Every society has its own way of talking about socioeconomic class.

In America/Canada, people talk about the "poor", "(lower/upper) middle class", and "upper class", as well as the "1%" and ".1%"; basing everything off of economic levels alone.

In places like the the UK however, and pardon the fact I'm not a brit, they talk more about the "working class", which including everyone who mainly does low skilled jobs and lives off a wage alone, and contrast it with a "middle class" of people who are more specialized and less bound to an employer. A distinction that of course often results in people such as myself getting confused when reading the guardian, seeing sentences like "and it was vary unexpected that Corbyn picked up so many middle class voters". :)

Given this distinction I'm found myself quite curious: How do Japanese people talk, and in doing so, think about, socioeconomic class? What terminology do they use? What aspect do they focus on (USA = income, UK = role)?

PS. Sorry if I deeply misunderstand what "working" and "middle" class refers to, british people whom may be reading this.


Role focused class structure is not a common concept used to describe modern Japan. Neither really income-based, at least from maybe the 50s up to the 90s (see 一億総中流). However, recently the word 格差社会 picked up, and there is a lot more talk about 貧困層 (the poor), 富裕層 (the rich) and 格差の固定化 (decreasing social mobility). I guess income-based classes are starting to become a more common concept.

That said "elites" is a very socially embedded concept. 学歴社会 (essentially class structure by academic (exam) achievement) has been a core part of Japan for long. These classes then translate to 「一流サラリーマン」(people who get jobs at prestigious (and normally large) companies) and 「三流サラリーマン」(people who get job at less prestigious (normally SMEs)). The lowest on this ladder is 「フリーター」who survives on temporary jobs. There is one class lower than this though, which would be 「ニート」(NEET). Words like 一流サラリーマン, 三流サラリーマン are more like slangs and are not part of a formal vocabulary.


Social (hierarchical) class, in general terms, is called 階層. The occupation-based classification (the "role class" you called) is in particular called 階級.


  • 上流階級 upper class
  • 中産階級/中流階級 middle class
  • 労働者階級 working class

And the income-based classes are referred to as -層 (階層 itself is not used as part of words).

  • 富裕層 the rich (wealthy class)
  • 中間層 middle(-income) class
  • 貧困層 the poor (underclass)

中間層 and 中流階級 are often interchangeable like English "middle class", but swapping the combination of words is uncommon.

  • Which would Japanese people prefer to use? Income or role?
    – Tirous
    Dec 1 '18 at 6:47
  • @Tirous I'm not very familiar with spoken English, but is there that only which series is common by country? We use both according to the meaning. Dec 1 '18 at 7:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.