The cover story in the February issue of Takarajima 『宝島』 is titled 「バカ化する若者」— “Youth are Becoming Idiots.” The small print above the title states 「”ゆとり”チルドレンが日本を滅ぼす！」You see, our idiot Japanese children — spoiled by the less rigid “yutori” education established in the early 1990s as a way to bolster individualism and creative thought — are ruining Japan. Tough to be a kid in Japan these days: you are not only stupid, you’re a traitor.
Takarajima, however, is hardly broaching a new topic. Earlier this year, Japanese critic Uchida Tatsuru‘s latest 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) got some attention, another in a long series of “下流” titles about the (semi-voluntary) descent of middle-class kids into the pits of lower-class hell. The basic idea that the younger generation has failed “society,” however, goes back even further — one of the few constant themes in 20th century Japanese social criticism. Maybe the radical young soldiers in the 1930s who assassinated liberal politicians and demanded greater power for the Emperor proved themselves good kids in a warped sense, really living up to the ideals of the Imperial Rescript on Education. But ever since then, young people have basically dropped the ball generation after generation: juvies, hippies, bikers, consumerists, whores. Youth of the 1980s were derisively christened 新人類 (shinjinrui, The New Breed) — almost as if to say, these kids’ rotten values must be the result of genetic dysfunction and devolution, like overbred mini-chihuahuas.
So like every cohort in the past, the current batch of Adults are ripping into their own offspring, regretting the Whitney Houston Principle that “Children are our future.” The cast of guest authors at Takarajima, however, are not suffering from mere moral outrage. They have objective measure on their side!
Famed management consultant Ohmae Kenichi starts things off by noting that Japanese 20-somethings do not sufficiently feel urges for material things. They no longer desire cars (this is supported by lots of data and a panicky auto industry). They do not buy computers, and their share of total web users has dropped from 23.5% in 2000 to 11.9% in 2006. They are not interested in international affairs apart from the occasional vacation abroad. They have low expectations for the future, nil ambition, and not enough wrath to make any challenges to an economic system that puts all the nation’s assets into the hands of their elders. With such low salaries and pitiful future earning potential, young men find it too sadistic to ask for their girlfriend’s hand in marriage — especially when women can live a life of luxury under their parents’ auspices.
Ohmae makes a particularly good point that the weakened consumer power of youth in Japan has forced manufacturers to re-gear their marketing and merchandising to suit older customers. (This is evidenced already in the fact that almost no youth-oriented products made the “Hit Products of 2007” guide in Nikkei’s newspaper Marketing Journal.) Since most material needs are manufactured or at least greatly influenced by the commercial complex, companies ignoring youth essentially amplifies the problem of their insufficient materialism.
In the next article, Ritsumeikan professor Kageyama Hideo blames the less rigid “yutori” education revolution of the early 1990s — which stressed “individuality” (個性) and reduced total teaching time — for creating the current generation of NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and furiitaa (chronic part-time workers). Once the envy of the world, Japanese standards in math and science now drop year after year. In a statistics section, we learn that Japanese 20-somethings do not save their money, do not like alcohol or beer or cigarettes, do not give blood, are highly susceptible to pyramid schemes (マルチ商法), do not send new years cards, groom their eyebrows, and when compared to the U.S., China, and South Korea, have little interest in attending top-tier universities.
What is most interesting about this latest jeremiad against youth, however, is the lack of moral panic about actual morals. Oh, how easy it was to demonize thinner-huffing Bosozoku motorcycle gangs, Ganguro runaway part-time prostitutes, and truant rock’n’roll dancers in Yoyogi Park. Kids these days are not even “up to no good” — just up to very, very little. I never thought I would ever see grown-ups pulling their hair over the fact that kids aren’t smoking and drinking enough. They don’t have a new and mysterious pharmacopeia of illicit drugs. (How naïve and unaware is this article on the current “rise” of amphetamines in Japan, as if speed was not the single government-condoned way to get high for the last 50 years.) Japanese youth aren’t having crazy orgies, and you hear less about strings of “sex friends.” Their preferred style of music is the highly-formulaic seishun punk and ska (or judging from declining music sales, silence). Youth are obsessed with “feel good” banter with friends, the act of communicating on phones without much emphasis on the content and building fragile communities of electronically-mediated acquaintances. They are not even destructive — just retracting into their shells and failing to report for the single pre-determined path into the social hierarchy.
Of course, Japanese youth did not get together at a national conference and take a vote to follow this path to blandness and futility. They are rational actors in a harsh environment. There has been an evaporation of traditional incentives and rewards that guided earlier youth through grueling study routines, regimented career paths, and surveillance-based management methods. As a result, convenience store clerkship has become an equal value proposition to life as a second-tier white-collar suit. Education in Japan has always been organized around socialization (creating “good Japanese”) and talent-location (separating “good students” from the chaff for escalation into the bureaucracy) rather than actual self-actualization or intellectual enlightenment. (If the latter values were important, why would Japanese universities allow students to graduate without lifting a finger and companies hire students solely based on their pedigree rather than their grades?) So when Japan’s Fordian education factory loses its guiding light, kids no longer have any idea why they are memorizing obscure English grammar rules and techniques for multivariate calculus. When only the top elite of society can make it through the narrow door to jobs where the wages actually increase over time, those standing silent on the peak of the Bell curve are probably more willing to consider the values of their non-fun-deferring classmates a few standard deviations behind. The conservative critics, however, believe that attempts to make the education system less of a device for nation-state building has only produced dumber kids. They may have a point: if the entire economic and employment system still rewards those that excel at the older goals of the education system, the “yutori” changes have only given them false hopes that they will be valued for their individuality and creativity.
For those less invested in the continuity of the Japanese nation-state, youth delinquency can be a visual treat and a new source of alternative cultural creation/proliferation. The problem with the 21st Century Kids, however, is that they’ve failed to meet expectations in this arena as well. Japanese youth of today are as bad about being bad kids as they are about being good kids. There has been no major youth fashion movement since the Kogal in the mid 1990s. Current kids are “conservative,” but not in the sense of actively protecting stable social mores. As Uchida explains in Karyuu Shiko, they simply lack the cultural or intellectual curiosity to tolerate things they do not understand. They are sad puppies, moping instead of channeling and sublimating anger into productive action.
The youth generation coming to age directly after the war had a political and spiritual mandate — mostly under the flag of radical Marxism — to change society and move Japan away from its failed imperialist project. This extended to art and literature; in the speech “Japan’s Dual Identity: A Writer’s Dilemma,” Ōe Kenzaburo stated that from 1946 and 1970, writers produced a “literature that set out to deal squarely with the needs of intellectuals.” Terayama Shuji‘s work broke formalistic grounds in the theatre and film as part of this political mission. The self-destruction of the Left at Asamasanso in 1972, however, essentially ended this philosophical driver for art and youth culture. With rising prosperity, materialism easily filled Marxism’s spiritual void and became the guiding ethic of the next four decades. Writers like Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, and Tanaka Yasuo provided “literature” that did not just comment on consumer culture but built artistic meaning around capitalist logic. Most of the significant artistic and creative movements of the 1980s and 1990s — especially the fashion of Ura-Harajuku-kei and the music of Shibuya-kei — were basically attempts at curated consumption within the realm of art. Materialism not only guided yen towards products but gave youth a very obvious way to express themselves on personal, social, and “political” levels.
Materialism in Japan seems to be in its last throes now — or at least, beaten back until it can mutate into a new form. Youth not only lack money, but have little understanding of the incredibly inflated standards for conspicuous consumption from the 1980s and 1990s. But this is the sad irony of Japanese youth today: they are post-materialists in a society where culture has been construed as an empty vehicle for commercial transaction. With education and popular art both robbed of intellectual content to serve the goals of the political economy, post-materialists are reduced to using culture in its socializing role of bringing people together. This explains why young Japanese seem to like “heartfelt” music in extremely standardized forms. If culture is about building broad bridges and not differentiation between groups, innovation and organized rebellion are low on creators’ priority list.
This cultural malaise may be temporary as the internet and new social forces create unforeseen incentives for creative activity, eventually restoring motivation among those outside of the upper middle class/white collar career path. For the moment, however, youth are trapped between two systems, expected to take on cultural and social values that no longer have any relation to the current economic structure and their own lifestyle possibilities. Hopefully soon they will find a new way to creatively irk their parents and impress foreigners: eyebrow grooming is just not enough to tide over social critics and fashion fans.