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Youth is wasted on the dwindling young

What’s it like to be young in this most elderly, least youthful country on Earth?

Wooing voters in Nagano Prefecture in the closing days of this month’s election campaign, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said a mouthful, perhaps more than he intended, when he rousingly declared, “We are moving forward to a Japanese society in which people can have hopes and dreams.”

Not “to a society in which hopes and dreams come true.” To a society in which hopes and dreams are possible. The implication is plain: They are not possible now.

The young know that better than anyone. At an age when possibilities are supposed to seem boundless, when brute reality is at most a troublesome, ultimately vanquishable nuisance, fully two-thirds of Japanese university students feel pessimistic about the future, according to an Internet survey conducted in March by FIL Investments (Japan) Ltd.

How can they feel otherwise? They follow the news; they see an economy that can’t absorb them, an environment that threatens to choke them, and a demographic, unprecedented not only in Japan but in all world history, that makes youth itself seem passe.

A generation or so ago an acrimonious debate arose between those who insisted the Japanese were “unique,” down to the very configuration of the Japanese brain and digestive organs, and those who saw red at so blatant a denial of human universality. In the marketplace of ideas, the latter view has triumphed for now; the former, still around no doubt, bears a slightly disreputable taint. Now, suddenly, Japan finds itself invested with indisputable uniqueness. Not the brain but age puts today’s Japan in a class by itself. No one’s bragging about it, and few are envious.

True enough, other developed nations face similar demographic challenges — fewer people having fewer and fewer children, more people living longer and longer lives — but Japan at both ends of the age spectrum is so far ahead of the others that, ready or not, it will have to show the world the way toward a far older, and therefore altogether new, kind of society.

It may work out fine in the end, but “the end” is a long way off, and in the meantime the adjustment will be painful, the brunt of it to be borne by the young.

A brief statistical interlude: In 1950, Japan’s 15-and-under population was roughly 30 million, versus a population of 5 million aged 65 and over. The younger segment drifted downward, the older segment upward. They met in the mid-’90s. The drift continued, and continues still. Now the two segments number 17 million and 28 million respectively. By 2050, at current rates, 10 million children under 16 will be fairly swamped by 35 million senior citizens.

What a society with this configuration will look and feel like can hardly be imagined. There is no historical precedent to point to. Maybe what it lacks in vigor it will make up for in some other quality — wisdom, perhaps. One guess seems a safe bet: No budding poet growing up now will be penning a Japanese 21st-century equivalent to Wordsworth’s famous lines of nostalgia for his youth in the time of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”

There are “dawns” when youth itself seems the solution to all the world’s problems. It seemed so in the ’60s, when sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and revolution promised to refound civilization on a new basis of love, peace, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t quite work out that way, but it was an invigorating illusion while it lasted. In the ’90s Japan had its kogyaru phase, when bleach-haired, artificially tanned high school girls in short skirts and loose socks, mounted on precariously high platform soles, ruled the cultural and sexual domains. Where are they now?

Generation gaps come and go. In the ’60s, the gap was cultural, symbolized by that which to children was music, to parents noise. In the ’90s, technology was the divider, with parents helpless to keep tabs on their tech-savvy children in the boundless expanse of cyberspace. Today, as the weekly Shukan Post explained recently, it’s economic, pitting children not so much against their parents as against their grandparents, or those old enough to be.

The issues are demographic and economic — the swelling ranks of aging pensioners and consumers of medical care absorbing more and more of a shrinking economy while the young, frozen more than ever out of stable, career-track employment, seethe on the sidelines.

Some of their rage exploded on 2channel, the online chat forum, when Prime Minister Naoto Kan last month floated the notion of doubling consumption tax to 10 percent. “Hopeless — this country’s run entirely for old people,” groused one. “Nothing for the young to do but commit suicide,” fumed another.

A little historical perspective is in order, Shukan Post hears from one elderly analyst. “The old have always exploited the young,” he says. “During the war they sent us out to die for our country. Compared with that, young people today have it pretty good. Not satisfied? Go out and start a revolution or something!”