After dropping out of school at 14, Arai said, he mostly spent his time watching television in the living room of his parent’s home in Saitama, stepping outside only once or twice a month, usually in the morning to avoid bumping into his old schoolmates.
Recalling the period, Arai said, “I was exploding about once every three to four months and jawing at my parents, saying things like, ‘It’s your fault that I’m this way,’ as if I was in the right.”
Socially withdrawn youths like Arai have prompted public concern since the late 1990s. More recently they have become known as NEETs, for being “not in education, employment or training.”
NEETs, along with young, unskilled job hoppers called “freeters,” are viewed by the government as a serious problem.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner in the race to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi later this month, often refers to them in trying to sell his policy goal of creating a society in which struggling people can get a second chance.
Defined as people aged 15 to 34 who are not in the workforce or in school, the NEET population jumped to about 640,000 in 2002 from 490,000 in 2001, and has since stayed at that level, according to labor ministry data.
Freeters, a term that spread in the early 1990s when companies cut back on hiring recruits, soared to 2.17 million in 2003 from 1.51 million in 1997, and stayed above 2 million at 2.01 million in 2005.
Originally thought to be rebelling against Japan Inc.’s traditional seniority-based lifetime employment, it wasn’t until around 2003 that freeters were recognized as having been caught up in changes in the economic structure, said Sadakazu Kudo, chairman of the NPO Youth Support Center in Fussa, western Tokyo.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in its annual white paper released Aug. 8, said for the first time that the nation’s changing employment system is behind the widening gap in incomes, particularly among the younger generation.
Abe says he sees it as “natural” that structural reforms advanced by Koizumi have resulted in economic disparities.
“The spread of irregular employees such as freeters and part-timers and the increase in NEETs are major challenges from now on,” Abe wrote in a book released in July outlining his policy goals.
The government began addressing the NEET issue in fiscal 2005 with a training program in which participants spend three months at a camp being drilled in basic social skills through group work and work experience.
Since mid-July, the 20-year-old Arai has participated in a camp run by Kudo’s group, one of 25 camps nationwide set up by nonprofit organizations and other private entities under the government program.
“I’m so anxious about going out into society because my blank period has been so long,” Arai said. “So, I’m trying to get rid of as many worries as possible by mingling with people here.”
In the program’s initial year, 447 people finished the camps and 200 got a job, a labor ministry official said.
Kudo, 55, who has run another camp for rehabilitating hikikomori for nearly 30 years, said this kind of training is effective for many struggling adolescents.
“Hikikomori or NEETs often have had few experiences in being disciplined,” he said. “So they tend to react negatively to job discipline and are apt to quit, but most of them can find their way if they learn how to do so step by step.”
However, he stresses the program is only a beginning, as it is designed to reach out to “elite” NEETs, who he estimates are the best 15 percent of that population, by requiring voluntary enrollment. He also says the three-month-long program is too short.
As for freeters, the labor ministry acknowledges the difficulty they face in trying to switch to regular employment and that a lack of work training opportunities tends to keep them in low-income jobs.
Large numbers of young nonregular workers are thus unable to leave their parents’ homes and get married, contributing to the low birthrate, according to the labor white paper.
The ministry helped 200,000 freeters get regular jobs in fiscal 2005 through special employment services and other efforts, and is planning to set a target of 250,000 for fiscal 2007.
But the number of “older freeters,” aged 25 to 34, was still high in 2005, at around 970,000. The number was estimated at 910,000 in 2002 and 490,000 in 1997, and will be a focus of attention in fiscal 2007, ministry officials said.
Since late July, Abe has been asking business leaders to support his “second chance” program by trying to open up job opportunities for freeters and others, instead of hiring only new college graduates.
However, Nobuaki Takahashi, an economics professor at Ritsumeikan University, argues that promoting second chances is only an “easy solution” for politicians to pursue, and aims to deal with the problem afterward instead of striving to prevent it.
Kaneto Kanemoto, who succeeded in June in listing his Internet business OKWave on a Nagoya bourse for startups, said he believes the government’s efforts to lower hurdles for people seeking second chances are wrongheaded.
The 40-year-old Kanemoto said his two years as a homeless person in a Tokyo park seven years ago gave him time to think over what he should live for, and after reaching his own conclusion, he devoted himself to succeeding in business.