A new book called Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions, by Brad Glosserman, suggests that young Japanese people are happier than their parents but lack ambition and the desire to travel. Here, Globetrender publishes an excerpt called “Seductive Comfort”…
To get a better sense of Japan’s future, it is worth dwelling on the views of Japanese youths, and the results appear to reinforce existing predilections. For a start, there is no mistaking a general sense of happiness among Japanese youths. Sociologist Furuichi Noritoshi, author of The Happy Youth of a Desperate Country, notes that young Japanese today report “an unprecedented level of well-being and life satisfaction.”
Referencing the government’s “Opinion Survey on the Life of the People” (another Cabinet Office survey), he highlighted that 79.1 percent of respondents in their twenties said that they were satisfied with the lives they were living. The finding demonstrated “the highest level of satisfaction for that age group since the survey began in 1967, far exceeding levels recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the era of rapid economic growth.”
The tendency is even greater among teenagers, with more than 90 per cent saying in a 2012 NHK survey that they considered themselves happy. As one Kyoto University student explained, “We don’t feel a sense of urgency or feel pain… We aren’t desperate to do something new… We are happy and comfortable… We can sleep on trains. No one will steal our money. We go outside at midnight. We can walk home at three a.m.”
Young Japanese are quick to contrast their lives with those of their parents. A Keio University graduate student highlighted what he called the “happiness paradox”: His parents “worked very hard, got big economic growth, but they weren’t very happy.”
Miura Lully, a researcher at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute affiliated with the University of Tokyo, applied a bittersweet gloss to the experience. “I’ve only known lost decades,” she explained. At the same time, however, she sighed, “Japan is still comfortable, rich and beautiful.”
Comfort leads to complacency. Nakanishi Hiroshi, a professor at Kyoto University, sees “students at good universities who are bright and serious, but they are too cocooned… Their lives are reasonably comfortable, and there is less incentive to go abroad. They think the outside world is risky, messy, and we can get all the important information we need at home.” Statistics confirm that assessment.
In 2014 the number of students studying in foreign universities had fallen to 53,197 from a peak of 82,945 in 2004 – a 36 percent drop. In addition, the number of high school students studying abroad fell 15 per cent from 2013 to 2015.
Mizuno Takaaki, a former Asahi Shimbun editorial writer whose work took him around the world, was forced to conclude that “young Japanese don’t have the ambition compared with other Asians. They are satisfied and comfortable.”
Young Japanese (ages 19 to 29) accept cultural tenets that dampen calls for reform. They are among the most fervent believers that the interests of the nation should take precedence over those of the individual and that more attention should be paid to the country rather than to individuals.
When asked about sources of pride in their country, younger Japanese identify “public safety” as the first item, but then they highlight historical and cultural heritage along with culture and the arts. At the same time, a majority prefers a society with small individual disparities even if that means sacrificing economic growth.
Some might see a worrying nationalism among younger Japanese. Fear not. An Asahi Shimbun poll showed that just 13 per cent of 20-year-olds and 12 per cent of 30-year-olds said that they would fight if Japan were attacked by a foreign country.
While 74 per cent considered themselves “patriotic,” their image of patriotism was tied to their “love of the land” – literally. This patriotism is a form of environmentalism that is tied to the physical territory of Japan itself.
Their interest in the world is waning. Perhaps this is because Japan’s political presence in the international community has likewise declined, and “among the Japanese people today (and what is particularly troubling is that this is shared by young people), there is a tendency to accept this decline as an inevitable fact.”
Just 24.3 per cent of Japanese youths believe that they and their cohort are equipped to fulfill their role as members of the global community, and only 14.5 per cent thought that their government had policies in place to help them get those tools.
Voter turnout plumbs new lows at each election. Surveys show a diminishing readiness by the Japanese to engage in political and social activities, and this tendency is especially pronounced among the young.
Analysts blame a belief that engagement will change nothing, that the economy is stable and therefore tolerable (even if stagnant), and that young people prefer familiarity to change.
Put it all together, and this group does not appear to believe that Japan should do more in the world, that Japan needs to change, or that it is prepared to work to change the country in meaningful ways.
Author Brad Glosserman is a long-term Japan observer and deputy director at Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies in Japan. Peak Japan is published by Georgetown University Press. Available to buy on Amazon.