Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Not Lost, Just Using a Different Map

I went to a launch last night, complete with a panel discussion, for a book about vocational education policies worldwide. When I walked in (admittedly half-way through), the discussion was dominated by talk of Japan's lost generation, the lack of Japanese presence in other parts of Asia, and how one Japanese policy maker -- a friend of one of the panelists -- thinks that Japanese youths are apathetic and don't have the drive to globalize the country.

I’ve heard this whole “lost generation” in Japan thing a number of times, usually from Japanese politicians and experts. There are up to 1 million hikikomori or young shut-ins across the country, unemployment among recent college graduates is high, and yet something like 70% of recent college graduates have no desire to live and work outside of the country (according to a study quoted by the Vice President of Keio University at a panel discussion at the Japan Foundation in London). But some of the most creative and motivated young people I know are Japanese; the main difference is that they live outside of Japan.

For example, one of Burberry’s menswear designers is a 33 yr-old Japanese man who left his home at 16 and moved to London. Erickson Beamon has a successful jewellery designer who was born and raised in Yokohama, then left for London at 27; some of her products have been chosen by Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife for events such as the royal wedding in 2011. Another Japanese woman, a daughter of a family friend, left Tokyo at a young age to be a professional ballet dancer in the Israel Ballet Company. I have a handful of friends who were educated in the Japanese public school system, became fluent in English on their own, and went to the US or UK for university. Most are now studying a third language (German, Italian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and Burmese) and working in insurance, fashion, and international development around the world. Almost all are women (a discussion point for another time, perhaps). Although all of their stories are different, the common thread is that they left Japan in search of opportunities.

Of course, this is an extremely small sample; I mean, these are just my friends! But hearing politicians and friends of politicians talk about how young Japanese people aren't motivated just drives me nuts. Blaming the generation does nothing; I think the fact that there’s a “lost generation” in Japan says more about institutional and de facto social policies than about young people in general. Why didn't my friends stay in Japan where their families and friends are? What does this say about the Japanese institutions that couldn't keep these amazing people in their home country?

The panelist commented that his policy-maker friend complains that not enough young Japanese are involved in international development. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency), similar to the US Peace Corps, where volunteers aged 20-39 live in communities in developing countries for 2 years working on a range of programs. I met two volunteers in Machala, Ecuador; one was training car mechanics, and the other was working in the prenatal care unit in a hospital. They were both in their early 30s, and said that although JICA says you only have to be 20 years old to join, because you need to have a trade skill and learn to speak the local language, most volunteers are a bit older. I would imagine it’s very hard to convince people who are just getting their careers off to the ground, perhaps starting families, to leave everything and volunteer abroad for 2 years of their lives. At that point, it’s not a resume builder like the Peace Corps is in the States, but a resume disrupter. And the way Japanese society venerates career-consistency and corporate samurais, it’s no wonder everyone isn't jumping at the opportunity. (Quick comparison: The Peace Corps currently has 8000+ volunteers, JICA has on average 900 volunteers per year; the Japanese population is roughly ½ of that of the United States. )

I seem to have gotten a bit off topic, but my point is that there are creative and motivated young Japanese people who are products of the Japanese education system and culture as a whole; many of them just don’t seem to stay in a country where either their talents aren't recognized or they personally don’t fit in. Politicians who complain about the “lost generation” but don’t do anything to engage more people from within the Japanese population – creatives who don’t subscribe to corporate samurai-ism, mixed-race Japanese, or internationally educated/raised Japanese people – are just useless. And, I bet they’re wrong; I bet there are tons of driven young people in Japan, who are trying their hardest to believe in a country whose government doesn't even see them.

Grisafe, M. (16 Nov 2012). Can Culture Create Mental Disease? The Rise of Hikikomori in the Wake of Economic Downturn in Japan. Mind the Science Gap. 06 Feb 2013.

Jones, Maggie. (15 Jan 2006). Shutting Themselves In. The New York Times. 06 Feb 2013.

Keio University, Office for Global Initiatives. (08 Nov 2012). Lecture and Panel Discussion on Globalization in Japanese Universities. Keio University. 06 Feb 2013.

Peace Corps. (30 Sep 2012). Fast Facts. 06 Feb 2013. Peace Corps.


  1. Alrighty, I think my 2 cents are in line with your 2 cents I'll throw in a bit of my experience here too then. I can only speak via my experiences from being a high school student and now a teacher in Japan. I think your spot on with your observations indeed.
    I guess another thought I can tack onto this post is the idea that many education systems around the world are not catering or rather integrating the lived realities of the students they're meant to serve. By this I mean that students lead at least 2 lives. One is the school life, which in many instances is full of boring and to be honest relatively useless information, or at least information that is being taught in the most boring and dry way possible so the student forgets it all or rather has negative emotions tied to this type of learning (like many English classes, but not exclusively). Then the student has a lived reality, which is full of the lessons about life they learn. It's full of their likes and dislikes, their needs and wants, building their social intelligence and essentially them becoming them. And in many cases, there is such an extreme disconnect between these two lives that many folks come to associate school with boredom and unwanted routine, and their lived lives with well, everything else.
    This is an oversimplification indeed, but I guess I can comment on the Japanese politicians stuff now.I hear the same rhetoric at my schools, and from older generation folks. It's been my experience in Japan that much of the education system is focused on making good Japanese citizens even if the cost means losing creativity and individuality. Perhaps it's not that extreme, but let me explain.
    (Cont'd below)

  2. (Cont'd from above)
    Even at my most "open minded" schools, there is still an intense pressure to "be Japanese." Anything that isn't Japanese raises automatic suspicion and is ripe material for social shame. And in Japan, I think the use of social shame is an art that has been mastered. It's not so much like if you step out of line you'll be bashed and called names. It's more that if you stand out, everyone will stare, everyone will ask questions, and everyone will laugh at you. In my opinion, this conformity value is so extreme in Japan that it even has teachers laughing at their students when they step out of line. There tends to not be a "you're different and that's okay" mentality. It's more of a "you're different and that's weird," which in turn is the silentness of Japanese culture at play where the silence means you must conform fast, even if nobody ever says you have to. Nobody likes being laughed at for being different, and Japan in my experience sees no problem with submitting younger students into shame in order to make them Japanese. They don't even think twice about it.
    So how this plays into those "lost generation" comments made is that well, it's a creation of your own policies. When you have a system that values conformity and an extreme structure and silently (not always) bashes and dissolves the different, is it any surprise that students fear leaving their "home" because they've been trained to like nothing else. In many parts of Japan, you can only be Japanese or something else, there is no mixed or half or anything like that. You are 100% or you are "not Japanese." And it becomes ideologically and physically exhausting to maintain this identity because it is always in question. And so when your social policies reflect this and then you get mad at your students for being undriven, you have a serious problem indeed. There's not a single young person on this planet who is "lost" and unwilling to create a better life for themselves. But socialization is a greedy greedy jealous lover, and when young folks are taught to keep coming back to it despite all the horrible experiences, the need for intense socialization and conformity becomes neurotic, insane, and borderline unethical in my opinion. But this is not an issue of Japanese culture only, I think this is an issue of a world with a bit of an identity "reframing" I'll call it. Where mixed everything is more and more the norm, technology has altered lives forever, and information is much more accessible and flows a bit more freely. Nationalism as defined by "only one" (like in Japan) is being checked, questioned, and kicked to the curb more often. So, I don't think the young generation is "lost," misguided perhaps, and unwilling to conform to your ideas of "found" even more so. But to blame folks (who had no choice as to whether they can or can't participate mind you) for the failings of social institutions and have others agree with this blame game is very puzzling to me...