1980s, during which Japan undertook various types of liberal reforms, culminated in the Bubble period and ultimately gave rise to the development of the Bubble generation. To address this research question, I gathered information and data from various sources. First, I visited archives in Japan – the National Archives of Japan and the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and in the United States – the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. Second, I conducted a series of individual interviews with Japanese citizens. This experience was really interesting and enjoyable. The interviewees shared fascinating anecdotes and thoughts about the Bubble, which they remember as an extraordinary period. Third, I consulted newspapers, magazines, and books from these years to better apprehend how people perceived the era they were living through. I conducted my research at the National Diet Library, which has a copy of all Japanese publications. It is an amazing place for researchers interested in contemporary Japan! Finally, I analysed songs from the 1970s–1980s, read fictions, studied architectural or urban trends, and watched movies depicting the Bubble period. I believe that this diversity of sources is one the strengths of my thesis.

What are your major findings?

I would like to share three points that I find particularly interesting. My first finding was that although the process of liberalisation in Japan was initially encouraged by the United States, which wanted to open a Japanese economy that seemed excessively regulated and state-led, the sociocultural reforms stemmed from internal forces. In fact, Japanese policymakers were convinced that their country needed to “internationalise” by adopting liberal structures in terms of women’s empowerment, work-life balance, migratory policy, and the promotion of individuality. Japan’s liberalisation in the 1970s–1980s was undoubtedly a top-down phenomenon, but it was largely accepted by the population. 

My second finding concerns the emergence of the Bubble generation. Their members were raised in a liberal context marked by the education reform emphasising students’ individuality, the advancement of consumption and leisure, the success of American music and movies that idealised the American way of life, and fantastic economic conditions. The term “Bubble generation” started being used in the 2000s to describe these young adults that were considered unfit by both their elders and cadets. 

I realised – this is my third point – that the frustration towards this generation primarily came from workplace tensions. Japanese firms have been organised around lifelong employment and a seniority-based wage system, making employees’ age a significant factor. Moreover, the Bubble generation has been overly represented in enterprises, as its members were hired during the economic boom and never feared losing their job due to Japan’s corporate culture. This numerical weight gave them much influence, leading to resentment from younger generations, who were better educated but felt undervalued at work.

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis?

The thesis raises two main sociopolitical questions. The first one concerns the process of liberalisation, democratisation, and Westernisation in Japan. I consider the 1970s–1980s as the fourth major liberal moment in Japanese history, following the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement in the 1870s–1880s, the Taisho Democracy from 1913 to 1926, and the American occupation from 1945 to 1952. All these movements were incomplete and were followed by reactions against the “excesses” of liberalism. The liberalisation of the 1970s–1980s was halted by the bursting of the bubble. The ensuing economic stagnation has often been regarded as a backlash against an era of overconsumption, easy money, and immorality. This experience has led many citizens to view the Pleasure Island promised by the proponents of liberalism as necessarily short-lived and shallow. This sociocultural reticence explains why Japan’s “liberal democracy” is not as liberal as those in Western states. 

The second question deals with the management of the economic crisis. Japanese firms responded to the economic decline by cutting new hiring while protecting their existing staff. In Japan, enterprises avoid firing employees for both legal and cultural reasons. This response to the crisis does not seem judicious from an economic standpoint. The intergenerational tensions that arose from this situation should alert Japanese policymakers and economic actors to the risk of overly protecting “dominant” social groups at the expense of younger citizens. This theme could be of interest to many states, starting with China, which is already facing economic and demographic challenges.

*    *    *

Kai Habel defended his PhD thesis in International History on 13 March 2024. Professor Jussi Hanhimäki presided over the committee, which included Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou, Thesis Director, and, as External Reader, Adjunct Professor Samuel Guex, East Asian Studies Department, University of Geneva.

Citation of the PhD thesis: 
Habel, Kai. “La génération de la Bulle: le Japon face à la question libérale, 1970-1990.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2024.
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the thesis via this page of the repository. Others can contact Dr Habel.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: Jo Panuwat D/Shutterstock.