Traditionally, Japanese youth are expected to shed all their fads, fashions, radical ideologies, dreams, aspirations, and ideals upon entering the workforce — and subsequently, adulthood — in a process called tenkō（転向). Like all the youth before them, the hardcore student Marxists of the early ’60s went straight into a white-collar life after graduation. While a handful of hardhat radicals in the late ’60s/early ’70s were blacklisted for their participation in severe Leftist violence, Japan’s broader counterculture evaporated very quickly when its members turned 23 and adjusted their values back to mainstream society. To a large degree, Japanese adults’ high tolerance of extreme youth fashion stems directly from their understanding that a tenkō will instantly clear away the zoot suit to make room for the recruit suit.
In the last five years, however, there has been much speculation about whether the high number of youth without full-time employment — the freeters — were voluntarily rejecting the lives of their parents. In other words, these were possibly the first kids in history refusing to go through the tenkō process, working in a bakery four days a week to keep living a life centered on fashion, design, and music. What progress for international bohemianism!
Western scholars since the ’50s have been hoping to see the tenkō disappear, predicting that its demise was just around the corner. For example, Robert Jay Lifton in the 1961 essay “Youth and History: Individual Change in Postwar Japan” (from The Challenge of Youth) says in his concluding remarks about Japanese collegiate Marxists, “Much of what I have described may be understood as youth’s efforts to resist tenkō and to acquire a new form of integrity.” Turns out — those idealistic kids he interviewed all became cogs in the capitalist machine. And the tenkō psychology only became stronger when a dazzling economy threw money at anyone willing to go out and buy a nice pair of leather lace-ups.
So, what about our freeters of 2005? Are they going to stay punk rock forever?
According to a 2003 survey, 70% of freeters would happily take a full-time white collar job if offered one. So, they’re not exactly ideological rebels — just simply “unemployable.” This other 30%, however, may be the proto-bohemians that everyone from “Slow Life”-advocates to David Brooks-followers are searching for. But if you’ve ever seen the lifestyle of workers in Japan’s hipster cultural industry, you’ll notice that even without the dark suits and chōrei (朝礼) morning exercises, these “cool kids” have just replicated the work-style and values of the salaryman life within the magazine/music making process: long hours and expectations of total-dedication to the job.
There does seem to be a handful of freeters who are rejecting the tenkō value-conversion, but they are essentially being pushed out of society rather than forcing society to find a business organization that does not demand a total re-formulation of selfhood.
For better or worse, tenkō appears to be a fundamental principle of Japanese psychology, and the perceived need to abandon “selfish” interests for entrance into an adult “human matrix” (Lifton’s term) is built into the social structure. This means that we’re not going to be seeing the Bohemian army any time soon. Welcome back to the Fast Life.