Das Goethe: Issue 2/2017 What do you believe in?

Japan’s young generation lives in the here and now
Japan’s young generation lives in the here and now | Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

On 16 November, the fourth issue of the Goethe-Institut’s ZEIT supplement will appear. This time, das goethe travels to young people in Tokyo, Lagos and Jakarta and asks them, “What do you believe in?” As a result, in Japan’s capital city the journalist Kyoko Iwaki encounters a devoted generation, in which hardly anyone still believes in a permanent job and a secure future.

What makes humans different from animals? Keisuke Yamabe laughs and replies, “Work!” Yamabe is studying the cultural anthropology of work at the renowned University of Tsukuba. Some researchers claim that in the near future, especially dangerous or monotonous activities will increasingly be given to robots and intelligent systems. But he refuses to believe that. “There will always be people who want to work in a factory or go fishing in small boats.” Nevertheless, Yamabe fears that less and less importance will be attached to this primordial human need for work in future.

As everywhere, Japan always aims to increase productivity and effectiveness. Researchers at the Nomura Research Institute, for example, estimate that around half of all occupations will die out within the next twenty years. “But people don’t just work to preserve an economic system,” notes Keisuke Yamabe, and says that there are many elderly people in Japan who continue to go to the factory after retirement – not because they need to work, but because they want to.

The end of the “dreamlike decade”

Yamabe was born in 1997 and is part of a generation that grew up in times of a constantly weakening economy. The country’s gross domestic product has been dropping since the beginning of the 1990s. In the 1980s, the “dreamlike decade,” Tokyo’s real estate was even more valuable than that in the entire United States. At that time, salaries, including those of the lowest-ranking employees, rose automatically.
Today, this has become inconceivable for young people. They can no longer expect salary raises, besides, they no longer stay attached to a job if it doesn’t suit them. The number of people who terminate employment within three years of their arrival is increasing dramatically. About 60 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds have already changed positions at least once, while a low income is usually not the reason. One-third of them state instead that they didn’t like the working atmosphere.

“The days when money was the incentive for a job are over,” says Yamabe. Instead, constructive collaboration with co-workers and a good relationship with superiors are gaining in importance. For the individual, it is increasingly about a win-win relationship and the “ideal of sharing.” This “sharing” has been an integral component of Japanese culture for some time, ranging from house sharing and car sharing to renting clothing and handbags. 

The devoted generation

“In their actions and consumption, the young people of today are always aware of others as well,” explains Kohei Fujimoto, marketing strategist for the advertising agency Asatsu-DK (ADK). “They want to share everything that is fun, too.” They want to make their families and friends happy, which is why Fujimoto calls this young generation, born after 1992, “the devoted generation.” Why? They grew up after the speculative bubble burst, witnessed the great Tohoku earthquake and the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe. These events and the suffering of so many people they caused shaped the young so much that it created a collective need to work for the common good.

“These people are not yet thirty and are digital natives,” he says. “On the Internet, they have always come into contact with different cultures and developed an early understanding of their own values.” Through the constant interaction, they recognise how they can harness their own strengths for the good of others. In short, they do not want to be lone fighters but want to build good and friendly relationships with other people. “People from this generation feel happy especially when they feel they can benefit or help others.” 

Reading the atmosphere

This doesn’t mean that the young Japanese are thoroughly altruistic. For many people, the under-thirties are among those who “read the atmosphere” (kuuki o yomu). This means that the young have a fine sense of invisible interpersonal power relations and thus all too easily join the majority opinion for the sake of harmony. Their credo: In my own little room, I see the world according to my own standards. In the company of others, though, I prefer to adopt a point of view that does not offend anyone.

Cosplay of characters

Anyone who spends time in dozens or even hundreds of online communities every day tends to cultivate this constant back and forth. For them, regularly assuming a different character is entirely natural. The playwright Shu Matsui, born in 1972, calls this adaptability, based on pop culture terminology, the cosplay of characters. In addition, in 2007 “KY,” short for “kuuki o yomenai” – Japanese for unable to read the atmosphere – was nominated the buzzword of the year. When young people say, “This is KY,” they are scolding someone who cannot read the atmosphere. Those who can’t are considered unable to communicate and therefore are excluded. A weak-seeming child, for example, is all too easily stamped as an outsider by classmates and bullied. The bitter result: in 2016, 320 young people took their own lives; two-thirds of them were boys.

Enter university at 18, first company job at 22, marry and have children in their thirties: fewer and fewer young Japanese aspire for these. It is not very reassuring and also not very safe to lead the same life as the others. Ever more frequently, this idea is the basis of the life plans of the generation that experienced the Fukushima disaster during their school years. Neither money nor power is useful in the face of such a tragic event. If you don’t know what the future holds, you live with all your might in the here and now. Japan’s young generation is not complaining about this condition.

Abridged version, translated from the Japanese by Yasuo Nozaki