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In a nation that favors so much, why are Japanese teens so glum?

by

Contributing Writer

The world’s happiest teens live — no, not in Japan — in the Dominican Republic. It’s a beautiful Caribbean country, much and justly beloved by tourists yet plagued by poverty, crime, child marriage, teen pregnancy and inadequate education. Tourists needn’t worry about that, but local kids, you’d think, would be keenly aware of it. What are they so happy about?

And what are Japanese teens so unhappy about?

The questions arise from an OECD survey done in 2015 and published last year. It asked 15-year-olds in 47 countries whether they were satisfied with their lives. Yes, said 67.8 percent of Dominican kids, 58.5 percent of Mexican kids, 50.9 percent of Costa Rican kids. Colombia (50.9 percent) and Montenegro (50.1 percent) round out the top five.

So much for wealth buying happiness. You’re almost driven to the opposite conclusion — that wealth and happiness are inimical. Where do the frontline economies stand? The United States (35.9 percent), in 26th place; England (28.3 percent), in 38th; Japan (23.8 percent), in 43rd.

An Asahi Shimbun reporter visiting a school in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, found the building crumbling, the blackboards cracked, the desks and chairs mismatched. But the kids were happy. A 16-year-old girl living with her mother in a two-room flat in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood expressed the prevailing mood: “I have life, health, good friends, a nice mom.” Why shouldn’t she be happy? Her nice mom adds: “We have our troubles, but we’re always smiling. We help each other — in the family, in the neighborhood. Tomorrow will be better, we tell ourselves.”

Tourism fuels an economic surge, enriching some but widening the gap between rich and poor, the Asahi says. Crime is rising. Thirty-seven percent of Dominican girls marry before turning 17, 12 percent before turning 15. Ten percent of students leave education without finishing high school. Academic rankings are among the world’s worst.

Then there’s Japan. So much in this country favors happiness. It’s developed, wealthy, free, educated, safe, clean, technologically empowered. It’s too bad the Asahi reporter didn’t ask the Dominicans what they thought of Japanese kids’ unhappiness. They might have said that a country with so many advantages has no right to be unhappy. Is unhappiness, then, a luxury?

Not a very nice one, if so. Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, became a symbol of unhappiness run amok when, in October, nine dismembered corpses of young people were found in an apartment there. The alleged killer found his victims on suicide websites. What were they doing there? Did they really want to die? Probably not, three expert observers agree in a wide-ranging interview with Bungei Shunju magazine. The conversation’s overall theme is summed up by the article’s headline: “What to do when a child says he or she wants to die?”

The three experts are former teacher and current youth commentator Naoki Ogi, psychiatrist Akira Iwanami and journalist Yuki Ishikawa. Ogi says that in 20 years of teaching he never knew a child who really wanted to die. Ishikawa says the Zama victims were not seeking death but pleading for help. Iwanami sees the heart of the matter in the apparent fact that they had no one — parents, teachers, friends — to turn to. “What they needed,” he says, “was someone they could trust, a person-to-person bond. It wasn’t to be found, however, either in the family or at school.”

The horror of Zama is aberrant, but the loneliness underlying it, says Iwanami, is characteristic of Japanese society. He cites a 2007 UNICEF survey: In other developed countries, teens describing themselves as lonely numbered in single-digit percentages — versus 30 percent in Japan.

Yes, says Ishikawa — “in Japan today there is no feeling of connection with other people.” An incidental feature of the Zama tragedy supports her point. Neighbors later spoke of bad smells and strange noises — “and yet,” Ishikawa says, “until the corpses were found, no one took any action.”

Ogi notes a striking fact. Japan’s suicide rate has fallen steadily since 2003 — not, however, teen suicide, which holds steady at roughly 300 a year, conspicuously high by world standards. Loneliness is presumably a factor, but why are Japanese teens lonelier than teens elsewhere? Iwanami mentions a lack of religious values. Christianity, Islam and Judaism not only forbid suicide, they offer consolation in times of despair. In Japan, the heavens are silent.

Ishikawa finds fault with Japan’s education system, which, despite progress over the past 30 years, still stresses harmony and conformity over diversity and individualism, dooming the nail that sticks out to a relentless hammering down. “Teachers,” she says, “routinely scold kids, ‘Why can’t you be like everybody else?'”

It is the rare Japanese family that displays the affection the Asahi found flowing so spontaneously in the Dominican Republic. Family court officer Yukio Ito, in an interview the Asahi published in November, remarked concerning teenagers who come under his purview: “Kids are in their rooms busy with Line and online gaming. It’s not seldom I hear kids say, ‘Adults don’t listen to me much.'” There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here: Do the kids retreat to their rooms because adults don’t listen, or do adults not listen because the kids are otherwise absorbed? Whatever the cause, the effect is clear: a family atmosphere that would chill the heart of a Dominican.

So the internet wins by default. Real-world social ties crumbling, virtual ties must suffice. To children who have never known any other, the virtual ties are the natural ones. Ogi, in the Bungei Shunju interview, says teenage girls in particular crave bonds of friendship and trust. He cites a 2015 survey showing high school girls spend on average seven hours a day on their smartphones. This is corrosive, in his view, not only to genuine, living, vibrant, human attachments but also to individual development.

“Children around the age of puberty,” he says, “absolutely need time alone. Emotional growth depends on introspection — about any trouble they may be involved in, about relationships with friends and so on. Deprived of that inner dialogue, they grow incapable of thinking deeply.”

So they think shallowly. And not, for the most part, happily.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”