Changing Sociality in Post-Economic Bubble Japan
Animal cafés welcome visitors of all ages, from middle-schoolers to retirees, but they are most popular with young people, both men and women, in their 20s and 30s. This generation came of age following the end of the economic boom period, and life in post-recession Japan has had significant effects on them, social as well as economic. They face not only a challenging work environment, as there is decreasing access to stable, full-time employment, but also the loss social support networks, affected by the delay in marriage, decreasing birth rate, and the end of the “company-as-family” ideology. The young people who came of age in the 1990s and after, sometimes referred to as the “lost generation,” are struggling to find new social support structures to replace the ones built around corporations and family, and new sources of stress reduction to help them face the challenges of life in contemporary Japan. Experiences that offer low-key sociality, combining community and relaxation, like time spent in an animal café, are increasingly popular among this generation of Japanese workers because they offer the positive feelings of intimacy that are hard for many Japanese to find elsewhere. The animal café offers a place that is away from the workplace, a major source of stress for younger precariously-employed workers, and home, which offers little comfort or social support to young Japanese who live alone. It is a place where visitors can relax and let go of their daily stress, while still comfortably being with other people.
During the economic boom period, which began after Japan’s postwar recovery in the 1960s and 1970s and ended in 1990, there was a reliance on corporate loyalty and family care to compensate for a minimal welfare state (Borovoy 2012). The Japanese economy was built around the lifetime-employment system, in which male employees were hired when they graduated from college, and they would work for the same corporation for the duration of their careers. These salarymen were paid a sufficient wage to support a family, and their wives in turn maintained the household and helped their children develop the credentials that would allow them also to attain a corporate position. While this lifestyle was only ever attainable by a portion of Japanese workers, the ideology built around the idea that if one worked hard and did well in school, one would have a secure future was highly influential for young people born in the 1970s and 1980s. However, in an effort to respond to the economic crisis by increasing flexibility in the labor force, Japanese employers have increased the number of part-time, temporary or dispatched (haken) workers. While older workers, hired during the period of lifetime-guaranteed employment, still benefit from the corporate welfare system, younger workers do not have access to those protections and face significantly more economic instability that the older generation. According to the most recent Japanese government White Paper on Labour Force from 2014, 36.7% of employees are non-regular staffs and employees, a more than 6% increase from ten years ago. Twenty percent of the young people working in sales and service work are in that type of job "involuntarily," because they could not find employment at a regular company. More and more employees are shifted into flexible employment, reducing these stable regular positions for all workers. Even those with full-time jobs face more stress in the workplace, as fewer options for workers means that there is more pressure on people to market themselves successfully and they must take on the responsibility to care for their social and emotional needs.
Young Japanese workers are thus faced with the challenges of financial insecurity, and a sense of disaffection as they have come to realize that their dream of a stable future as part of a corporation, something they would be able to earn as long as they studied and worked hard, is no longer possible for a large proportion of Japanese workers. Young Japanese people are searching for opportunities for positive social interaction to help them deal with these feelings of disconnection and loneliness. They are turning to the marketplace for it, willing to pay for the experiences that they do not get elsewhere. This leads them to turn to business like animal cafés, which offer them that positive experience.
Animal cafés’ target clientele are men and women in their 20s and 30s who seek to reduce their feelings of anxiety through time spent in a companionable, relaxing space. They are often working in high-stress jobs and lack the time to socialize with friends after work. Additionally, animal cafés are clustered in cities like Tokyo which are heavily populated by people who moved to urban areas for work and left behind family and childhood friends, so are more likely to feel lonely or isolated.