Japanese critic Uchida Tatsuru’s new book 「下流志向─学ばない子どもたち、働かない若者たち」 (my trans: Aiming Downward: Kids Who Don’t Learn, Youth Who Don’t Work) is selling well — another in a long series of “下流” (karyu) titles about the descent of middle-class kids into the pits of lower-class hell. This time, the failure seems to be one of education. High school kids do less homework than their peers overseas, don’t pay attention, don’t care. So long, Japanese society!
At last week’s “Taking ‘Cool Japan’ Seriously: Beyond Euphoria and Pragmatism” seminar at Waseda University, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music’s Mouri Yoshitaka responded to the Uchida book, “This is nothing new. Youth have been criticized generation after generation for not living up to social standards. They called us the 新人類 (shinjinrui, New Breed).” True enough. Youth become perfect billboards for the projection of adult anxieties. Gangs, loud music, and drugs foretell a dark future — but only because parents forget that post-industrial capitalism will always manage to “turn on” their delinquent pothead sons to the allures of wealth accumulation and status distinction.
So like every generation before it, the current breed of adults are ripping into their own offspring, regretting the Whitney Houston mantra “Children are our future.” Nothing new, you may say, but I often hear a very odd complaint about those aged 15-24 — “kids today are boring.”
Not “are into drugs ” or “are into that crazy music” or “smoking!” or “pregnant” or “promiscuous” or “dumb” or “lazy” or “asthmatic” or “too tall” but “boring.” And I totally understand where they are coming from.
Popular culture has become so dependent upon a constant stream of new and updated juvenile rebellion that we cannot possible tolerate a retreat. We need New Rave! New Meth! MySpace Suburban House Wrecking Parties! Greenlighting! Basically, we need kids to be creatively destructive in new ways. Bosozoku motorcycle gangs? Yes. Ganguro runaway part-time prostitutes? Oh yes. Crazy rock’n’roll dancers in Yoyogi Park? Yes.
The Japanese kids of Gen Y have completely failed to live up to these expectations. They don’t have any new kinds of drugs. They aren’t having crazy orgies. Their preferred style of music is the bland melocore of seishun punk or good-time Japanese hip-hop. They barely drink. They are obsessed with “feel good” banter with friends, communicating on phones, building communities. They are not even being destructive — just retracting into their shells.
A few weeks ago, I headed out with a certain minimalist-art-pop band (read: Kiiiiiii) to a gig in Nagoya — a half-fashion show with local design students and three or four up-and-coming young ska/punk bands. The attendees were mostly females aged 20-22 who read the eyebrow-less, cutie-punk mag Zipper (although, oddly, some very tan and tall gyaru were in attendance). The bands had less relation through musical genre and more by the fact that all of the lead singers have been featured in Zipper.
Zipper style is relatively “rock” — a colorful casual with a pinch of goth made specifically for girls under 5’3″ with enormous heads and no interest in attracting boys. These girls are as close to American “alternagirls” as I can fathom. Most of them were design school students. Maybe some of it was the Nagoya factor, but when the aforementioned two-girl art-pop group got on stage after the rock assault of some Okinawan punk band, the audience literally recoiled. I have seen bad reception for this band, but this was like total and utter audience alienation. Some core weirdos got down in the middle of the floor, but everyone else just completely shut down — which is the closest thing to turning to your friends and talking shit a Japanese girl will do in the middle of a concert. People were running away from the front row as the lead singer tried to give people high fives.
I am sure that you will scream a million alternative reasons why this happened, but we all saw a reflection of this “Gen Y Problem” in the reaction. This was a bit too edgy, too Tokyo, too art, too unknown. No one could get a grip on what was going on, and those that did eventually just accepted it as “crazy.” All the people who had come specifically too see the band were all over 30. The punky girls with dyed hair and crazy makeup had absolutely no interest in this weird dollop of avant in the comfort of ska/punk mediocrity.
I don’t blame them. If you are 20 now, you probably started listening to music in 2000 — way past a time when slightly experimental stuff made it to the mainstream.