I’ve been meaning to write about the best-seller Karyu Shakai, which I am reading, but I have been both busy and lazy. While eating kappa maki last night in front of the television (I tragically don’t eat fish), I watched a short news special about the “Downwardly Mobile Generation.” One guy lived in a house with no heat, read manga all day, and ate one meal daily from leftovers at his job at Mister Donuts. Another guy lived an equal boring life — but with a girlfriend! The main point of the story was that these kids have no dreams of upward mobility or money (although they all seem to want to become famous), but are extremely satisfied with living on $20K a year.
The happiness factor is the interesting twist to this rise in class consciousness. Middle-class kids are indeed dropping out of the rigid employment system, living a comfortable, inexpensive lifestyle, and identifying themselves as “lower class,” but they are far from angry about their diminished position. Maybe there’s a bit of low-rent chic, but the freeter class is much less angry at the system than those yellow-collar workers at the bottom levels of the system itself.
This puts most social commentators in a conundrum: There are practical implications for the freeters’ actions (no tax revenue, low birth rate, rise in income disparity), but they’re apparently happy — so it’s hard to really dig into them. Japan is no more superficial than the United States — Confucianism is as anti-money as the original Christianity. Often, the market becomes an ersatz measure for social propriety, but no one is going to yell at these kids for not going after the gold. And very few have the chutzpah to give them an extended lecture on familial responsibility in this day and age.
But here’s where my perverse sense of conspiratorial over-analysis kicks in: The future structure of global capitalism needs fewer and fewer people to actually man the posts at the white-collar firms, and this will result in an overwhelmingly large amount of people kicked out of the economic system. In the United States, the lower classes are angrier and angrier about their loss of stature and respectable employment, and while they may not be channeling their anger into the right places (Down with Gay Cowboys!), no one is actually happy to work at McDonalds to support their punk band. In Japan, they have found the perfect solution to the natural bifurcation of labor in 21st century capitalism. The trade offs for money are so high that you have a large section of population voluntarily dropping out and feeling relieved to be out of the rat race.
Perhaps this “happiness” of the lower classes is only a myth to protect the hegemony, but at the worm’s eye view, the story seems to check out. Everyone wins: The system no longer has to pay the masses decent wages, and the masses feel lucky to have so much free time.