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Accusations about Japan’s youths lacking ‘animal spirits’ off mark

by Noriko Hama

The old are invariably critical of the young. Japan is no exception. The older generation finds much to bemoan in the attitudes and behaviors of their successors.

One of the many complaints lodged against the younger generation in Japan is that they lack the “hungry spirit.” The have no courage. They lack perseverance. They are not competitive. They are spineless.

Such criticisms in Japan are by no means new. They have been around for a very long time. That said, however, the accusations that animal spirits seem to be lacking in Japanese younglings appears to be getting a new lease of life these days. No doubt this has something to do with our losing out to the Chinese in the economic size rankings.

Behind these allegations of declining competitive appetite lies the thought that Japanese youths have become too rich for their own good. They lack that hungry spirit because they lack for nothing. They are not competitive because they do not have to compete. The so-called “soshoku-kei danshi” (herbivorous males) of Japan have become that way because there is nothing for them to be carnivorous about.

All of this may well be true, but where does it lead us? Do we, as a nation, need to return to the early days of postwar redevelopment so that gutsiness can be ours once more? Should we all become poor again?

Clearly none of this makes sense. Moreover, it is not as though there is no poverty in Japan today. Quite to the contrary, income disparities have grown considerably over the past decade.

Amid the great affluence that Japan enjoys as a nation, there are pockets of poverty in which an increasing proportion of Japanese youths find themselves trapped. Indeed, poverty within affluence is a strange and rather frightening feature of modern-day Japan.

So is poverty amid affluence turning its victims into more hungry and spirited people? They are certainly hungry all right, but in flesh, not in spirit. And an empty stomach doesn’t go a long way in infusing people with competitive spirit. Hungry people do not have the energy, nor the stomach, for confrontations.

The emerging economies, on the other hand, may collectively be enjoying high spirits because they are about to take off into the economic stratosphere. Their condition may be defined as affluence within poverty. But if you are caught in black holes of poverty within a collectively affluent society, your spirits can only get lower.

Instead of fretting over the decline of hungriness in our youthful population, what we should really worry about is the growing emergence of poverty within this very rich nation of ours. Instead of tying ourselves into knots in an attempt to come up with plans to energize youth, we should be thinking of ways to fill the stomachs of the people who are really going hungry.

It is always a little worrying when people start talking about the spinelessness of the young. This kind of talk invariably tends to lead to things like campaigns for bringing back conscription. Or more discipline in schools. Or the imposition of an altogether more Spartan way of life on people. Or the condemnation of too much freedom as decadence.

Being an herbivorous male in this day and age may not be a bad idea. Hungry carnivores are destructive creatures.

In the mean time, there is some discussion about whether Japanese females are growing more carnivorous, but that is a topic for another day.

For the moment, suffice it to say that the Bible has the last word on this issue: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

Hungry spirits will not gain you the world.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.