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Exploring the pathologies of Japan’s youth

by Jeff Kingston

A Sociology of Japanese Youth: From Returnees to NEETs, edited by Roger Goodman, Yuki Imoto and Tuukka Toivonen. Routledge: Abingdon, U.K., 2012, 191 pp., $51.95 (paperback)

New buzzwords about some youth pathology or trend are frequently catapulted into popular discourse by an industry of hacks and experts in Japan who serve up snappy, headline grabbing terms that flare up and give way to the next hot topic. It is puzzling why certain issues suddenly gain prominence and then slip off the radar screen, and how public perceptions can change about a given phenomenon.

This superb collection of essays presents a social constructionist analysis of why youth problems erupt when they do and how they evolve. This is an exceptionally well-written book that is destined to become a classic in Japanese studies and is a truly collaborative effort that benefits from a high degree of dialogue between the authors. The chapters address a gamut of issues ranging from returnee children (kikokushijo), compensated dating (enjo kosai), corporal punishment (taibatsu), bullying (ijime), nerds (otaku), child abuse (jido gyakutai), withdrawn youth (hikikomori) and NEETs (not in education, employment or training).

Disapproving attitudes toward youth are common around the world because in the eye of their elders, kids never seem to measure up. The authors argue that anxieties about youth problems are especially acute in Japan because of entrenched hierarchies in a seniority-based, aging society that marginalizes the needs and demands of young people.

The initial chapter clearly focuses the sociological lens of constructionism through the examples of ijime and otaku. Yuki Imoto and Tuukka Toivonen argue that claims-making actors “construct” social problems, invoking them to promote specific agendas. For example, ijime is a resilient and cyclical problem linked to educational reform, evolving attitudes toward children’s rights and an industry of experts eager to pontificate and benefit from the attention. This doesn’t mean ijime doesn’t exist, but rather it is a handy problem to spark moral panic and open opportunities to achieve long-standing policy agendas. For example, the authors argue that outrage in 2006 due to an ijime-related suicide created an opening for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push through patriotic education legislation. Instilling nationalism is hardly the cure for ijime or other social ills, but advocates of anthem singing and flag reverence needed an excuse to legitimize their jingoistic antics.

The evolution of otaku from violent pervert to trendy subculture phenomenon is instructive. What started as a pejorative term morphed into something “at the heart of Japanese cultural capital and identity.” Here we learn that the male sociologists who recast the meaning of otaku belonged to the generation of scholars born around 1960 that had grown up consuming the TV anime and manga associated with otaku. They had a personal and professional interest in de-stigmatizing otaku and somehow managed to transform what had been deemed pathetic and depraved into an icon of Cool Japan egged on by fawning foreign attention.

It is important to note that the pathologies of youth are often discussed without young people participating in the conversation. This allows the pundits to represent youth as they wish, often sweepingly, and as a result, “nearly all youth problems in Japan are … concerned with incomplete or delayed transitions into what are viewed as culturally appropriate roles.”

Roger Goodman authors three of the chapters and his one on kikokushijo does a brilliant job of explaining how public perceptions shifted over time, from object of pity to class envy. Even though absolute numbers of these returnees were small, an industry quickly emerged in the 1980s to help them overcome their presumed disadvantages. Extensive and costly reintegration programs were created, universities allotted special entrance quotas and researchers flocked to this “hot” topic, developments that fed the media beast. Goodman critiques persuasively the culturalist explanation of returnee problems, arguing they were overstated. These “incomplete” Japanese were deemed in need of re-culturalization to help them function in society with emphasis on inculcating values that were considered intrinsic to national identity. Eventually emphasis focused on returnees as a desirable internationalized elite, but their high status also raised questions of why the government was spending so much to help the privileged.

Sharon Kinsella probes the enjo kosai phenomenon and how the media pounced on the alleged sexually deviant behavior of schoolgirls. Data was inflated/invented to suit the voracious market for titillating tales from the dark side, sparking voyeurism and gender panic. She points out that if the often-quoted percentages of junior (3.4 percent) and high school (4.4 percent) girls selling sex were true, an improbable 175,000 were involved, a figure that exceeds the number of registered prostitutes in pre-World War II Japan. Kinsella dissects this “collective sexual fantasy” and anxieties about “a guerilla army of sexy rebels” toppling patriarchal totems.

Sachiko Horiguchi explains how hikikomori were “discovered” while reminding us that it is crucial to “distinguish between the individual-level behavior of being isolated from the socially constructed meaning — and potential problematization — of that isolation.” Key actors embraced an inflated number of one million hikikomori to generate a media buzz that resonated with a public eager to consume the latest youth abnormality. Another industry was born of policymakers, pundits, service providers and researchers. Then suddenly hikikomori became overshadowed by NEETs, a new category for the inactive and socially inept. Instead of a mental health or family relationship problem, NEETs reframed the issue of social withdrawal as an employment problem. Horiguchi convincingly argues that, “social withdrawal has become institutionalized to the extent that certain powerful actors and agencies now have a continuing interest in keeping the problem on the agenda.”

Roger Goodman concludes there are good reasons why concerns about youth problems have increased, and acknowledges that they are not merely invented, but emphasizes that there are vested interests involved in identifying and treating disorders, generating moral panic and instigating febrile media reportage.

(Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.)