This article analyzes debates surrounding the creation of the post office–run kan’i seimei hoken (basic life insurance), or kanpo. Beginning in the 1890s and early 1900s, intellectuals concerned with the new discourse of the social problem, which referred to the problem of worker alienation, started to call for a simple life insurance for the lower classes. Influenced by European social insurance programs, these reformers advocated for a state-run system that would function as a kind of social policy that would improve the lives of the poor. Advocates argued that the universalizing technology of insurance would solve the social problem by reincorporating the poor into the national community and would transform the poor into thrifty, responsible subjects. Nevertheless, the supporters of private firms managed to stave off the creation of a public insurance company until 1916, when the second Ōkuma cabinet established the Kan’i Hokenkyoku, or Simple Insurance Bureau, controlled by the Ministry of Communications (Teishinshō). Kan’i hoken referred to the simplified application process that would allow greater numbers of the poor to purchase insurance. The author pays close attention to the arguments surrounding the relationship between insurance and social policy to better understand the unique role reformers envisioned for insurance in quelling urban unrest. The author argues that insurance reformers attempted to use insurance to establish a claim to security as social property. Social property functioned as a means to reincorporate the poor into the realm of the social without challenging the regime of private property itself. Through insurance, intellectuals and Ministry of Communications officials sought to reconstitute the Japanese laborer as a self-disciplined subject who, in purchasing a life insurance policy, freely chose to return to the national community. Life insurance thus highlights the importance of consumer desire and free choice in modern regimes of governmentality. Postal life insurance also helps draw connections between issues of governmentality and labor power. To gain the security of the national community, workers needed to engage in the regular and disciplined labor that would give them the means to purchase a life insurance policy.
Delivering Security in Modern Japan: Postal Life Insurance and Social Unrest
Ryan Moran is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah. He received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego and previously was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellow at Keio University. His work has appeared in Japan Forum, and he is working on a manuscript about the prewar and wartime history of life insurance in Japan. His research interests include biopolitics, futurity, discourses of security and responsibility, the history of science, and the history of capitalism.