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Monday, July 3, 2000

Japan's money-loving youth


With industrialized economies entering the postindustrial age, key issues in domestic politics are shifting their focus from materialism to postmaterialism. The "materialistic" issues include economic growth, income redistribution, welfare, employment, industrial development and international trade. Among the "postmaterialistic" issues are education, medicine, environment, consumer protection, gender equality and immigration.

This shift in priorities is a common trend in the affluent societies of the industrialized world. After all, the human desires for money and goods have rather modest limits. Once these desires are satisfied, man will begin to look for things that have nothing to do with money, or things that money cannot buy.

Acquisitive tendencies are generally more pronounced in poorer societies where money and goods are harder to come by. In richer societies where most people are decently fed, clothed and sheltered, desires for material acquisition are not as conspicuous, except for some money-driven people.

In Japan, however, the materialistic trend dominated from the late 1980s to the 1990s. This is clear from the surveys on "Japanese traits" that have been conducted every five years by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics. The poll includes a question that helps measure the extent of the value shift from materialism to postmaterialism in this country. The question goes something like this: "Suppose you have a child going to elementary school. Do you think the child should be taught that money is the most important thing in life?"

In 1958, when Japan was very poor, two-thirds or more of Japanese thought money was most important. In subsequent years, however, the proportion of these "materialists" gradually declined. In each survey the trend toward postmaterialism grew among the younger generations. To put it another way, the percentage of those who believe "money is everything" increased with age.

Analyses by age cohort, or subgroup, show how value perception among people of a given generation have shifted with age as a result of the growth of material wealth and other changes in the economic environment. For example, pollees aged 20-24 in 1963 were surveyed again five years later, in 1968 and yet again five years later, in 1973. Here are some of the notable findings:

* From 1968 to 1973, a shift away from materialism occurred in almost all age cohorts. This can be seen as the result of the affluence that the Japanese had achieved during that high-growth period.

* From 1973 to 1983, however, a "return to materialism" occurred. The global oil shocks that hit twice in the 1970s, in 1973 and 1979, reversed the ongoing value shift from materialism to postmaterialism.

* From 1983 to 1988, a conspicuous shift away from materialism developed again. Japan's economy, having recovered from the oil crisis, made a "soft landing" on a plateau of 4-5 percent growth. As a result, priorities shifted back to postmaterialism.

* From 1988 to 1993, however, postmaterialism again gave way to materialism in most age subgroups. It seems the asset-inflated bubble economy of 1988 through 1990 had a considerable impact on the values of the Japanese people.

* From 1993 to 1998, most age cohorts again followed a conspicuous trend toward postmaterialism. The collapse of the bubble economy set off the Heisei recession in March 1991. In the years that followed, Japanese value standards made a U-turn from materialism to postmaterialism.

* The latest 1998 survey clearly showed people in their 20s to be more materialistic-minded than those in their 30s. This trend -- something that seems unprecedented in the industrialized world -- became increasingly discernible in the 1990s.

Generally, young people are prone to idealism and therefore try to make light of money, regardless of their nationality. But, as noted above, Japanese youths in the 1990s were more money-conscious than older generations. This is an aberration, given the idealistic inclination of the young.

Comments in the Japanese media often lament the declining scholastic level of university students. In my view, the basic reason for intellectual deterioration among Japanese youth is that they have lost the sense of awe for intellectual values. This seems to have much to do with the materialistic tendency that gained strength among them that began in the late 1980s.

Takamitsu Sawa, professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also the director of the university's Economic Research Institute.


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