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Do young Japanese people dream big?

by Amy Chavez

Do young Japanese people dream big? This was the question posed by Steven Kim recently on LinkedIn’s “InStyle Tokyo Premier Networking” group.

When I taught at a Japanese women’s college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one of the entrance exam questions was, “What is your dream?” Students answered anything from “To become a fluent English speaker” and “To own a flower shop” to “My dream is to become just like my mother.” Every now and then you’d get something different, such as “To become a truck driver” (a real example), but for the most part, none of the prospective young women entering our college were dreaming big, unless you consider that, proportionate to a young Japanese coed, a semi-truck would have to be pretty big.

I don’t teach anymore, so I have no idea if students these days have big dreams, but I do know what their parents and grandparents are thinking. The older people are so down on the economy and the state of things in Japan that if the young people are listening, these negative thoughts may have a profound impact on them.

Young people should never be led to think their efforts are in vain, their education will never get them a good job, or that they will never have a chance to become anything due to a bad economy, or even a hopeless nation. Because if they believe this, they will not strive.

When I graduated from high school in 1981, the United States was in a recession. We had just come through the oil and gas crisis, were at the beginning of the Latin American debt crisis, and in the middle of the real estate boom that ushered in the ensuing savings and loan crisis. Unemployment was at a historic high of 7.5 percent. For good reason adults had negative views of young people’s future. I remember a university professor telling us we’d never, ever be able to afford to buy our own home. It was clear that adults felt young people had everything stacked against them.

Did we believe this? Of course not! We were young! We refused to believe we would not be successful, that our dreams were in vain or that going to college wasn’t going to gain us a darn good job. Because those ideas go against the thinking of a free, democratic society that encourages creativity, new ideas and change.

When you are taught that you can be the one who makes a difference, that you are responsible for your own future and that, by the way, there will be no government there to take care of you, you become a survivor. Living in a dynamic country such as the U.S., where things are constantly changing, where there is immigration, where there is growth — there is opportunity.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the country was in such a dire recession at that time. And I’m sure many of my classmates didn’t realize it either. How could we not know? Because we were young — the present was all we knew, and the present was fine with us.

But most importantly, we had good parents: parents who told us to have dreams, who told us that we could do whatever we wanted if we put our minds to it. And we believed them — because we were young. (Enter Pat Benatar: “We were young . . .”).

To this day I am proud of my female classmates — the ones I went to grade school, college and grad school with. They’ve gone on to become newscasters, authors, actresses, doctors, corporate executives, entrepreneurs and the best mothers the country has ever seen. (Sing it Pat: “Heartache to heartache we stand . . . !”)

So perhaps the question is not whether young people dream big, but rather, are young people being empowered to dream big? Do they have good role models who encourage them, teachers who believe in them, and professionals who will mentor them? Are they being taught critical thinking skills? Problem solving skills? Do they know how to make their dreams come true? Do they have good parents?

I received an email from a friend in Hong Kong who is home-schooling his two girls who are 12 and 13 years old. “After two years of local school, where the girls did very well academically, we reverted to home schooling to save their creativity and restore their happiness. Too much pressure and learning of facts in an Asian school, not enough critical thinking, sport or just ordinary play.”

There is no lack of entrepreneurs in Japan. Every time I go into the city, I see new shops opened by energetic young people. But so many of these shops disappear within six months. Where are the business plans behind these new ventures? Did they do any research first to see if their product was in demand? I suspect that what is behind these entrepreneurial failures is dreams without vision. (Save us Pat: “No promises, no demands . . .”)

Young people can understand the past because they’ve studied history. They can understand the present because they live it. But can we expect them to understand the future if they’ve never experienced it? Shouldn’t they be given the same chance to dream no matter what the economy? After all, their future starts now.

To have a strong country, you must empower your women and your young people. Let them dream big, but let’s make sure they have the knowhow and the vision to achieve their dreams.

At the very least, they should be listening to Pat Benatar. Because business, like love, is a battlefield.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.