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Freeter

 With Buzzer Beat having looked to address the impact of male idols on representations of masculinity, Freeter, Ie wo Kau was the paper’s second drama to be analysed. Another Fuji Television production, a screenplay from Arikawa Hiro’s manga of the same name and appearing in another of the network’s in-demand timeslots (Kakku – 9pm Tuesdays), 2010’s  

 Whilst retaining a number of tropes indicative of the ‘trendy’ formula, Freeter has since been recognised by both Western and Japanese critics for an alleged ‘sensitive’ portrayal of contemporary social issues (Perkins, 2015) and for this reason may better reflect the extent to which Japanese dramas depict gender relations. By no means absent in its inclusion of male talents - aside from the series’ main character played by Kazunari Ninomiya, Freeter was far more tactful than this paper’s first example in its placement of idols, yet even Ninomaiya’s casting avoided a number of the commercialised repercussions associated with Yamashita’s involvement in Buzzer Beat. Despite his emergence as another product of Japan’s Johnny & Associates, Ninomiya has carved out a reputation as a talented actor amongst Japanese audiences with a string of credible performances across both Asian and Western productions, perhaps most notably 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima (O’Neill 2007, Wallace 2007). Having collected a number of awards at the 2011 Tokyo Drama Awards (Tokyograph, 2011) – among them the Grand Prix for Best Series and Best Actor (for Ninomiya), Freeter was, like Buzzer Beat, a production that clearly resonated with its audience. Albeit a demographic less dependent on idols as consumable icons, the series’ apparent willingness to explore societal expectations of Japan’s sub-cultural economic masculinities attracted a number of Western scholars – most notably Perkins’ 2015 narrative analysis. 

Freeter follows the tribulations of Seiji (played by Ninomiya) who quits his job at a reputable company after just 3 months – a decision in the context of Japanese hegemony as one that contributes towards Seiji perceived as a societal failure, made worse through a troubled relationship with his family in addition to an absence of any tangible career plan. Eventually signing on to part-time employment as a labourer, the onset of his mother’s depression triggered by bullying neighbours inspires Seiji to adopt a familial responsibility in working towards saving ¥1,000,000 in order to move house – a resolve further strengthened upon meeting the series’ love interest Manami (played by Karina). In summary, Freeter addresses a number of themes detached from the often predictable narrative evidenced in Buzzer Beat; for whilst it depicts both a traditional Japanese nuclear family (Seifi 2011, Kawano 2010) and a token love interest, this paper proposes that the series utilises each of these tropes to displace contemporary Japanese masculinities, not least pertaining to attitudes in opposition of the salaryman ideal. One of Freeter’s more prominent themes surrounds that of Seiji’s exploits in the public sphere, initially in a reluctance to accept corporate martyrdom, later reinforced through unemployment and finally seen in a resolve to work hard for his family’s sake. As the series name’ suggests, much of the emphasis on Seiji’s employment status serves to underline the drama’s focus on occupation, specifically that of a freeter; commonly defined by Japanese media as ‘underemployed part-time workers’ (Funabashi & Kushner, 2015). A portmanteau of the English ‘free’ and German ‘arbeiter’ (Hirata & Warschauer, 2014), the term freeter first emerged as a positive stereotype - coined during the bubble economy for those looking to explore alternative lifestyles but maintaining an allegiance to the work/production/masculinity salaryman nexus (Cook, 2012). The economic collapse of the 1990s saw freeter reframed as a label of failure with Japan’s cultural critics seeking to apportion blame to a generation unwilling to conform with the corporate standards established during the 80s – the term now established as another ‘youth phenomena’ associated with parasite singles and NEETs (Atoh, 2008). As explored in previous chapters however, Japanese men consciously practicing a lack of work commitment and general rejection of salaryman ideals embody herbivore categorisation (Charlebois 2015, Gerzema & D’Antonio, 2013, Cook 2012, McCurry 2009), which would suggest Seiji as representing a subordinate form of Japanese masculinity. 


Yet, as Dasgupta notes, an effective analysis of masculinity constructed in discourses such as Freeter should depend less upon media-lead classification of such practices to inform critique, but understand the extent to which cultural expectations of hegemony are challenged within such frameworks (2013); a process this paper argues as largely absent from Freeter’s narrative. Constructed as having a detrimental impact on his family, the drama frames Seiji’s portrayal as a freeter both ‘subordinate and undesirable’, an argument already posed by Vig (2012, p. 27), yet in considering the original framework in which Connell accounts for masculinity as hegemonic perhaps invites an alternative approach. Depicted as exhibiting a number of traits synonymous with herbivore categorisation, among them dedication to his mother despite her illness (Song & Hird, 2014) and an increased willingness to participate in the private sphere, Seiji invites comparisons to practicing a lifestyle in direct opposition to salaryman hegemony. Yet this paper suggests the drama’s emphasis on his professional career falls more in line with Connell’s recognition of complicit or even marginalised masculinities, modes that retain a link to hegemonic masculinity but through a renegotiation of cultural  practices such as ‘marriage, fatherhood,  and aspects of community life’ in a subordinate manner (Harrington 2007, p. 104). The teleological nature of trendy dramas often seem indicative of what Painter cites as a wider response to any tangible, societal conflict in Japan – exaggerating, reframing it as entertainment in which only then can be addressed without destabilizing Japanese culture (1993) - thus, in addressing whether Freeter’s narrative helps displace or reinforce salaryman hegemony, its framing of Seiji’s adverse employment status and ultimate resolution suggest the latter. Deacon assigns one common theme connecting hegemonic Japanese masculinities; fighting for the nation, apparent in samurai, soldier, and salaryman lifestyles (2013); and whilst Freeter first depicts Seiji as both a public and private failure, he is eventually seen to encompass many of the tropes synonymous with middle-class, heterosexual, Japanese hegemony (Hidaka 2010); ‘a full time job, a girlfriend, and the ability to support himself properly in the future’ (Vig 2012, p. 27). Combined then, whilst Seiji retains a number of herbivore characteristics, emphasis on his status as a labourer reinforces Roberson’s critique of a class-based masculinity marginalised from salaryman ideals but complicit in its adherence to employment practices emblematic of hegemonic masculinity (2005). Furthermore, with earlier chapters having touched upon trendy drama’s tendency to both reinforce traditional gender role attitudes and simply ‘represent’ social commentary without further elaboration (Fung 2007, Saito 2007, Stibbe 2004), given the much publicised concern surrounding the emergence of alternative masculinities, Freeter’s ability to garner a considerable 17.1% audience rating may suggest its portrayal of freeter/herbivore identities being far less explicit as first envisioned. Brasor frames the drama’s utilization of Seiji’s freeter status less as a critical reflection of contemporary economic conditions but as an identity helping to support the ‘fiction trope’ of determination to achieve one’s goals (2010). By extension then, this paper argues that Seiji’s transition within the public sphere does little to endorse the freeter as an acceptable, alternative ideal, with the narrative culminating in a validation of Seiji’s masculinity only made possible through a commitment to Dasgupta’s work/production/masculinity nexus (2013).


Another of Freeter’s prominent themes concerns that of the dynamics between Seiji’s and the series’ supporting cast, most notably in his relationship with both parents in addition to the love interest Manami. On evaluating whether the construction of masculinity in this drama accurately reflects contemporary gender relations in Japan – or simply underpins traditional expectations of Japanese masculinity - of relevance to Freeter perhaps lies in the extent to which the family unit is positioned at the forefront of the drama’s narrative. Dissanayake frames the Japanese family as a feature of considerable prominence across the history of Japanese television dramas, recognised as a trope responsible for coordinating an ‘intended structure of affects’ (2012, p. 192). Yet whilst some argue that the family genre has mostly vanished from Japanese television - a knock-on effect of wider societal changes (Hirahara, 1991) – its inclusion is always seen to utilise the production and construction of gender as a primary component (Valaskivi, 2000). On its surface at least, Freeter employs the family as a site in which traditional gender relations are maintained, with the series using a number of subplots and interrelated themes to distract from a common criticism of patriarchal masculinity as a process incapable of adapting to modern societies. Take the role of Seiichi (Seiji’s father), who at the beginning of the series is first established as the head of the family unit, further reinforced through Seiji’s slip into unemployment, his wife’s mental faculties and his daughter’s absence through marriage. As a result, Seiichi’s position as the patriarchal head is solidified, symbolic of the salaryman ideal as a practice in which the ability to provide for the family unit is considered paramount (Ishii-Kuntz, 2009). As Messerschmidt notes, hegemonic masculinities often attain such status in opposition to non-hegemonic masculinities and indeed femininities – thus, at the beginning of the series, his status of masculinity is further embellished in opposition to housewife femininity in addition to his son adopting a subordinate position in abandoning the corporate lifestyle (2011). With each of these narratives also reflecting another subliminal reference to traditional Japanese patriarchy – that of an implied emotional detachment between father and both wife and children (Bellah, 2003), analysis of Freeter’s early narrative suggests the portrayal of gender identities very much in accordance with traditional Japanese archetypes. 


Yet this paper proposes that as Freeter’s storyline progresses, so does its treatment and portrayal of traditional Japanese patriarchy, a shift triggered by Seiji’s relationship with his work colleague Manami. As Grosz observed, masculine models of citizenship have historically positioned all marginalised groups as a product of subordination – for women this has meant occupying a role in which men have been allowed to pursue cultural productivity (1994). Whilst earlier chapters demonstrate Japanese society as subscribing to such practices through the performance of patriarchy, Freeter’s Manami appears to better reflect contemporary gender relations in Japan – a female in a position of authority within a traditionally masculinized, homosocial work environment. Further embellished through her graduation from a reputable university, Manami’s assertive personality – symbolic of the nikushoku joshi (carnivore woman) - reflects subcultural models of Japanese femininity often framed in opposition to alternative masculinities (Dales, 2014), made all the more evident in contrast to Seiji. Yet, whilst Charlebois notes the potential of culturally-idealized dominant femininities as capable of providing women with empowerment (2013), this is achieved only through forging relationships with non-hegemonic masculinities, a process that this paper argues – in the context of Freeter – works implicitly in reinforcing the Japanese male as a figure of dependence. 


For whilst Manami’s portrayal as an ‘oppositional’ form of femininity, one Messerschmidt cites as ‘refusing to complement hegemonic masculinity in a relation of subordination’ (2011, p. 206) – it could be suggested that in being framed as oppositional to herbivore Seiji – whose identity eventually becomes emblematic of salaryman trappings through different processes, the series simply reinforces masculinity as both the prevailing and dominant gender. In 2013 Morioka discussed with a number of feminists the notion of herbivore identities as another ‘trap’ created by Japanese masculinity to maintain power (2013) - arguably Freeter may reflect such arguments in an apparent disregard of Messerschmidt’s interpretation of alternative femininities refusing a subordinate role. With the articulation of dominance realised through the series’ closure – evident in Seiji’s achievements across both the public and private sphere - this thesis proposes that the respective narratives of both characters culminates in a displacement of power with regard to gender relations. Whilst Seiji’s achievements reflect tropes expected of patriarchal Japanese masculinity, Manami arguably find herself assigned to a subordinate position through two stages. By initiating the relationship with Seiji, this gesture compliments Charlebois’ assertion of herbivore/soft masculinities and a reluctance to form romantic partnerships (2013) – by extension, validating Manami as ascribing to a masculinized framework. Critically, this paper proposes that the series’ culmination builds on this theme with the now fully realized relationship seen to contradict Messerschmidt’s concept of oppositional femininity – the assertive, dominant Manami subscribing to a relationship in which Seiji’s masculinity is portrayed as emblematic of both hegemonic and indeed herbivore traits. In closing, whilst Freeter at least recognizes the existence of alternative masculinities, exploration of the drama’s portrayal of gender roles suggest such narratives are validated only through conforming to more traditional ideologies, particularly that of the men’s role as the fulcrum of Japanese society.

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