Social stratification in Japan and the United States

Term Paper, 2004

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Basic definitions and concepts of social stratification
2.1. Social difference and inequality
2.2 Ascription and achievement
2.3. Systems of social stratification

3. Income inequality in Japan and the United States

4. Education system
4.1. Education system of the USA
4.2. Education system of Japan

5. Future prospects

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Social stratification implies that in every society goods and services are not equally distributed. Some people are wealthy enough to buy a house, others have to pay rent to live in a small apartment. More generally spoken, why are some people rich and others poor?

A society without social stratification implies that there are no inferior or superior positions and all human beings are equal and have the same prerequisites when they are born. The opposite is the case. People are born into families of unequal positions, some are born into rich influential families, others have to live under the poverty level. Wouldn’t it be fair for all human beings to have the same starting position when they are born? In every country the reality looks different and that is a reason why social stratification is such an interesting topic. To what extent have inequality and difference an impact on people’s life?

Japan and the USA are both highly modernized and industrialized countries. According to World Bank, the USA has the biggest Gross National Product (GNP) in the world followed by Japan. This fact underlines the importance of both nations for the world economy. These figures get more interesting when they are put into relation with the population of each country. The figure “GNP per person” is a measurement for the wealth of a country. In this ranking the USA is in fourth place followed by Japan (Albrecht et al., 2003). These figures might give the impression that both countries are quite similar but there is one major difference. Japan is the only non-Western country that is industrialized. The cultural background is different and that is a reason why a comparison between these countries can be interesting and might lead to surprising results.

In this paper I will try to find out what inequality is based on and why these differences occur of varying strength in both countries. In these countries social stratification depends on cultural aspects as well as economical aspects. The cultural background influences the way the society deals with economy.

After giving an introduction about basic definitions and concepts of social stratification I will describe and analyse differences in income and education in both societies. To make a comparison useful and clear I will include data from the “Fischer Weltalmanach” and the “Human Development Report 2002” to this term paper.

2. Basic definitions and concepts of social stratification

2.1. Social difference and inequality

To this point I have used the term “social stratification” several times without actually explaining what the term exactly stands for and what its roots are. The main conditions that occur in societies are social difference and inequality. Social difference means that people have their own individual qualities, attitudes, occupations and social roles. Social differences can also be described by biological characteristics e.g. sex, size or age. You are born with them that exclude the chance to influence them. Social differences can divide a society into layers. Gupta points out that logically you should consider these characteristics only horizontally or maybe separately but not vertically or hierarchically (1991:7). Language, religion, race or sex are differences that do not contain the possibility of being valued unequally. In some countries the opposite is the case e.g. women are regarded inferior to men. Prejudices lead to the point that social differences are not equally valued. Cultural background often has an impact on the evaluation of characteristics of human beings.

There is a main distinction between social differentiation and social inequality that should be recognized. Social differentiation does not necessarily suggest that personal qualities are ranked on a scale and are evaluated differently although society does it sometimes. Personal qualities are not divided into a hierarchy. They are considered differently but still equally. Kerbo (1992:11) emphasizes that “social differentiation, however, sets the stage for inequality and social stratification” and therefore a connection between inequality and differentiation is set. Gupta (1991:9) defines the problem of distinguishing between difference and inequality, as “a social differentiation that separates without implying inequality is not always easy to appreciate”. As soon as social differences are separated into different categories, a valuation of these categories can emerge unintentionally. Prejudices in the population against some of these characteristics play a major role causing that also “neutral” differences are divided into good or bad.

Social inequality is the state when people have unequal access to services and positions within a society. A hierarchy between individuals and groups has developed. Social positions are ranked and evaluated by other individuals or groups in a society e.g. occupation. White-collar workers are considered superior to blue-collar workers. Davis et al. (1998:88) believe that there are two determinants for positional rank that regulate the relative rank of different positions. Positions get the highest rank or receive the greatest reward when “they have the greatest importance for the society and require the greatest training or talent”. The first factor is a matter of relative significance, the second factor refers to scarcity of personnel. The importance of specific functions is decisive how it is valued in a society. People are rewarded if they are ambitious to learn some specific skills. As long as a skill or function is scarce its position in a society is higher. On the other hand if a skill or function is important but easy to receive it looses respect.

The word stratification implies that a society is divided into different ranks starting from superior to inferior. The main difference between social stratification and social inequality is that in a stratified society inequality is established. This does not necessarily mean that people have accepted the circumstance that some groups or individuals receive more influence and respect than others. Inequality is recognized and to some extend expected but people do not fight against these disadvantages.

Gupta defines social stratification as “the ordering of social differences with the help of a set of criteria or just a single criterion (which is generally the case) which ties the differentiated strata into a system” (1991:8). A characteristic is taken and divided into different parts on a scale. The valuation of one specific characteristic has led to a hierarchy. When income is taken as an example, it is easily ranked. The more money you earn the higher your position in the hierarchy is. When we take a closer look at some attributes in a society like income, wealth, occupation, education or health system it can be recognised that some of this attributes depend on each other for instance the better your income the better your access to education and medical provision. Social stratification can lead to a chain reaction because after one disadvantage the next one might follow.

2.2 Ascription and achievement

Two different phenomenons are distinguished in a society, on the one hand “ascription”, on the other hand “achievement”. Ascription is when people have social positions because of qualities beyond their control e.g. race, sex, age. Achievement is when people reached their placement by following certain achievement rules e.g. going to college, study hard and get good marks. As Kerbo (1992:12) puts it “strata placement is based on a varying mixture of ascription and achievement” and therefore your social position can be achieved due to qualifications you are born with and on qualities you achieved during your life. Grusky (1994: 6) puts it more drastically by mentioning, “ascription of all kinds is usually seen as undesirable or discriminatory and much governmental policy is therefore directed toward fashioning a stratification system in which individuals acquire resources solely by virtue of their achievements”. Ascriptions can be seen as the most important root for unequal societies. The fact that the main criteria for an ascribed society are fixed at birth leads to disadvantages in shaping an individual life. Ascriptions can never be eliminated but achievement might give you the chance to go ahead and be socially mobile.

2.3. Systems of social stratification

There are different systems of social stratification existing e.g. slavery, caste society and class system. Slavery has been the historical form of inequality and exists of slave owners, slaves and “free men”. A typical country representing the caste system is India. This system exists of castes and sub castes and its main characteristic is rigidity and inequality. When a human being was born into a poor caste, he stayed mostly poor for the rest of his life. It is difficult to get access to education and health systems.

As the purpose is to compare industrial societies we will take a closer look at the class system. The concept of class in not easily defined as a lot of sociologists have tried to but could not find a common idea. Kerbo (1992:13) describes class as “a grouping of individuals with similar positions and similar political and economical interests within a stratification system”. This description indicates that people have the possibility to choose their division by themselves. Olin Wright (1998: 141) defines class divisions as “a linkage between property relations and exploitations”. Property like skills or goods are taken and utilized the best possible way. The precondition and its exploitations put us in a specific class. In class systems open demanding positions can be reached to a higher degree on achievement rather than ascription. Inequality is reduced compared to the caste system. Individuals are offered more opportunities to realize themselves.

We are familiar with terms like upper class, middle class and lower class. Adding words like lower middle class increases the number of class categories. As we can see by the words upper and middle, classes are ranked on a scale. Class categories depend on income, property of land or wealth. The important thing is that “all these criteria are convertible into money” (Gupta, 1991: 14). In a class system money or wealth are always central. In the past only occupational status or occupational skill level was assumed to indicate class positions but nowadays ownership of valuable assets indicates the belonging to a higher class.

In the following chapters the term “working-class” will be used several times. Kosaka (1994:147) distinguishes between working and middle class. Middle class represents employees engaged in managerial, professional or clerical work, working class stands for employees engaged in all other kinds of jobs that have a lower income than the jobs of the middle class.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Social stratification in Japan and the United States
Hamburg University of Applied Sciences
Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften
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ISBN (eBook)
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432 KB
Contents in German: Diese Hausarbeit wurde im Grundstudium (3. Semester) auf englisch verfasst. Sie befasst sich insbesondere mit dem unterschiedlichen Einkommensverhältnissen und Schulsystemen in Japan und den USA.
Social, Japan, United, States, Kultur-, Sozialwissenschaften
Quote paper
Christoph Kilian (Author), 2004, Social stratification in Japan and the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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