First, read this article on the Huffington Post (It’s in Japanese). For those who prefer English articles, perhaps this CNN article on the taxpayer-financed dating service, and this Wall Street Journal article on the Japanese government’s discourse of causation between the declining birthrate and the low marriage rate, would give you some ideas of the problem I am going to discuss here.
While I have so much to say about the taxpayer-financed dating service and the forged causal relationship between birth rate and marriage rate, I shall focus rather on the first article. In a nutshell, the article reports that the Japanese government is planning to announce a new proposal to support companies and organisations that ‘encourage’ employees to get married, or to embark upon ‘marriage partner hunting’ as it’s called in Japan, by implementing ‘marriage mentor’ system and other (in my view, highly elusive) policies to intervene into employees’ private lives.
If you have a slightest idea of how the demographic change would affect, or is already affecting, the Japanese social structure and by extension economic production and political dynamics, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand the rational behind such a proposal, even if you do not necessarily agree with it. Surely this proposal is in line with the decade-long concern over the decrease of fertility rate and high life expectancy, which result in a super-aging society. The demographic change is not merely an immediate personal issue but obviously is a salient factor for mid to long term public policies.
Or else, at more personal level, if you are actively seeking a partner, if your life goal is to get married and have children, if you think marriage is the only acceptable norm of relationship, you would probably welcome this proposal with open arms.
My immediate reaction to the proposal? – What the fuck.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against marriage and kids, or those who set marriage as their life goal. If that’s what you want, fine, go for it. But, please, don’t assume that your values, ideals, goals are also mine. Don’t assume that I enjoy your endless bragging about your marriage or minuet-by-minuet updates on what your kids are doing. Don’t admonish me on my elusive relationship status and what kind of guy I should go on a date. And never ever try to implant in my brain the idea that marriage is the best thing that could ever happen to me, simply because your effort deems to fail anyway and you would waste your time and energy. It’s fine, though, if you think this is a grumbling of a loser who has ‘failed’ to get married and you feel pity. Probably this is and you do, from YOUR perspective.
My point here is this: to say the least, such a proposal is simply offensive to people, including myself, who have a firm belief that marriage is merely one life option among others. It’s the 21st century, for God’s sake.
More importantly, however, the proposal is extremely degrading and damaging. It explicitly manifests the idea that, with regard to sexuality and relationship, there is only one acceptable and appropriate norm for the Japanese society, that it, being heterosexual, and getting married and having kids. It libels implicitly or otherwise some factions of society (singles, couples not in marriage partnership, and LGBT community, to name a few) as ‘losers’ (indeed, a form of othering), relegates them to the margin of the society, and ultimately negates the heterogeneity of norms and values in our society. But the truth is, our sexuality is diverse, so as our values and modalities of how we live our lives.
I shall even go further. Why I think this kind of proposal is outrageous and ridiculous is not simply a matter of personal disgust. The point here is that this government’s proposal manifests the desire of modern state to control and subjugate its population through state disciplining that directly applies to every aspect of our lives, and the will to encode mechanism of power into social practices and human behaviours, so that the population gradually comes to conform to subtle regulations and expectations for the social order. Put otherwise, the government’s proposal indispensably intersects with the notion of modern state, governmentality, and disciplining of the populace.
Michel Foucault on body and biopower
What I am referring to is the concept of biopower, perhaps in a slightly broader sense than the original one developed by Michel Foucault in his analysis of liberalism and his critique of liberal governments. Put it in the most general way, biopower refers to a set of techniques of modern state to foster human life, such as birth, death, fertility, illness etc., in order to control the population, to transform people into a generalised social body to be regulated and disciplined.
But what exactly does ‘body’ mean here? And how is it possible for the state to take possession of the body?
Foucault’s genealogical enquiry into modes of power and control reveals how modern state has taken possession of life of the people,
[by] covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population, … [with] technologies of discipline… and technologies of regulation.
To be in this modern context of discipline and regulation is, according to Foucault,
[to be] in a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general – with the body as one pole and the population as the other. What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists), nor is it the individual body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem I would like in fact like to trace the transformation not at the level of political theory, but rather at the level of the mechanisms, techniques, and technologies of power. We saw the emergence of techniques of power that were essentially centered on the body, on the individual body. They included all devices that were used to ensure the spatial distribution of individuals bodies (their separation, their alignment, their serialization, and their surveillance)and the organization, around those individuals, of a whole field of visibility. They were also techniques that could be used to take control over bodies. Attempts were made to increase their productive force through exercise, drill, and so one. They were also techniques for rationalizing and strictly economizing on a power that had to be used in the least costly way possible, thanks to whole system of surveillance, hierarchies, inspections, book-keeping, and reports-all the technology of labor. (Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” 17th March,1976)
What Foucault has revealed, particularly by his critique of liberal government, is that the political control and power of liberal states have extended over all major processes of human life itself through a transubstantiation of sovereign power (think Machiavelli and his idea of the sovereign, yes, the Prince) into biopower – techniques and technologies that govern human social and biological processes.
Our body, our social process, their possession?
What does all this mean in less-theoretical terms? The first and perhaps obvious thing to say is that the contemporary historical period we exist in is governed over by means of particular mechanisms that simultaneously operate on our collective social relations as a whole, as a society, and on our bodies and subjective selves, the idea of who we think we are. Biopower is therefore a societal field of power – and perhaps struggle – whereby the core aspects of our lives (birth, death, fertility etc.) are intervened and controlled for the purpose of rationalising whatever principles fit to the regime of authority, its discourses about life, and modalities through which its population constructs subjectivity of the self and of the collective.
With regard to the Japanese government’s proposal, it might seem, at the onset, purely socio-economic, with the purpose to tackle the long term concern over aging society and negative implications thereof. However, I want to emphasise the viability of Foucauldian biopolitics in understanding the operability of such a proposal, or a regime of truth (that is, a set of ideas that defines what Japanese ought to do as a member of the Japanese society). These spaces, such as marriage, reproductive choice and sexual orientation, are upon which biopower operates. These space, therefore, represent profound biopolitical efforts of the Japanese government – albeit encoded in a socio-economic discourse of demographic change – to exercise its power ‘to make live’ and ‘let die’. As such, what is at the centre of the proposal to ‘encourage’ Japanese people to get married is not necessarily its operability and socio-economic efficacy, but questions concerning our choice, our free will, our private lives, and every day modalities of practice.