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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Young Japanese struggle to find their way


As another year comes to an end, the Japanese media continue to wonder at the new generation at school and at work. The term "shinjinrui" (new species) seems to have fallen out of use but the prevailing attitude is still one of bemusement and even dismay.

Aera, for instance, views with puzzlement workers in their 20s and 30s who go easily from one job to another in a feature story in the Dec. 10 issue. Rather than salary, career advancement or interesting work, such workers are seeking a pleasant work environment with amiable coworkers. Finally, though, the authors conclude that such a development may be only natural for a generation that has given up any illusions of secure lifetime employment.

Meanwhile, the debate over the side effects of the Education Ministry's efforts to implement "yutori kyoiku" (a more humane education) has been given new impetus by the publication of a book by the investigative journalist Takeshi Tachibana on the dumbing down of Tokyo University students: "Todai-sei wa baka ni natta ka."

An interesting article in Shukan Asahi (Nov. 23) about the decline in the Todai "brand" finds that many companies are disappointed in the job performance of Todai grads. Rather than ability, their attractiveness for a company is the old-boy network of Todai alumni in the government and business.

Many figures consulted by Shukan Asahi agreed with Tachibana on the general decline in the standard of Todai students. One pointed to how much easier it is to enter Todai these days compared to earlier periods: In 1960 around 3,000 applicants were admitted from a general population of 2.5 million 18-year-olds, while in 2000, 3,253 were admitted out of a population of 1.5 million 18-year-olds. Another singled out the Todai system in which only Todai grads are hired as professors and older Todai professors prefer for advancement those who will not outshine them in academic achievement.

At any rate, all agreed that there is nothing worse than a new Todai grad who lacks the abilities of earlier grads but still has that less-than-endearing Todai conviction that the world starts and ends with him!

In the midst of such media hand-wringing, it is refreshing to have a calmer and more sympathetic firsthand report from a member of this new generation. The author, Ren Inaizumi, himself dropped out of high school but passed an equivalency exam and is now a student at Waseda University. In the book "Bokura ga hataraku riyu, hatarakanai riyu, hatarakenai riyu" ("Why we work, don't work, or can't work"; Bungei Shunju, 2001), he interviews eight young men just starting out in life: a college student, an unhappy company worker, an elite student who burned out early and is a devoted rock musician, a temporary worker, a former "hikikomori" (recluse), a worker in a nursing home for the elderly, the head of a cram school and a fisherman.

I was particularly interested in the case of the hikikomori. The subject of much attention in Japan today, the number of these young people, predominantly male, who withdraw from the world is variously estimated at 500,000 to 1 million. Although not the direct target of bullying ("ijime") Takayuki Nagasawa was shocked at written comments from classmates at the end of junior high school that he was "kurai" (dark) and stopped going to school the next year.

For the first year or so, he enjoyed the freedom of a life spent watching TV and playing video games with no social pressure. Then he started worrying about being odd and feared being seen by neighbors or former classmates. When he neared 20, he felt he had to change his life and spent some time at a school for dropouts, eventually graduating from such a program in Hokkaido.

Exhausted, he retreated once more to his room at the family home in Nara. Then he saw an ad in a karate magazine for a karate school in the United States and developed a new fantasy about becoming a new person abroad (earlier he had had daydreams about Doraemon coming and giving him a second chance at life in his time machine). But even though he entered the school and found he enjoyed the companionship of the other students and American friendliness, he soon started fretting about people staring at him while he was jogging. He returned to Japan after six months and spent another three years in his room.

Finally, when he was nearing 28, he learned about a place in Osaka that provides counseling for people like himself; he was able to work in a bakery for 1 1/2 years while receiving counseling at the center once a week. Now 30, he still has trouble getting along with other people and continuing for long at any one workplace, but has progressed enough to wonder at how he was able to stand three years shut up at home.

After the intensity of Nagasawa's story, it was something of a relief to read Yoshikazu Ogikawa's account of how he came to work in a nursing home. With the vague idea that he'd like a sports-related job after graduating from high school, he applied to the only sports company represented at a job fair at his school, only noticing later that it was one selling ski equipment.

Not a ski fan himself, he had a poor sales record at the company's Kanda store and decided to quit after two years. Faced with his father's anger at his giving up so soon and the kindness of the store's manager, he changed his mind about quitting and threw himself into skiing, but still wasn't really happy in his work. Irritated by the rudeness and lack of consideration of young customers at the store, he appreciated more and more the older people buying ski equipment for their grandchildren and came to feel he'd like a job working with the elderly.

This time his father supported him when he decided, after seven years at the ski shop, to switch occupations. It took some time to adjust to his new field, but he's now much happier as a care provider at a nursing home.

Inaizumi writes that he sought out the experiences of those slightly older than himself as he was anxious at the prospect of leaving college and entering society. Standing outside Shinjuku Station, he watched the crowds and imagined how hard it would be to walk against the flow. Once again at Shinjuku after the interviews, however, he no longer sees a faceless throng but individuals. He had learned that everyone has his or her own path to follow and that life continues to change even after one is out in society as an adult. This is a fine book that gives a human face to impersonal social problems.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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