Biopower, Governmentality & Life Insurance in Modern Japan


A review of Tabling Death: Life Insurance in Modern Japan, 1881-1945, by Ryan Moran.

From the 1820s onward, Western societies, roughly in tandem, bore witness to an “avalanche of numbers” – a proliferation of tables, charts, and graphs whose rate of production outpaced that of the printed word (p. 49; Ian Hacking, “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers,” Humanities in Society 5 (1982), pp. 281-82). Underlying this zeal for quantification was the emergence of the modern human sciences. Promised as their telos was a new knowledge of ‘man’; marshaled as their technē were the burgeoning instruments of statistics. If, once, a metaphysical order had conferred certainty unto the chaos of individual lived experience, such philosophical guarantees now yielded to the positive law of averages. In place of speculative universality appeared empirical probability; in place of human nature appeared l’homme moyen.

It is of little surprise, then, that in this age, the very notion of “life” itself – what it meant to live, to care for oneself as a subject, to imagine one’s singular existence in relation to the ever more madding crowds – also experienced a definitive shift. Particularly pivotal to these new discourses on “life” was the rise of the life insurance industry, positioned centrally at the intersection of statistical science, public policy, and consumer capitalism. By the mid-nineteenth century, actuaries claimed that their tables foretold precisely, “out of a given number, in a given time, [how] many shall surely die,” while still allowing that “who shall die, it does not pretend to say, it does not care to know” (D.R. Jacques, “Mutual Life Insurance,” Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review 16:2 (Feb., 1847), p. 154). This curious configuration of structure and agency represented a wholly unprecedented vision of “life,” both anonymously collectivized and uniquely individualized. Even poetry found itself penetrated by the transformation. “Binding nature fast in fate, / Leaves free the human will”: so wrote Alexander Pope, in 1715, in praise of how the “Father of all” had harmonized the fixed beauty of divine creation with human freedom (Alexander Pope, “Universal Prayer”). “Binding nature fast in fate, / Leaves free the human will”: so wrote Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, in 1847, in praise of how “Science enables man, by the exercise, at his will, of a prudent foresight, free from all possibility of mischance, to prepare for [death], and soften the blow as it falls” (Jacques, op cit.).

The “objectification and quantification of life” via life insurance serves as the guiding thread of Ryan Moran’s dissertation, Tabling Death: Life Insurance in Modern Japan, 1881-1945 (p. xiii). Though the weight of Moran’s analysis falls, as per his subtitle, upon Japanese sources, his dissertation ultimately aims to be much more than another exercise in “Japanese history.” Borrowing from Foucault the twin concepts of “biopower” and “governmentality,” and staging frequent forays into comparative territory, Moran contends implicitly that the history of life insurance in Japan speaks to a shared structure of subjectivity under global conditions of modernity.

Let it be clear: “applied theory” this dissertation is not. Refusing to graft Foucault uncritically onto foreign contexts, Moran instead uses Japanese materials to shore up two related fronts where Foucault’s thought remains underdeveloped. The first – a subject of increasing attention in contemporary scholarship – is Foucault’s lack of sustained engagement with capitalism, especially its Marxian critiques (see Daniel Zamora, ed., Critiquer Foucault. Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale. Brussels: Éditions Aden, 2014; see also Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books, 2015, Chs. 2 & 3 passim). Moran must be applauded for his choice of topic here, for modern life insurance is an emblematic site of convergence between Marx and Foucault – every bit a capitalist commodity as it is a biopolitical technology. Indeed, life insurance’s latter capacity to produce new subjects is tied intrinsically to the former processes that create, transmit, and maintain its value as a viable commodity (p. 14). In distinction to Foucault, therefore, Moran provides a panorama of the contingent – and often very fallible – varieties of human labor behind life insurance’s valuation, as well as the modalities of consumer desire which this value activated (Ch. 4, esp., also Ch. 1).

Linked to capitalism is the second point on which Moran finds Foucault’s analysis inadequate: the question of social solidarity. Modern social theory, after all, was born largely out of anxieties over capitalism’s erosion of those bonds that had traditionally linked men. As Moran stresses, governmentality cannot be understood apart from its concern for the preservation of social solidarity. Throughout the dissertation, Moran thus underscores the multiple manners in which life insurance was deployed to overcome the class antagonism and labor radicalization that had accompanied industrial capitalism. In particular, Moran argues that the statistical representation of life through actuarial graphs and tables, disseminated widely in popular literature, allowed for the interpellation of the individual both as a liberated agent, and as a member of a larger social aggregate – more often than not, the aggregate of the “nation” (e.g., p. 185). Pope’s verses again serve as summary: a subject bound fast in fate, yet simultaneously free in will.

Biopower, governmentality, commodification, and social solidarity traverse the whole of Moran’s dissertation, acting as leitmotifs over the course of five chapters: in the establishment of the life insurance industry in Japan; in industry negotiations with social policy initiatives; in the practice of health inspections; in new strategies of advertising; and finally in the prosecution of total war. Chapter One launches the discussion by surveying the technologies and practices that enabled the foundation of the Japanese life insurance industry. Moran traces the transplantation of actuarial science into Japan both through lesser-knowns, such as Sugi Kōji (1828-1917), and more familiar figures, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901). Buttressed by the alleged objectivity of statistics, actuarial science legitimated life insurance as a rational investment based on the “relative certainty” (tashika-rashisa) of life tables. Yet, as one might expect, this putative objectivity was far from the practical reality, which Moran proceeds to explore in all its messiness. Insufficient resources placed large-scale data collection and analysis outside the reach of the early insurance industry, and prominent firms the like of Meiji Life (1881), Teikoku Life (1888), and Nippon Life (1889) all relied heavily upon foreign life tables – many of which were obsolete – to make estimates regarding Japanese mortality (pp. 69-70). Nevertheless, despite their admitted inaccuracies, life tables as a technological form proved an enduring success. Their persuasive power came less from any actual ability to predict with precision, and more from their concretization of a compelling new paradigm of the human subject (p. 87, p. 90). To wit, life tables visualized the subject as a socially-situated specificity, between micro-agency and macro-structure. This was perhaps most apparent in the gaze of the life insurance industry’s medical inspectors, who examined potential policyholders not merely in their singular health as individuals, but in their relative health as part of larger statistical aggregates.

With mounting popular and labor agitation in the years following the Russo-Japanese War, bourgeois reformers and government bureaucrats turned to the life insurance industry as a means to ward off explosions of social unrest. In the process, two distinct social aggregates came under the scrutiny of state social policy: the working class and the nation. Taking hints from Robert Castel’s monograph on European social insurance, Moran’s second chapter considers life insurance as a conservative mechanism of social solidarity (pp. 94-96, 141-42; Robert Castel, From Manual Workers to Wage Laborers: The Transformation of the Social Question. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003). Focused on the debates that culminated in the Post Office’s 1916 basic life insurance program (kan’i seimei hoken, or kanpo), Moran reveals how life insurance was deliberately deployed to mask the contradictions between labor and capital, refiguring the plight of the working class as a question of national welfare, and thereby integrating the industrial poor into a “unified national society” (shūgō-taru kokka shakai, p. 113) without disrupting capitalist property regimes. To be sure, many familiar features of the fin de Meiji and early Taishō history rear their head here: the state’s acute paranoia over labor radicalization; the middle-class’ desire to morally inculcate the poor; the invocation of rhetorics of Tokugawa village society; the overwhelming influence of German social science on Japanese conceptions of “social policy” (for instance, Sheldon Garon, Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). At the same time, Moran helpfully indicates two areas neglected by the existing literature. First, postal life insurance, as a more comprehensive solution to labor unrest than those previously studied, was touted as an example of rational technocratic planning, suggesting that persuasiveness of “tradition” so often invoked as a facet of Japanese ideology may have had only limited traction in some arenas (pp. 144-45). Second, the appeal of the Post Office’s basic life insurance very consciously lays in its voluntary nature, unlike competing proposals for mandatory labor insurance. Life insurance did not exercise control by simply suppressing the individual; it aimed to profit from cultivating the individual as a liberated agent who exercised freedom of choice. Future histories require greater attention to this “voluntary” dimension of state interpellation (pp. 123-26).

This ironic exercise of a freedom to obey, in its varying manifestations, functions as the common theme of Chapters 3 and 4. How did life insurance discipline subjects into daily regimens of health? Specifically, how did life insurance create subjects who felt compelled to maintain a constant health regimen as part of a moral duty of selfhood? These are the questions at the heart of Chapter Three. An essential consequence of postal life insurance was the stimulus of nationwide health campaigns, supported by a new network of government health stations across Japan. In part, these stations were a state cooptation of pre-existing jippi, or fixed-cost clinics (pp. 159-60). In another part, they were attempts to emulate the successful precedent established by MetLife in the U.S. The aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic saw private insurance firms countering with their own system of clinics, starting with Nippon Life in 1919. Before long, Japanese efforts exceeded those of American programs in both scale of geographical coverage and scope of services provided, offering free examinations, educational programs, and even treatment for select diseases; nurses were furthermore dispatched on tours through localities, offering house calls for those unable to travel.

From sources as diverse as diet pamphlets to programs for radio calisthenics (rajio taisō), Moran weaves together a story of both government and private-sector health initiatives that transcends the typical binary of state and civil society. His chapter also furnishes us with a welcome complement to histories of public health in Japan that have perennially prioritized Meiji or wartime Shōwa (p. 174, p. 44, n. 94). Moran demonstrates that during the interwar period, life insurance instilled an ideology wherein the maintenance of a daily health regimen became a fundamental responsibility toward one’s family and nation (pp. 150-51, p. 156). Notably, health was portrayed in terms of constant vigilance, achieved through the exercise of personal discipline and internal will. Factory hands and factory owners alike therefore stood as equals, no one more privileged than the other, when it came to their ability to sustain healthy practices.

Dutiful father and dutiful citizen, however, comprised only one part of a larger formula. In returning the question of life insurance’s effects as a commodity, Chapter Four explores one final form of subjectivity molded by the technology of life insurance: that of the desiring consumer. Whereas life insurance began its commodity life buoyed by a fever of scientific rationality and a fetish for Westernization, markedly different marketing strategies were required by the 1920s. The same rising middle class who, in Jordan Sand’s House and Home, dreamed of “modern life,” had become the primary potential policyholders of life insurance. Dissecting the hypothetical dialogues found in life insurance sales manuals of the interwar, Moran uncovers a quasi-ethnographic method at work in their appeals. Consumers were increasingly depicted in terms of class-specific psychological profiles and cultural values (pp. 206-10). Affective hopes and fears were now the target of advertising, as life insurance preyed upon the aspirational uncertainties of the white-collar demographic to foster anxieties over the easy loss of hard-won social mobility. Employing a rhetoric of precarity and future-oriented sacrifice, salesmen warned consumers that the vicissitudes of life could bring death at any instant. Proper insurance alone guaranteed that one’s children would enjoy the privileges that might prevent them from slipping downward on the social ladder (pp. 233-34). To purchase life insurance was therefore nothing less than a middle-class duty, a foundational part of what it meant to be a responsible white-collar subject. In contrast to the “subversive” aspects of consumption stressed by histories of the interwar (e.g., Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Moran illustrates how the “freedom” of middle-class consumers entailed choosing a very determinate set of commodities, and cultivating an ethical disposition toward the class security of one’s future generations.

The concluding chapter of Moran’s dissertation returns to state-society relations as mediated through the life insurance industry. In the wake of the 1929 Crash and the invasion of Manchuria in late 1931, calls for the nationalization of life insurance surfaced with renewed intensity. Though resisting these calls to the end, the life insurance industry nonetheless forged a “symbiotic relationship” with the Japanese state (p. 239), eventually submitting to the supervision of government control boards under Konoe’s New Order. Fiscal effects were the most obvious product of this symbiosis. Life insurance became a mechanism for indirectly channeling the wealth of private citizens toward the funding of total war; by 1944, the life insurance industry had invested 33.9% of their total capital in government bonds (p. 257). Far more troubled, in comparison, was life insurance’s role in enforcing social solidarity through its policy coverage of the war dead. On the one hand, the state perceived full payouts to beneficiaries of the war dead as essential to garnering home front support for the national cause. On the other hand, firms were reticent to offer comprehensive coverage for the escalating numbers of war casualties. Growing societal and governmental pressure obliged the life insurance industry to gradually loosen its restrictions on war-related compensations. Yet the mounting toll of battle, and above all the massive civilian deaths generated by Allied firebombing toward the end of the war, rendered industry payouts financially unfeasible. Over the course of 1943-44, the state finally assumed ultimate responsibility for the life insurance industry, guaranteeing that all private contracts created prior to April 1, 1945, would be honored (pp. 265-86). This policy lasted after the cessation of hostilities, until 1947, but as Moran details in his brief epilogue, massive postwar inflation ensured that prewar life insurance sums would amount to at best months of salary (pp. 292-93).

Certain formal similarities exist between Moran’s dissertation and some of the best recent work in postwar Japanese history. Like Scott O’Bryan, Moran demonstrates the immense capacity of simple calculative tools – for O’Bryan, the concept of GDP, for Moran, life tables – to unleash whole fields of national policy (Scott O’Bryan, The Growth Idea: Purpose and Prosperity in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009). Like Simon Partner, Moran draws attention to the manufacture of consumer desire as a central facet of Japan’s push into modernity (Simon Partner, Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). In his engagement with Foucault, however, Moran draws us toward an even more elemental structure of modern experience. At the core of the human sciences, as they arose in the nineteenth century, Foucault detected a curious contradiction: man as the finite, empirical object of knowledge, and man as the transcendental knower of things. From the evolution of life insurance since the nineteenth century, Moran detects another paradox: life as an empirical certainty in the aggregate, and life as an individual exercise of freedom. As readers, we are thus left to reflect over just how far – and to what ends – life insurance is inextricable from the very possibility of modern subjectivity and its everyday practices. It is with no little irony that one recalls the wisdom of Pelagea Wlassowa, that paradigmatic Brechtian mother. Urging her less-enlightened compatriots, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, to cast off their Bibles, Pelagea exhorts them toward a new faith: “[W]hen the praying does no good, insurance does help. That’s how it is. You have no need to pray to God any more when the thunderclouds stand overhead; but you must be insured” (Bertolt Brecht, The Mother, tr. Lee Baxandall. New York: Grove Press, 1965, p. 115).

Hansun Hsiung
History and East Asian Languages
Harvard University

Primary Sources
Seimei Hoken Kaisha Kyōkai 生命保険会社協会, ed., Meiji Taishō hoken shiryō 明治大正保険史料, 9 vols. (Tokyo: Seimei Hoken Kaisha Kyōkai, 1934-42).
Seimei Hoken Kyōkai 生命保険会社協会, ed., Shōwa seimei hoken shiryō 昭和生命保険史料, 10 vols. (Tokyo: Seimei Hoken Kyōkai, 1970-76).
Nihon hoken’i kyōkai kaihō 日本保険医協会会報 (1902-8), continues as Hoken igaku zasshi 保険医学雑誌 (1909-1970)
Hoken zasshi 保険雑誌 (1895-1921), continues as Hokengaku zasshi 保険学雑誌 (1921-present)
Seimei hoken keiei 生命保険経営 (1929-present)

Dissertation Information
University of California, San Diego. 2014. 331pp. Primary Advisor: Stefan Tanaka and Takashi Fujitani.

Image: Chiyoda Life Insurance Company advertisement from the 1930s. Wikimedia Commons.

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