While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes the momentum of his economic policies raises the spirits of the Japanese people and buoys the stock market as well, decadeslong economic malaise has already crushed the hopes and dreams of many young people, who will be leading the nation in the years to come.
The long-held notion that the vast majority of Japanese are middle class grew harder to sustain in the early 1990s, after the economic bubble burst. Today, a sense of passivity is believed to prevail among the young, who are often referred to as “Satori no Sedai” (“Generation Resignation”) — those born just around the time the economy started its slide two decades ago.
Critics say youths in this generation are unambitious, averse to risk and reluctant to engage in romantic relationships. They are also said to have little appetite for luxury goods and generally are not willing to go the extra mile to achieve goals. A 2009 survey by Benesse Corp. found that less than half of 4,070 high school students polled online said they believe effort is not rewarded in Japan society.
Some high school students, though still a minority, are rebelling against such generational trends and trying to change the mindset of their peers. Many are versed in social media, which they use aggressively to reach out to peers in ways previous generations couldn’t imagine.
Sixteen-year-old high school student Rika Shiiki set up a company called AMF (Appreciation, Modesty, and Full-power), to introduce JK (“joshi kosei,” or female high school students) trends worldwide, in February 2013. Even though she had dreamed since the age of 12 of starting her own company, Shiiki says she didn’t have a plan in mind when, two years ago, she asked her father to take her to register her company.
“A sudden chill ran up my spine at the thought that I had not taken action and was just going to die without achieving anything. I wanted to leave a mark that I existed,” said Shiiki.
Through contacts supplied by her father, Ryuta Shiiki, who owns a prominent flash animation production company called DLE Inc., she managed to sign a contract a year ago with Los Angeles-based United Television Broadcasting to produce and star in videos. She has also produced an iPhone “alarm clock” app for female high school students. The app allows users to register music or the voices of “ikemen” (handsome boys) to wake themselves up.
“People around my age do not have dreams. I wanted to encourage those people by creating my own company,” Shiiki says, noting that she eventually wants to take her business public.
Critics say some young people don’t have high hopes because they don’t know how to realize their ambitions and dreams amid the long-standing economic slump.
“The standard success model has disappeared,” said Takahiro Suzuki, a visiting scholar at Josai International University. “Some youths are so frustrated that they feel they have to take some action.”
Yoichiro Mikami, 16, envisions providing a solution to such problems with his company, GNEX. Based on Mikami’s strong belief that it is important to create opportunities for everybody to test their talents and business ideas, GNEX, incorporated in 2013, runs a crowd funding website called Bridge Camp, specifically targeting junior high and high school students with business ideas.
The website has spawned four business projects so far, including study aide software for smartphones. People can donate money, space or time to work on the project. Bridge Camp makes money from ads on the site and receives financial support from corporations as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities.
The high school freshman originally started his business as a student group leader in 2011 when he was in junior high. Soon afterward, he received a ¥5 million award at a startup business competition for high school students. Mikami recalls he wavered over the decision to incorporate the business or pursue the life of a corporate employee like many of his peers, but in the end he decided on the former.
“Given the state of Japanese companies, I could not find any where I thought I could work for the rest of my life. And many Japanese companies wouldn’t give me enough hands-on job experience in a short time so that I could move to other companies,” says Mikami, who has long been interested in the workings of the business world and has been a stock investor since he was in elementary school. “I decided to hedge my risk by launching my own company so that I can at least control and take responsibility for my life.”
Japan has long had its fair share of young entrepreneurs. But the current generation, who grew up with smartphones and social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and Line, can reach out to people with similar mindsets in ways previous generations were never able to do.
“Social networking tools have lowered the bar to raise funds, meet people who share similar goals and organize events,” said Keio University senior Yohei Saeki, 22, who founded a tutoring service for college entrance exam takers four years ago.
Even in the political arena, some teenagers are capitalizing on those tools to voice their opinions, although Japanese youths are often criticized for being politically apathetic.
The high school student organization Teen’s Rights Movement is calling for lowering the voting age from the current 20 to 18. When their Facebook page was launched last year, it got 1,000 “likes” within a day.
The organization drew tech-savvy youngsters by hosting a mock election for the Feb. 9 Tokyo gubernatorial race. Anybody under 20 with a Facebook account could cast a ballot.
“Our generation does not have a sense of ownership in politics. Some do not feel that we are the ones who have to lead the country,” said Takatoki Morino, 17, who joined the Facebook group and will lead it from April.
“But I believe the young are the ones who can change society for the better,” said Morino, whose ultimate goal is to become the mayor of his native city, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, to improve its education system.
While digital tools help them find allies, the young people interviewed for this story said they still face unique challenges. With the rise of social networking tools, they feel pressured to keep presenting their everyday life on those platforms. When they post comments on their political and business activities, they are sometimes perceived as “itai,” or not cool — as many of their peers do not favor competing with others and sticking out in showy ways. When the proactive types stick out too much, they run the risk of being ostracized by others both online and in the real world, they said.
Ayaka Machida, a founding member of Teen’s Rights Movement, said she gets bashed on Twitter and Facebook for her political activities. But the 18-year-old says she faced much more outrageous discrimination for her sex when she tried to run for president of a student council in high school. One of her male teachers said she was “arrogant” to even consider running for the post, Machida recalled.
“I thought sexual discrimination would be much worse in the business and political worlds, and I wanted to do something about it,” said Machida.
That’s why she organized a conference of 100 female high school students at a Diet members’ office building in December to compile policy recommendations on how to empower women. First lady Akie Abe attended the conference, which was broadcast via UStream.
Her goal now is to become the mayor of her hometown of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, because she feels that the head of one municipality can exercise much more political clout than a Diet lawmaker, who needs to serve years before ever reaching a decision-making position.
“I will introduce a quota system for female assembly members and set a precedent that inspires a national movement,” Machida said.
It remains to be seen how these seeds of revolution being sown by Japan’s under-20s will lead to full-fledged movements affecting wider segments of society. Observers say young people today are increasingly polarized between those who are proactive and others who are passive, just as the chasm between rich and poor has widened across Japan over the past few decades.
“When Japan was experiencing its rapid economic growth from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, the goal was to get richer than our parents, but now it is even harder for them to have a stable life,” said Toshihito Kayano, a professor of philosophy at Tsuda College.