Hilary Holbrow, assistant professor of Japanese Politics and Society in the Hamilton Lugar School (HLS) Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALC), recently completed a seven-month National Endowment for the Humanities Advanced Social Science Research on Japan Fellowship. The fellowship is a joint effort between the Japan-United States Friendship Commission (JUSFC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It is designed to promote Japan studies in the U.S., encourage U.S.-Japanese scholarly exchange, and support the next generation of Japan Scholars in the U.S.
Holbrow earned her B.A. in East Asian Studies at Boston University, then earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology at Cornell University. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, she secured a role as lecturer and associate director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Sociology at Harvard. In January 2021, Holbrow joined the faculty of East Asian Languages and Cultures at HLS.
Holbrow describes her seven-month NEH fellowship which ended in the summer of 2022. “It is a rare fellowship in that it is not just for field work, it can also be used for dedicated writing time,” says Holbrow. “It was a nice opportunity for me to use my research outside the ‘ivory tower,’ and share the information with a policy, grassroots audience.”
Holbrow describes the big question motivating the book she is working on. “Japan is at the forefront of a global trend of population decline,” she explains. “By the end of this century, its population is projected to have a fifty percent decrease from its peak. That is obviously going to have huge economic, social, and cultural implications.”
Because the global population has continually increased for the past three centuries, Holbrow’s book will offer insight beyond the realm of the scientifically known world.
“All our models of how societies work are based on countries that are growing,” she says. “This book is looking at potential effects of population decline based on a country that is already experiencing it.”
The fellowship allowed Holbrow to build on prior work. She says, “For my dissertation field research, I conducted a large-scale survey at several major Japanese companies and completed interviews with workers at the same companies. Before the fellowship I had already drafted a book manuscript, but I had not incorporated any of the qualitative material – these interview files had just been sitting on my hard drive for the past seven years, and I never had time to dig into them.”
As a sociologist, Holbrow says, “One question I’m asking in the book is whether historically absent or marginalized groups such as immigrants or Japanese women may have greater opportunities in the workplace under population decline?”
The rich, qualitative material from Holbrow’s interviews brought an additional dimension to her work. She says, “One thing that was surprising was how much people’s subjective ideas about their opportunities in the workplace did not align with reality. For example, generally speaking, the immigrant men and women from Asian countries working in these companies are confident that even though there are barriers to their advancement, they can succeed through over-achievement.”
When comparing the quantitative survey results to the workers’ expectations, Holbrow says, “The Asian men’s assessment of their chances for success were realistic. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the women.”
Holbrow’s research shows that population decline may provide greater opportunities in the workplace, but not for everyone. She says, “I find that immigrant men are much more likely to be the beneficiaries of population decline than are women, including both native-born and immigrants.”
During her fellowship, Holbrow explored potential barriers to success for women in Japan. She posits that the makeup of employees in low-level support jobs is more critical to upward mobility than the composition of the people in leadership roles.
Holbrow says, “I theorize that what people see when they ‘look down’ the occupational structure is more critical to the creation of status beliefs than what they see when they ‘look up.’” She expands upon this idea in her book manuscript as well as in a recently published article, “When All Assistants are Women, Are All Women Assistants? Gender Inequality and the Gender Composition of Support Roles” (Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, November 2022).
In addition to support for writing, the fellowship gave Holbrow the opportunity to share her research with eleven organizations, including some which she would not typically reach. She says, “I presented a talk to the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Relations, an organization that teaches members of the U.S. military in Japan more about Japanese society. I also spoke to US embassy and consular staffers working in Japan. They lobby the Japanese government on issues of gender equity, and by sharing this research about the devaluation of women, I could offer data-based ways to advocate effectively for women in Japan.”
In spring 2023, Holbrow will be sharing her research with a more local audience. She is teaching Japanese Politics and Society, a broad introduction to the most important institutions that underlie Japanese society such as employment and the political system. She is also excited about teaching a new course called Belonging and Exclusion: Migration in East Asia.
“So much of what we know about people moving across international borders is from Western societies, but in this course, we will see what we can learn by looking at a very different cultural context,” Holbrow said.
Students interested in Holbrow’s and other Spring 2023 courses can explore at hls.iu.edu/classes.