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Project prods jobless young to test strengths

Entrepreneur urges NEETs to use noncomformity to their advantage

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Only two years after establishing a company in 2005, young entrepreneur Yujun Wakashin found himself in an unexpected predicament: his co-founder and employees ganged up on him, ousting him from his own firm.

Was there disagreement over management policies? No. It was because Wakashin, a self-declared nonconformist, refused to change his long, dyed-brown hair that his colleagues found unprofessional.

“I just couldn’t take the pain of changing my fashion and distorting myself into somebody I wasn’t,” Wakashin said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

A long-time idolizer of “visual kei” androgynous musicians, Wakashin freely admits to his egocentric disposition and obsession to keep himself young and beautiful. Naturally, his innate revulsion at the establishment has left him at loggerheads with many rule-abiding Japanese. But it has also served as a key driving force behind a raft of unusual projects he has masterminded as a freelance event organizer in recent years.

Last week, at a gathering in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, Wakashin spoke in front of around 150 jobless young people who were all curious to hear what he had to say about his latest project, dubbed NEETs Corporation.

The number of certified NEETs — people not in education, employment or training — stood at some 630,000 last year, accounting for a record-high 2.3 percent of those aged 15 to 34, according to a government white paper released Tuesday.

By age group, the white paper also said such unemployed in 2012 numbered 90,000 among those aged 15 to 19, 170,000 between 20 and 24, and 180,000 from 30 to 34.

The basic idea of the project is to set up a company run by NEETs aspiring to be entrepreneurs, all of them to be appointed directors on the board of NEETs Corporations.

“I think Japan is significantly behind global standards when it comes to allowing young people a moratorium period when they can think about their future,” Wakashin said. He noted that in Sweden, for example, the age of new college graduates averages 27 to 29, a testimony to that society’s great tolerance for young people who want to experiment with their own interests during their undergraduate years.

His dislike of Japan’s job hunting system, often characterized by applicants’ stiff formality with interviewers and their standardized attire, led him to organize a series of job fairs late last year. Targeting university students disenchanted with the status quo, the events attracted a total turnout of 60 “rebels,” mostly seniors, of whom 13 had found work as of March.

Such dissatisfaction with the establishment is at the crux of the NEETs Corporation concept.

Despite its grand vision, however, the project still lacks details: no specifics as to what kind of business it will do, to say nothing of management style, the amount of capital and office location.

But this lack of details is exactly what Wakashin believes best dovetails with the way NEET youngsters think.

“The whole point is to set no direction and avoid pushing them to obey pre-determined rules,” Wakashin said. “The thing about NEETs that I think has the most potential is their willingness to experiment. Society is most prone to change when there is much trial and error.”

Former president of the now-defunct consulting company Y-Cube, Yoshio Yasuda, another chief organizer of the project, echoed Wakashin’s view.

Yasuda declared personal bankruptcy in 2010 after his company’s plummeting business left him with a whopping ¥4 billion in debts.

Now as head of a nonprofit organization that promotes communication among many small and midsize enterprises, Yasuda pointed out the similarity between NEETs and smaller firms, both of which he thinks are mistakenly perceived by the government as “powerless.”

“The government’s way of thinking goes like this: ‘If big companies start doing well, that will help the economy pick up, which, in turn, will help smaller firms, too,’ ” Yasuda said.

He holds accountable this “big companies first” mindset for the patronizing way the government has traditionally viewed smaller businesses and trivialized their needs.

Likewise, he criticized state-sponsored vocational training centers for jobless young people, explaining they’re only meant to teach NEETs what the government thinks they need but are oblivious to giving serious consideration to what young job hunters actually want to do.

“Basically, these facilities target people with no skills at all and teach them something that will make them slightly better skilled. But the government should let them pursue their interests first, even though it doesn’t really sound commercially promising,” Yasuda argued.

Perhaps contrary to their popular image as overly passive couch potatoes, many NEETs who showed up for the event in Shibuya displayed great initiative in coming forward and promoting their business plans.

One of them, Yui Akasaka, a 25-year-old college dropout, said she wants to create an online platform where people with notable skills, such as manga illustrators and manga or anime figure artists, can freely auction their pieces, or in effect do anything to promote their obscure talent, in hopes of getting noticed.

Another participant, Toshikuni Yamaguchi, 30, stressed there are various of types of NEETs and they shouldn’t be all lumped together.

“I think the people who showed up today were those very willing to work, but clueless as to how to come to terms with Japan’s existing working style,” he said. “I don’t understand why people are so obsessed with working their asses off.

“In Japan, the moment you refuse to behave like them, you’re branded as trash. But come on, where else in the world does a word like ‘karoshi’ (death from overwork) exist?”