The Puzzle of Japan’s Welfare Capitalism

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

Japan was the only non-Western nation considered by Gøsta Esping-Andersen in his path-breaking 1990 book ‘The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism’, which is probably the most cited source in the discipline of Social Policy.  Japan was given relatively limited attention in his book, although he subsequently examined Japan in a later article. Individual studies and reviews did not come to a clear consensus, but very broadly tended to regard Japan as a ‘Liberal’ (rather than a Conservative or Social Democratic) regime. However, as we shall see, this obscures a more complex picture.

This confusion over classification also obscures two important questions. First, can nations such as Japan in particular and East Asian nations in general be regarded as one of the three worlds, a fourth world, a hybrid or a unique case? More fundamentally, is the three worlds approach a Eurocentric or Western approach that should not be used to classify a wider group of nations?

We do not definitively answer these questions, but instead stress two points. First, social policy scholars need to consider if analytical frames such as the (Western or European) ‘welfare state’ can be exported to other settings, or whether ‘other’ nations should be examined with respect to indigenous rather than externally imposed criteria, or in ‘intrinsic’ rather than ‘extrinsic’ terms.

Second, the answer to the first question must include indigenous voices, particularly when much of the debate is not conducted in the English language. Most Western scholars rely on English language sources, whether written by Western or Japanese scholars. However, it is important that the voices of Japanese scholars in their own language must be heard. We believe that our article was the first to classify the Japanese welfare regime, comparing accounts in Japanese and English.

We carried out a structured search that found over 600 articles in English and nearly 3000 articles in Japanese, which were narrowed down to a final group of some 40 sources: 21 in the English language (15 by West-based commentators and six by Asia-based authors) and 19 in the Japanese language.

Similar to our previous work on Korea, Japan’s welfare regime seems to be a ‘chameleon’ changing its appearances to different viewers, with some support for almost every possible classification. We found eight possible types: liberal; conservative; hybrid; outlier; fourth regime; distinct world; late-coming model; and other or unclear models (but no social-democratic classification). However, these are not simply eight categories, but reflect fundamental difference about whether the ‘three worlds’ approach is appropriate as a starting point for exploring the welfare system of a nation such as Japan.

There were some important differences between scholars. For example, no researchers based in Japan or other Asian nations regarded Japan as liberal, in contrast to the majority (nine out of 15) of Western studies.  Only three studies (Western, Asian and Japanese respectively) regarded Japan as Conservative. No writer clearly classified Japan as a Social Democratic regime. While six of the 19 Japanese-language studies concluded that Japan was a hybrid between Liberal and Conservative regimes, the only Western study to suggest this was Esping-Andersen’s.

The outlier categorization appeared in one Western study. Some researchers argued that Japan was a ‘fourth regime’, but there was some dispute about whether this should be best considered as an ‘East Asian Welfare Regime’, a ‘Productivist Welfare Capitalism Regime’ or a ‘Familialistic Welfare Regime’. Other scholars regarded Japan as a ‘Late-Coming Welfare State’, yet others considered that Japan was a ‘Distinct World’ with special or unique characteristics, rather than being one of three worlds or a broader East Asian Welfare Regime. In other words, this category appears to examine an alternative framework based on the intrinsic elements of Japan’s welfare. Finally, some scholars seemed to regard Japan as part of a more problematic or residual ‘Other or Unclear’ group.

Our analysis pointed to a number of conclusions. First, there were some methodological differences between Western and Japanese studies; the former mostly used statistical methods, while the latter mainly adopted conceptual approaches. Similarly, Western studies analysed Japan not as a single case but one of several welfare states. On the other hand, Japanese researchers concentrated on their own state as a single case and Asian studies tended to analyse Japan together with other Asian nations.

Second, there are some major differences between the conclusions of scholars based on location and/or language. As noted above, no researchers based in Japan or other Asian nations regarded Japan as liberal, in contrast to the majority of Western studies.

Third, it is important to look beyond static classifications towards dynamic analyses. While Western studies have maintained their conclusion on Japan as liberal over time, Japanese studies have not regarded Japan as ‘hybrid’ since 2011. Moreover, some longitudional analyses suggested a change of regime over time.

In conclusion, there seem to be some major differences between Japanese and Western views over classifying Japan in terms of regime analysis. The most important difference appears to be whether it is appropriate to use a Western lens of analysis. Are we comparing apples and oranges under the heading of ‘fruit’?

It is possible that the two very different approaches may have something to learn from each other.  On the one hand, Western studies may need to justify the inclusion of Japan, often the only non-Western welfare state, in future analysis of welfare regimes. On the other hand, Japanese researchers may consider widening their horizon to see Japan together with other East Asian nations or welfare states. If the western studies were biased toward quantitative data without conceptual understanding of Japan, Japanese studies were arguably biased toward a conceptual approach without quantitative data. Now that we are aware of very different approaches to and conclusions about Japan’s welfare regime, the topic appears ripe for greater cooperation between scholars.

About the authors

Martin Powell is Professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham.

Ki-tae Kim works at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Sung-won Kim is Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo.



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