The fragile happiness of Japan’s ‘insular’ youth

Author: Noritoshi Furuichi, University of Tokyo

The youth of Japan appear to face a bleak future — a catastrophic budget deficit, ageing population and collapsing social security system. Despite this, according to data released last year, Japan’s youth are astonishingly positive in their outlook. In the government-run Public Opinion Survey Concerning People’s Lifestyles, levels of youth life satisfaction reached 78.4 per cent — the highest they had been since 1967 and higher than during Japan’s booming ‘bubble economy’ period.

Ready to take on the world: college students at a ceremony in Tokyo to mark the start of the annual hunt for jobs. A recent survey into the attitudes of school students showed that the number who considered themselves to be very happy had doubled in the past three decades. (Photo: AAP).

What’s more, an NHK survey on youth attitudes reveals that more than 90 per cent of high school students are ‘happy’ and the majority of junior high school students are ‘very happy’. This information might seem hard to process given that the situation of Japan’s youth appears to be worsening.

From 2000, the mass media has been widely declaiming about the ‘dissatisfaction’ and ‘unhappiness’ of Japan’s ‘unfortunate youth’. Landing a stable job has become increasingly difficult and it is no longer rare to hear of people handing in over 100 resumes in their search for work. The phrase ‘black companies’ (sweatshops) has come into the mainstream to describe companies — and there are many — that break the Labor Standards Law. These companies often exploit desperate youths who are forced to work long hours with zero job security.

Last September, a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare investigation found that 4189 businesses, out of the 5111 investigated, had broken labour laws. A ministry official stated that ‘even though it was not just targeting [businesses abusing] young people, many young employees [were] found toiling under duress’. Consequently, from 2015, the labour ministry will be asking companies to provide worker turnover data to graduates in order to shed light on prospective labour conditions — and prevent abusive work practices.

Japan’s social problems are snowballing.

It is hard to think of Japan as being a very ‘happy’ or ‘content’ nation when looking at its budget deficit (the largest among developed countries); the decades-long clean-up process for the Fukushima nuclear disaster now underway; increasingly xenophobic rhetoric; and an ageing population threatening to topple the social welfare system. In addition, Japan provides low levels of social security to its working generation.

So why, in spite of this, are young people’s levels of life satisfaction and happiness so high?

In 2011, I published the book The Happy Youth of a Desperate Country and tried to tackle this question.

Japan is a wealthy and peaceful nation, with low levels of crime, high levels of education and well-established lifestyle infrastructure. There are many things Japan has to thank the older generation for. In that sense, Japan is blessed with unprecedented wealth.

Japan has become a more comfortable place for young people to live in. Continued deflation since the 1990s has encouraged higher-quality products at competitive prices — without having to spend too much, it is now possible to have a reasonably enjoyable everyday life. ‘Fast fashion’ has helped, with labels such as Uniqlo, H&M and ZARA providing affordable fashion ‘fast’. And now just by owning a smartphone one can spend hours killing time.

‘Family welfare’ is also an important factor in youth happiness. In Japan, as in Italy, the percentage of unmarried people still living with their parents is extremely high. Both young men and women often live with their parents until they are married. In 2012, 48.9 per cent of unmarried people between the ages of 20 and 35 were living with their parents. Even if a young person isn’t earning a wage, with support from their parents they don’t think of themselves as poor.

‘Enjoy today, tomorrow is coming’ encapsulates the mentality that increasingly absorbs Japan’s youth. This ‘consummatory’ mindset is where, rather than striving towards long-term goals, the focus is on having fun in the ‘here and now’. The modern youth of Japan cannot relate to the feelings of their parents or those who experienced the period of rapidly rising living standards and economic growth during the 1980s. The mantra ‘I am poor now but the future will be filled with riches’ is no longer relevant. Japan has become an incredibly wealthy country — the third-largest economy in the world — so its youth are treasuring the here and now, with little incentive to look towards a brighter future.

So high levels of life satisfaction may not automatically have a positive meaning.

In a recession people are less likely to blame themselves if their wage does not increase — they can blame the poor economic conditions. In boom times it is impossible to blame society. As a result one is left with the stark reality that ‘in spite of the boom, I am being left behind’ — and, with disappointment, life satisfaction falls.

The government’s lifestyles survey, which aims at those above 20 years of age, shows that the number of people ‘worried about the future’ has been increasing. During the bubble economy, youth who replied that they had ‘worries’ sat at 40 per cent, while in 2009 this increased to 67.3 per cent. So when thinking about the future itself Japanese youth are worried, but it appears they are happy about the present at the same time as resigned about the future.

The results of the NHK youth attitudes survey on high school students also showed a doubling over the past 30 years in the number of students stating they are ‘very happy’.

The consummatory mentality among Japan’s youth may also help explain such a high increase in youth happiness. For example, out of 16 different ‘interests’ in the NHK survey, the majority — 55 per cent — chose ‘hanging out with friends’. And according to the cabinet’s Eighth Youth World Consciousness Survey, 38.8 per cent in 1970 chose this answer but since 1998 it has sat at around 74 per cent. Love for one’s hometown and the number of youth refusing to leave their home region is also increasing. Even internationally these numbers are high.

More recently Japanese youth have been described as uchimuki (‘inward looking’ or ‘insular’), but it would be wrong to say that they do not value things around and close to them, like their friends. Rather, when measuring happiness and life satisfaction, the basis has shifted from society and politics, ‘public and wider things’, to ‘friends’ and ‘hometown’ — things that are in one’s immediate world. However, the uchimuki phenomenon is not necessarily due to lack of interest in leaving Japan or one’s immediate world but may also reflect high levels of present contentment — a consequence of the wider well-off socio-economic situation of Japan.

But young people will soon be unable to rely on the welfare provided by their families. Within a few decades the many parents who are still supporting their children will require nursing care. Under the burden of fees for aged care, parents’ accumulated savings will be strained and in many cases disappear entirely.

Today’s young people too will age. The elderly in Japan currently have many siblings and many are married, so care is often carried out by families and relatives. But the youth of Japan currently have few siblings, and many never marry. The number of ‘lonely old people’ will increase.

But it is unclear how sustainable Japan’s social security system is. The current system was established during the post-war period, and is clearly structured to rely heavily on young people. However, the working population needed to support the system is declining — and government and business have put off addressing the low birth rate issue for quite some time.

A crucial impediment to addressing these issues is that youth are underrepresented in positions of power. Japan’s decision-makers — who are generally older — tend to be concerned more with issues affecting older voters: the voting rate of those aged 65–69 is almost double that of those in their 20s.

A population that doesn’t have a replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman cannot sustain its population. Japan’s rate is 1.4. The Japanese government has finally revealed plans to implement policies to address the low birth rate and provide greater childcare, but its success is far from certain, and by the time the children are raised and can work 20 years will have passed.

Japan will not lose all its wealth straight away. The problems it faces will really start to hit home in the next few decades. But the future of Japan’s youth is not only their problem — it is the problem of every Japanese citizen.

Noritoshi Furuichi is a Japanese sociologist and PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo. He has published the best-selling book Zetsubō no Kuni no Kōfuku na Wakamono-tachi (The Happy Youth of a Desperate Country). This article, based on an extract from the book, was translated by Sigourney Irvine.

This article is digested from a longer piece in the latest edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘The G20 summit at five’.

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