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. http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/2012/11/16/can-culture-create-mental-disease-the-rise-of-hikikomori-in-the-wake-of-economic-downturn-in-japan/
JICA. (n.d.). JICA at a Glance: JICA Activities in Numbers. JICA. 06 Feb 2013. https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:5w25OcEhqm0J:www.jica.go.jp/english/publications/reports/annual/2012/c8h0vm00002qe6vj-att/glance.pdf+&hl=en&gl=uk&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESivWz21295lsuCUskCxlGNmJAmQXtoxrBrdkUyjUaxkzC-qYAN9jFJRzmDHdizCR4ximE5bIOQxpmIKUo_t-56zxefzBak9QZMF_xMC-oZXkSRws0Gaqg3J4XqxegA0uWsibMX1&sig=AHIEtbTS2_XsiFIx26hUohItHdxn4SUYcw
Jones, Maggie. (15 Jan 2006). Shutting Themselves In. The New York Times. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html?pagewanted=all
Keio University, Office for Global Initiatives. (08 Nov 2012). Lecture and Panel Discussion on Globalization in Japanese Universities. Keio University. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.ogi.keio.ac.jp/english/news/nfnjs800000003yj.html
Peace Corps. (30 Sep 2012). Fast Facts. 06 Feb 2013. Peace Corps. http://www.peacecorps.gov/about/fastfacts/