Young people the world over are stuck with the world as it is, a world they had no hand in making. From the sidelines they blame their elders for this stupidity and that, and vow to do better when their turn comes, only to find, for the most part, that youthful risōshugi (理想主義, idealism) dies with adolescence.

Maybe this time in Japan it’ll be different. The numerous hangenpatsu demo (反原発デモ, anti-nuclear-power demonstrations) breaking out across the country in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi genpatsu no jiko (福島第一原発の事故, Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident) may be a sort of Japanese “Arab Spring,” an awakening of a citizenry sloughing off its political mukanshin (無関心, indifference), its shōganai (しょうがない, “it can’t be helped”) mentality, its blind shinyō (信用, trust) that the authorities and experts know what they’re doing simply because they’re authorities and experts.

Ima no nihon wa, hontō ni taisetsu na mono wa nanika wo kangaeru toki ga kite iru to omoimasu” (「今の日本は、本当に大切なものは何かを考えるときが来ていると思います」, “The time has come for us to think seriously about what is really important in today’s Japan”) said one speaker addressing a crowd of 10,000-odd. Big deal — except that the speaker was 14 years old and the crowd was in Shibuya, Japan’s teen capital, a place not normally associated with serious thinking.

It’s probably not the best of times in which to be young. Kōrei shakai (高齢社会, the elderly society) conspires with shōshika (少子化, the declining number of children) to produce a Japan in which youth is marginalized to an extent unprecedented in history. That was true before the reactor accident. After it? From September, school children in Fukushima Prefecture will be obliged to carry dosimeters to measure hōshanō osen (放射能汚染 , radiation contamination). Maybe children, being children, can pretend it’s a toy and slide through the next few years psychologically unscathed. Or maybe not.

Were earlier times better? That depends on how you look at things. The women’s weekly Josei Jishin last month featured a fascinating interview with Chie Kobayashi, a 74-year-old farmer-cum-local-politician in Minamisoma, a town in Fukushima 25 km from the stricken plant. She was born in 1936, kyū-nin kyōdai no mannaka (九人兄弟の真ん中, the middle child among nine brothers and sisters). College, though she dreamed of going, was out of the question. “Omae wa kuihagure ga nai nōka ni yome ni ikeba ii n da” (「お前は食いはぐれがない農家に嫁に行けばいいんだ」 “Better marry into a farm family; that way you won’t go hungry”) — so her parents told her. Miai (見合い, meetings with prospective marriage partners) followed miai — she turned down 33 men before finally giving in and marrying at age 21. Work in the fields was unremitting, besides which a young bride was forever at the beck and call of her shūtome (姑, mother-in-law).

Ninshin shita koto mo, yorokobaremasen deshita,” she says; (「妊娠したことも、喜ばれませんでした」”I became pregnant, but nobody was particularly happy about it”).

No wonder: “Obaasan wa kodomo wo jūgonin mo unde… watashi no ninshin mo ki ni kuwanakatta n deshō” (「おばあさんは子供十五人も生んで… 私の妊娠も気に食わなかったんでしょ」”The old lady had 15 children. My pregnancy was nothing to get excited about”).

Pregnant or not, she worked in the fields shussan girigiri made (出産ぎりぎりまで, until just before giving birth) — and went back to them almost immediately after. If she made a move to go indoors and comfort the infant whose wailing she could hear, the obaasan checked her: “Akanbō wa naku no ga shigoto! Hōtte oke!” (「赤ん坊は泣くのが仕事!放っておけ!」”Infants cry, that’s their business! Leave her!”).

The “good old days,” when you see them up close and not through a nostalgic mist, can sometimes make the decadent present look pretty good. Children of the past are said to have benefited from the hito to hito no kizuna (人と人の絆, ties binding people together) which in our own hyper-individualistic day have frayed, leaving us, supposedly, lonely and adrift. There’s something to that, no doubt, and yet at least three weekly magazines last month ran stories on, of all things, oyakōkō (親孝行, showing consideration to parents — what used to be called filial piety). It is said to be on the rise again after decades of dormancy.

It was at a high point, one would presume, in Kobayashi’s childhood. If so, it was a much harsher ethic than many people think. Today’s version seems kinder and gentler. Two negatives seem to be fostering it: 少子化, discussed above, which seems to focus familial affection that in larger families is more diffuse; and the lingering fukyō (不況, recession). When you’ve no money to spend, you stay home and, with luck, learn to enjoy the family’s company.

Is that good? Family affection is hard to argue with — but not impossible. Some fear it makes children excessively izon (依存, dependent). No wonder idealism withers. The solution to one problem inevitably becomes a problem to be solved in turn.

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