NYT: Japan society puts up generational roadblocks, wastes potential of young


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Hi Blog.  Continuing with the recent theme of what reforms Japanese society needs to face the next century, here’s Martin Fackler from the NYT making the case about the structural barriers that waste the potential of youth in Japan.  Bit of a tangent, but not really.  Fresh ideas and entrepreneurial energy (regardless of nationality) should be welcomed as revitalizing, but as Fackler writes, the sclerotic is turning necrotic and people are seeking opportunities elsewhere. Arudou Debito


Generational Barriers
This series of articles examines the effects on Japanese society of two decades of economic stagnation and declining prices.

In Japan, Young Face Generational Roadblocks
The New York Times: January 27, 2011, courtesy lots of people


TOKYO — Kenichi Horie was a promising auto engineer, exactly the sort of youthful talent Japan needs to maintain its edge over hungry Korean and Chinese rivals. As a worker in his early 30s at a major carmaker, Mr. Horie won praise for his design work on advanced biofuel systems.
The Great Deflation

But like many young Japanese, he was a so-called irregular worker, kept on a temporary staff contract with little of the job security and half the salary of the “regular” employees, most of them workers in their late 40s or older. After more than a decade of trying to gain regular status, Mr. Horie finally quit — not just the temporary jobs, but Japan altogether.

He moved to Taiwan two years ago to study Chinese.

“Japanese companies are wasting the young generations to protect older workers,” said Mr. Horie, now 36. “In Japan, they closed the doors on me. In Taiwan, they tell me I have a perfect résumé.”

As this fading economic superpower rapidly grays, it desperately needs to increase productivity and unleash the entrepreneurial energies of its shrinking number of younger people. But Japan seems to be doing just the opposite. This has contributed to weak growth and mounting pension obligations, major reasons Standard & Poor’s downgraded Japan’s sovereign debt rating on Thursday.

“There is a feeling among young generations that no matter how hard we try, we can’t get ahead,” said Shigeyuki Jo, 36, co-author of “The Truth of Generational Inequalities.” “Every avenue seems to be blocked, like we’re butting our heads against a wall.”

An aging population is clogging the nation’s economy with the vested interests of older generations, young people and social experts warn, making an already hierarchical society even more rigid and conservative. The result is that Japan is holding back and marginalizing its youth at a time when it actually needs them to help create the new products, companies and industries that a mature economy requires to grow.

A nation that produced Sony, Toyota and Honda has failed in recent decades to nurture young entrepreneurs, and the game-changing companies that they can create, like Google or Apple — each started by entrepreneurs in their 20s.

Employment figures underscore the second-class status of many younger Japanese. While Japan’s decades of stagnation have increased the number of irregular jobs across all age groups, the young have been hit the hardest.

Last year, 45 percent of those ages 15 to 24 in the work force held irregular jobs, up from 17.2 percent in 1988 and as much as twice the rate among workers in older age groups, who cling tenaciously to the old ways. Japan’s news media are now filled with grim accounts of how university seniors face a second “ice age” in the job market, with just 56.7 percent receiving job offers before graduation as of October 2010 — an all-time low.

“Japan has the worst generational inequality in the world,” said Manabu Shimasawa, a professor of social policy at Akita University who has written extensively on such inequalities. “Japan has lost its vitality because the older generations don’t step aside, allowing the young generations a chance to take new challenges and grow.”

Disparities and Dangers

While many nations have aging populations, Japan’s demographic crisis is truly dire, with forecasts showing that 40 percent of the population will be 65 and over by 2055. Some of the consequences have been long foreseen, like deflation: as more Japanese retire and live off their savings, they spend less, further depressing Japan’s anemic levels of domestic consumption. But a less anticipated outcome has been the appearance of generational inequalities.

These disparities manifest themselves in many ways. As Mr. Horie discovered, there are corporations that hire all too many young people for low-paying, dead-end jobs — in effect, forcing them to shoulder the costs of preserving cushier jobs for older employees. Others point to an underfinanced pension system so skewed in favor of older Japanese that many younger workers simply refuse to pay; a “silver democracy” that spends far more on the elderly than on education and child care — an issue that is familiar to Americans; and outdated hiring practices that have created a new “lost generation” of disenfranchised youth.

Nagisa Inoue, a senior at Tokyo’s Meiji University, said she was considering paying for a fifth year at her university rather than graduating without a job, an outcome that in Japan’s rigid job market might permanently taint her chances of ever getting a higher-paying corporate job. That is because Japanese companies, even when they do offer stable, regular jobs, prefer to give them only to new graduates, who are seen as the more malleable candidates for molding into Japan’s corporate culture.

And the irony, Ms. Inoue said, is that she does not even want to work at a big corporation. She would rather join a nonprofit environmental group, but that would also exclude her from getting a so-called regular job.

“I’d rather have the freedom to try different things,” said Ms. Inoue, 22. “But in Japan, the costs of doing something different are just too high.”

Many social experts say a grim economy has added to the pressures to conform to Japan’s outdated, one-size-fits-all employment system. An online survey by students at Meiji University of people across Japan ages 18 to 22 found that two-thirds felt that youths did not take risks or new challenges, and that they instead had become a generation of “introverts” who were content or at least resigned to living a life without ambition.

“There is a mismatch between the old system and the young generations,” said Yuki Honda, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo. “Many young Japanese don’t want the same work-dominated lifestyles of their parents’ generation, but they have no choices.”

Facing a rising public uproar, the Welfare Ministry responded late last year by advising employers to recognize someone as a new graduate for up to three years after graduation. It also offers subsidies of up to 1.8 million yen, or about $22,000 per person, to large companies that offer so-called regular jobs to new graduates.

But perhaps nowhere are the roadblocks to youthful enterprise so evident, and the consequences to the Japanese economy so dire, as in the failure of entrepreneurship.

The nation had just 19 initial public offerings in 2009, according to Tokyo-based Next Company, compared with 66 in the United States. More telling is that even Japan’s entrepreneurs are predominantly from older generations: according to the Trade Ministry, just 9.1 percent of Japanese entrepreneurs in 2002 were in their 20s, compared with 25 percent in the United States.

“Japan has become a zero-sum game,” said Yuichiro Itakura, a failed Internet entrepreneur who wrote a book about his experience. “Established interests are afraid a young newcomer will steal what they have, so they won’t do business with him.”

Many Japanese economists and policy makers have long talked of fostering entrepreneurship as the best remedy for Japan’s economic ills. And it is an idea that has a historical precedent here: as the nation rose from the ashes of World War II, young Japanese entrepreneurs produced a host of daring start-ups that overturned entire global industries.

Entrepreneur’s Rise and Fall

But many here say that Japan’s economy has ossified since its glory days, and that the nation now produces few if any such innovative companies. To understand why, many here point to the fate of one of the nation’s best-known Internet tycoons, Takafumi Horie.

When he burst onto the national scene early in the last decade, he was the most un-Japanese of business figures: an impish young man in his early 30s who wore T-shirts into boardrooms, brazenly flouted the rules by starting hostile takeovers and captured an era when a rejuvenated Japanese economy seemed to finally be rebounding. He was arrested five years ago and accused of securities fraud in what seemed a classic case of comeuppance, with the news media demonizing him as a symbol of an unsavory, freewheeling American-style capitalism.

In 2007, a court found him guilty of falsifying company records, a ruling that he is appealing. But in dozens of interviews, young Japanese brought him up again and again as a way of explaining their generation’s malaise. To them, he symbolized something very different: a youthful challenger who was crushed by a reactionary status quo. His arrest, they said, was a warning to all of them not to rock the boat.

“It was a message that it is better to quietly and obediently follow the established conservative order,” Mr. Horie, now 37, wrote in an e-mail.

He remains for many a popular, if almost subversive figure in Japan, where he is once again making waves by unrepentantly battling the charges in court, instead of meekly accepting the judgment, as do most of those arrested. He now has more than a half-million followers on Twitter, more than the prime minister, and publicly urges people to challenge the system.

“Horie has been the closest thing we had to a role model,” said Noritoshi Furuichi, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Tokyo who wrote a book about how young Japanese were able to remain happy while losing hope. “He represents a struggle between old Japan and new Japan.”

Mr. Furuichi and many other young Japanese say that young people here do not react with anger or protest, instead blaming themselves and dropping out, or with an almost cheerful resignation, trying to find contentment with horizons that are far more limited than their parents’.

In such an atmosphere, young politicians say it is hard to mobilize their generation to get interested in politics.

Ryohei Takahashi was a young city council member in the Tokyo suburb of Ichikawa who joined a group of other young politicians and activists in issuing a “Youth Manifesto,” which urged younger Japanese to stand up for their interests.

In late 2009, he made a bid to become the city’s mayor on a platform of shifting more spending toward young families and education. However, few younger people showed an interest in voting, and he ended up trying to cater to the city’s most powerful voting blocs: retirees and local industries like construction, all dominated by leaders in their 50s and 60s.

“Aging just further empowers older generations,” said Mr. Takahashi, 33. “In sheer numbers, they win hands down.”

He lost the election, which he called a painful lesson that Japan was becoming a “silver democracy,” where most budgets and spending heavily favored older generations.

Social experts say the need to cut soaring budget deficits means that younger Japanese will never receive the level of benefits enjoyed by retirees today. Calculations show that a child born today can expect to receive up to $1.2 million less in pensions, health care and other government spending over the course of his life than someone retired today; in the national pension system alone, this gap reaches into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Abandoning the System

The result is that young Japanese are fleeing the program in droves: half of workers below the age of 35 now fail to make their legally mandated payments, even though that means they must face the future with no pension at all. “In France, the young people take to the streets,” Mr. Takahashi said. “In Japan, they just don’t pay.”

Or they drop out, as did many in Japan’s first “lost generation” a decade ago.

One was Kyoko, who was afraid to give her last name for fear it would further damage her job prospects. Almost a decade ago, when she was a junior at Waseda University here, she was expected to follow postwar Japan’s well-trodden path to success by finding a job at a top corporation. She said she started off on the right foot, trying to appear enthusiastic at interviews without being strongly opinionated — the balance that appeals to Japanese employers, who seek hard-working conformists.

But after interviewing at 10 companies, she said she suffered a minor nervous breakdown, and stopped. She said she realized that she did not want to become an overworked corporate warrior like her father.

By failing to get such a job before graduating, Kyoko was forced to join the ranks of the “freeters” — an underclass of young people who hold transient, lower-paying irregular jobs. Since graduating in 2004 she has held six jobs, none of them paying unemployment insurance, pension or a monthly salary of more than 150,000 yen, or about $1,800.

“I realized that wasn’t who I wanted to be,” recalled Kyoko, now 29. “But why has being myself cost me so dearly?”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition.


18 comments on “NYT: Japan society puts up generational roadblocks, wastes potential of young

  • I see the lack of hope and enthusiasm in the kids I teach in Japanese public schools. This lack blows my mind purely because of how opposite my peers and I were at that age, and how successful we’ve been. These kids I teach have so much potential, and they’re being crushed.

    I will not have any children of mine subject to that kind of system. Another reason why I must get out now I’m considering that lifestyle change from single to married and parent. So sad.

    I’ve had a gutful too of watching school budget tumble year on year… What a waste of potential.

  • @AJ

    I feel the same as you. My wife (Japanese) and I have already decided to return to California for the sake of our daughter (age 2) before she starts first grade.

    Japan has a lot to offer but unfortunately the educational system here is dismal.

  • crustpunker says:

    This story just fully illustrates that Japan in general has no idea how to apply the brakes when something nay, ANYTHING has become a “tradition”
    Japan inc has done a fantastic job at conning the Japanese people that 16 hr work days are “tradition”. That shite wages with unpaid overtime is something you should endure admirably. Well, I see the young people aren’t taking it any more and good for them sez I! Why would anyone subscribe to this skitsystem any longer? While I wish that the younger generation would take to the streets with pitchforks and molotovs demanding equal pay for equal work along with equal opportunities etc… I suppose this will have to do until someone wakes them up from their haze of escapism.

    This will not be a popular comment but I am just gonna go ahead and say it. Japan only seems capable of doing great things after it has been decimated by war or natural disasters. Maybe it is time for another tragedy to wake this nation up…..

  • Mark Hunter says:

    A.J. / Steve…I can see how one would want to put the kid’s education first. However, options exist in Japan to have one’s cake and eat it, too. For example, if one’s spouse is willing to work, there are good mid-tier international schools that won’t break the bank, thus allowing one’s child a world-class education and the chance to enjoy all the wonderful attributes of Japanese society that still exist. California (Steve’s option),in my opinion,is hardly the land of milk and honey and is destined to become a much worse place (economy-wise) before it gets better. Yes, put the kids first, but be very careful what you wish for. Japan and Japanese culture still has many, many wonderful qualities that North America can only dream of. Having returned to Canada and having travelled in the U.S. recently, I’m quite underwhelmed. Good luck to both of you in your choices. I know it is difficult.

  • “I realized that wasn’t who I wanted to be,” recalled Kyoko, now 29. “But why has being myself cost me so dearly?”

    If i didn’t know better, I would have assumed that this comment came from a disgruntled NJ. Welcome to “our” world of disenfranchised and being ostracised for being “different” and wanting to be “myself”.

    There is no, repeat no hope for Japan. Anyone who thinks otherwise, is sadly delusional. Would the last person switch off the lights please….

    — I remain sadly delusional, then.

  • A nation lives & dies by its ability to create wealth.

    Canada, Australia, and the US have massive primary sectors (relative to population) that create the basis of further wealth creation and trade.

    A nation also lives and dies by avoiding the loss of wealth to rent-seekers who reap what they have not sown.

    Luckily, Japan’s health system is relatively screwed-down such that they don’t have the massive economic rents that the US system is currently extracting, but I do think there’s still too much rent-seeking going on in the land market.

    Every dollar we have to pay for land use is a dollar that was not used for actual capital formation.

    My own Eikaiwa school in Takadanobaba felt this capital-drain harshly, having to pay Y170,000 every month for a location to teach. That was 11 class-hours a week required to just pay the rent.

    Japan could solve this by reducing the taxation on goods production and sales and replace it with taxing land value. The Japanese miracle of the 1950s and 60s was actually partially based on the land taxes imposed by the occupation (and of course the disaster of the 1990s was due to the overinvestment in rent-seeking in land).

    Japan is way too unproficient in English. This stunts their export trade in “gross national cool” and also limits the interchange of scientific and commercial learning.

    Japan needs to get its fiscal house in order. It should tax parasitical wealth much more (see above).

    I’m not sure how viable the Japanese laborer is in the Y80 regime. Y13 buys 1 yuan, so the median Chinese monthly wage of 4000 yuan is only Y52000, one week of part-time Japanese labor @ Y2000/hr.

    I think it’s OK for Japan to depopulate. It needs to become more like the Scandinavian eurosocialists, with greater focus on the the basics that its population requires — health, education, transportion, elderly care, affordable housing, skilled labor that creates high-value add products.

    This is all doable and I think Japan can pull itself politically as well as any country…

  • @John K

    I`m not sure if there`s no hope for Japan but having lived here for almost 15 years my guess is Japan will need to fall a lot further before the necessarily changes are made. In any case even with the many in-going problems in the United States my daughter will have much more in the way of opportunities growing there than here. Maybe if we had had a boy thing might have been different but with a girl we really want to raise her in America.

  • @Steve I have two boys and I see the pressure on boys is just as bad if not worse. Your whole life is mapped out from the moment you are born, and you better get perform well to get into that good kindergarten, so that you can graduate from a “name brand” university, and compete with other desperate grads for a low paying job at a “good” company where you’ll be treated like crap and expected to sacrifice your entire life for the company. At least women have a greater range of choice than that. And despite Japan’s reputation as a misogynistic paradise for sexual deviants, I’m not convinced that gender discrimination is so much worse here than anywhere else… maybe I escape the worst brunt of it because I am not Japanese and have a professional qualification, but women in the workplace (professionals at least) are treated with a measure of respect that is completely missing in other countries / cultures.

    — We’re getting off track. Bring it back.

  • Many people may say there is little or no hope in Japan, but this is still the country that I love, and I do not want to abandon it. People may call me a fool for this, but it’s something I do not want to compromise.

  • crustpunker says:

    I would say that most of us who are making harsh remarks on the dire state of things here in Japan are saying so not because we are cheering for Japan to sink into the mire and disintegrate but rather, we are commenting on the heartbreaking waste of human and economic potential that COULD be a reality. If ONLY there were a strong leader, someone who had the power to make drastic change happen, who was able to bring people together and make everyone see that things need to change for the greater good. Ironic to me that Japan is usually identified as a country that generally functions under the group mentality/ greater good of the nation when all the resistance to change seems to be that individuals in positions of wealth and power are refusing to give up what their chokehold on what they have. Whatever happened to the concept of a poor people but a rich nation?

  • @Mark Hunter
    >there are good mid-tier international schools that won’t break the bank

    Would you please recommend some schools?
    The ones I know don’t charge less than 1.500.000JPY per year.


  • Is there any international school with fellowships? Apart from the French school (which provide several French government fellowships, only to French students), I did not see many school providing grants or fellowships to low or middle-income families.

    — We’re starting to get off track. If we keep getting questions without any answers soon on this tangent, kibosh, sorry.

  • Debito, please forgive one off-topic reply to Jair above. If one partner in a relationship can clear 150000 yen a month, the school fees for one child are covered. Two children becomes more problematic.

  • I think that school fees and funding are just one part of the equation. The Fackler article went to the soul-crushing aspects of living in Japanese society as a young person.

    What happens (and the runners of Japan know it) is that the young kids learn English, and it opens doors. For many, the door becomes and escape hatch to a better life somewhere else.

    As much as Japan likes to sell this idea of crowded overcapacity, they really do need a young generation in Japan, if they expect to have a Japan in 2060.

    Like so much of the scheming that goes on there, people start holding three or four diametrically opposed “facts” in their heads about what is possible and what just has to be accepted.

    The silver lining is that the young people in Japan are not that stupid themselves. They obviously can “read the air” or the writing on the wall, and setting about their own course.

  • Has anyone seen Tokyo Sonata? Film maker Kiyoshi Kurosawa Does an excellent job of catching the ills of modern day japan. There’s a scene where two young men are handing out tissues in the streets of Tokyo and one ask the other, when’s the big quake going to hit so the world is turned upside down and I’ll be at the top instead of the bottom.
    A fantastic film. He try’s to cram a lot of the issues facing Japan today, unemployment, suicide, but it works.
    The imdb link is here.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938341/

  • I watch Japanese anime as a comprehension exercice. Here is a little something (maybe) interesting to understand how Japanese youth are told that new things are negative : the action happens in a classroom, the summer vacation is about to start and the homeroom teacher is giving a few advices about the dos and donts to the students… (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hakjnfA7_C8 just after the opening song)

    “Then let’s start…”
    “Things to watch out for during the summer break”
    “Everyone listen good”
    “Firstly, you must live orderly daily lives”
    “It’s a long vacation, so you may want to try out new experiences”
    “…but know that if you do, your health may suffer”

    I’ve heard this kind of speach in real life too, when I was an exchange student in Kurume.

    I hope the young Japanese have watch the news these last weeks, and have seen that freedom is never given by the “System”, It has to be taken by force ! The French revolution, the sexual liberation,… In the Arab world, unarmed youth have descended into the streets to demonstrate, and have overthrown dictators !!!

    Will Japanese ever make a big demonstration ? Making noise, shooting flares, displaying sarcastic and disrepectful messages on signs, saying “we are here, we are angry, we want things to change NOW !” Or just lower their heads and say “komaru yo” or “hazukashii” if proposed to do so…


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