One quick look at Yujun Wakashin, and most of Japan’s prim and proper job seekers would probably say he is the last man they want as a role model.
After all, Wakashin, whose dyed shoulder-length hair completes his androgynous har-rock musician look, doesn’t exude the air of professional formality they seek to master.
But a crowd of fresh graduates packing a room in a multipurpose studio in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward one August evening saw him in a different light.
Most have opted out of Japan’s traditional job hunting system because they are fed up with its suffocating solemnity. Now their hopes rest on a new style of job fair created by Wakashin.
“The best thing about the job fairs is that you don’t have to lie,” said a casually dressed 25-year-old participant who graduated last year. “Since the atmosphere is so casual and relaxing, I can just be myself and don’t feel so tempted to exaggerate my academic achievements as I would in normal job hunting sessions.”
The event was just one of a raft of similar job fairs led by Wakashin that often cater to, and tap the potential of, marginalized youths.
Dismayed at the notorious workaholism of his fellow Japanese, Wakashin seeks to present an alternative lifestyle that he hopes will serve as a wake-up call for dropouts, shut-ins and underutilized hopefuls such as high school girls.
“Much of our lives used to hinge on what company we work for or what we do for a living,” Wakashin, a freelance business consultant who doubles as a project research associate at Keio University, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“But now that Japan’s economic growth has pretty much plateaued, I think the days are gone when we would get greater rewards for harder work. It’s time to find our primary source of satisfaction in something other than work,” Wakashin said.
He refuses to disclose his age to the media. His dislike of Japan’s conservative, rigid corporate culture took root in adolescence, when he felt forced to hide his true nature because he thought he had to act the way his friends wanted to perceive him.
Wakashin says as a child he was always self-conscious, his mind often drifting off to philosophical thoughts about who he is and why he was born that way.
This evolved into a burning self-obsession, in which he took pleasure in repeatedly checking himself in the mirror and kept a diary to steep himself in his thoughts.
But he wasn’t a typical narcissist. In front of his friends, he was careful not to show any signs of his self-intoxication and tried instead to exude the adolescent indifference that defined “coolness” among his buddies.
“I was afraid that if I told anyone I was doing something as lame as keeping a diary, it would cause the veneer of my cynicism to collapse miserably,” he said. “But at age 18 or so, I realized that I couldn’t do this anymore, and that I should drop the act and be who I am.”
This realization took the Fukui native northeast to Miyagi Prefecture, where he started afresh as a college student and publicly proclaimed himself “Mr. Narcissist,” forming a band and singing songs that screamed about his love for himself.
By this time, he realized he could in no way fit into Japan’s corporate culture, where he would be expected to put aside his individuality and devote himself to the group.
So in 2005, just before graduation, he and his friends set up their own company. But he quit after only two years, vexed by their request to change his trademark dyed hair, which they described as “too unprofessional.”
Not that the setback deterred his determination to go his own way. If anything, it fueled it.
Years later, in June 2011, he was explaining his new project to a crowd of so-called NEETs, which stands for “not in education, employment or training.” He told them the project would epitomize his goal of challenging the nation’s stuffy corporate culture.
The idea was to establish a firm run by young NEETs in which each would be appointed as a board member. The company would be called NEET Corp., he said.
Within 10 months of its November 2013 launch, NEET Corp. had 166 young people at work. Wakashin serves as their representative, but not their president, meaning he has no power to make decisions.
He mostly watches as the youths, split into groups, discuss their business plans and pursue their interests, weighing in where necessary.
According to a 2014 white paper on the welfare of children and youths, NEETs numbered 600,000 in 2013, down 30,000 from the previous year, when they accounted for a record 2.3 percent of people aged 15 to 34.
Wakashin emphasized that the project is not a charity, but more of an attempt to open society’s eyes to the possibility of more flexible working styles. The NEETs, he says, don’t gather physically in one place, but communicate from home via Skype to exchange opinions. They don’t even disclose their names or ages, addressing each other by nicknames.
More importantly, none have fixed salaries. Each is paid individually, based on the profit produced by the business projects he or she is involved in.
Will this radical approach work for other companies? In its current inchoate state, it is hardly applicable as a business model — at least for now — Wakashin admits.
“I’m not suggesting that society learn from what we’re doing and follow us. What I hope is that our project will provide an opportunity for people to consider that the work-centered lifestyles they have taken for granted may no longer be the best option,” he said.
So far, the company’s projects have found success in selling original T-shirts and a board game similar to “sugoroku,” a dice-based game often compared with Snakes and Ladders or backgammon.
One NEET member is even renting himself out by periodically standing on the streets of Akihabara with a sign that says: “A NEET at your service. ¥1,000 per hour.”
The member, a 25-year-old graduate of Toyo University, says he is rentable as a karaoke buddy, card-playing partner or Pokemon video game companion to anyone interested.
In April, Wakashin unveiled another experimental project that made headlines. He helped launch a new division of the Sabae Municipal Government in Fukui Prefecture that lets female high school students contribute on a voluntary basis.
Touted as the first initiative of its kind in Japanese history, the 13-member “JK” division, coined after the term “joshi kosei,” meaning high school girls, represents a joint attempt to engage the city’s apathetic youth in local politics and rejuvenate the community.
The girls originally took part in the project after learning of it via social media apps, such as Twitter and Line.
They are being tasked with responsibilities ranging from the organization of festivals to developing smartphone apps and publishing local information online. They mostly spend their after-school hours and weekends getting together to strategize.
So far, the students’ biggest accomplishment appears to be the smartphone app they came up with in July that tells people whether desks in the local library are in use.
Wakashin said the girls are more capable of bringing about everyday change than bureaucrats, who like to do things that are influential but not necessarily needed by the public.
“Like that app, the girls have an eye for small but down-to-earth inventions because their way of thinking is very community-based,” he explained.
So far, Wakashin said he has found that there is one thing clear about the way both the NEETs and the girls think.
“They don’t really care about future results. They simply experiment and have a go at what they like,” he said. “I would like them to enjoy this process of pursuing their interests rather than be obsessed with results. And just like that, they’ll come up with something new even before they realize it.”
Significant events in Wakashin’s life
2005 — Jointly sets up a company with college friends.
2007 — Quits after a row with colleagues over his hair.
2009 — Embarks on career as freelance business consultant.
2013 — Launches NEET Corp.
2014 — Sets up a new division comprising female high schoolers in the municipal office of Sabae, Fukui Prefecture.
“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org .