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When in doubt, just say ‘wakarimasen’

by Janet Ashby

Violent antisocial crimes by teenagers have sent shockwaves through Japan in recent years, hinting ominously at cracks in the very foundations of modern Japanese society. On a more mundane level, older Japanese often find themselves puzzled and annoyed by the everyday behavior of young people, who often seem like aliens suddenly dropped in their midst.

A recent article in Aera (April 1) reports on the new “Wakarimasen-zoku” (“I don’t know tribe”) among today’s younger generation. Even those just a few years older are irritated by university students or young coworkers who seem to have no opinion of their own and only answer “wakarimasen” when asked what they would like to major in or if they would like to go out drinking after work. In one prominent example, after Hayato Terahara was drafted by the Daiei baseball team last fall he was asked at a press conference if he hadn’t really wanted to go to the Giants and, rather than “No comment” or the like, replied “wakarimasen.”

Those regularly encountering such a response have reached varying conclusions about its meaning. One teacher feels students are passive and apathetic and find the choices available to them to be a burden rather than liberating. Another teacher sees it as an evasion of responsibility or a way to avoid an unpleasant situation, as when they answer a teacher’s question in class with “wakarimasen” even when they know the answer.

Many young people seem to use this as a form of passive aggression against those they find annoying or intrusive, such as parents. In addition to being a means of cutting off communication, it can also be used as a signal to a close friend or intimate to make a decision for one.

Naoko Odaka of the Dentsu Research Institute points out that earlier generations of Japanese have been very conscious of the eyes of others, while the postbubble generation sets its own personal space and is unconcerned with those outside that space. They open the channel of communication with those they want to talk to or with those they judge to share their own way of thinking but coolly close off communication with those who don’t get it.

In “Wakamono wa naze ‘tsunagari’ tagaru no ka” (“Why Do the Young Yearn to Be Connected?”; PHP Kenkyujo) social commentator Toru Takeda further examines the psychology of the cell-phone generation (keitai sedai). In this collection of essays and book reviews previously published in magazines, he looks at various aspects of youth culture, such as the deeper meaning of the Pokemon phenomenon, the rise of a new style of politics, popular music and manga. However his “keitai anthropology” is particularly interesting.

Takeda notes that home telephones came relatively late to Japan; it wasn’t until the early 1970s that home telephones surpassed office telephones in number. At first “telephone space” was halfway between the public and private realms, and home telephones were placed in the border territory of the entryway (genkan). With the emergence of cordless phones and extension phones, however, telephone space became increasingly personalized, culminating in the cell phone.

But why do young people feel the need to talk on cell phones in the public space of trains and buses? And why does that arouse such anger in others? Takeda speculates that people feel psychologically violated at being subjected to the private telephone space of others — or the personal grooming space of young women applying makeup — as if they weren’t there, or worse, as if they were simply part of the background scenery, like a piece of furniture or a tree, rather than a fellow human being.

Takeda points out that the need of the young to be continuously connected to others via their cell phones coincides with a lessening of the emotional connection to others through shared cultural items such as everyone watching the same TV show or listening to the same music. However, that cell-phone connection with others is a selective one — most set their phones to receive messages and only return the calls of those they already know and want to talk with.

In this way they narrow down the range of unexpected and serendipitous messages from the outside world potentially available through this new communication tool. In Takeda’s words, they form a community (kyodotai), but not a public society (kokyoteki na shakai). By shutting out any diverse opinion and contact with those outside their closed group, they are hindered in developing a healthy sense of self and interpersonal social skills through interaction with outsiders.

However, as Takeda points out, it is too simple to blame everything on cell phones. Didn’t the tendency to form a closed group and ignore the feelings of others already exist in Japanese society, ready to be accelerated by cell-phone use? Some observers trace the problem back to young parents raised on television who are deficient in face-to-face communication skills and have passed that shallow communication style on to their children.

At any rate, one needs to consider such behavior of the young within the context of the larger society — and it is adults, as Takeda points out, who have pushed consumption on younger and younger children and looked to cell phones as a potential savior from the recession.

In another intriguing essay, Takeda analyzes the healthy sales of two stores near where he lives, Uniqlo and Yuzawaya. For many years, reproductions have lacked the special aura of the original. With digitalization, however, the distinction between the copy and the original is lost and with the maturation of consumer society more and more people are getting tired of the chase after brand goods. Uniqlo — or Mujirushi — is the perfect store for such an age, providing goods that don’t try to copy haute couture but to be the best possible mass-produced goods. And the buttons and ribbons and the like on sale at Yuzawaya allow each consumer to personalize such Uniqlo purchases.