Organized Panel Session
Does birth matter in the social standing of individuals in the modern world? While sociologists after 1945, such as Talcott Parsons, celebrated the increasing social mobility of modern societies, “conflict theorists” revealed the persistent association of birth with social standing. However, scholars have hardly explored how and why birth mattered in modern societies. Historians have tended to portray modern nobility as nothing more than an endangered species doomed to disappear.
This panel challenges the teleology of meritocracy in the modern world. We focus on Japan, where nobility was reinvented after the 1868 revolution as the meritocratic leadership of a new nation. Whereas aristocrats in Europe were essentially hereditary landed elites, modern Japanese nobility did not inherit real estates. As such, the case of Japan more directly demonstrates how aristocrats used their birth to be meritorious in the modern world. Uchiyama looks at the Japanese stock market to examine how birth helped Japan’s aristocrats become modern capitalists. Haraguchi focuses on Japan’s House of Peers to consider how Japanese nobles used their birth to moderate representative politics in Japan. Choi explores the educational privileges of Japanese aristocrats, which extended to pre-university but not university education. Rather than a simple story of aristocratic decline, this panel highlights the lingering privileges of hereditary nobility, as well as the ways that birth was repositioned as economic and cultural capital in meritocratic Japan.