Here we go again. “Young people,” frets Sapio magazine, “are rapidly becoming stupid.” They can’t read, can’t calculate, can’t communicate. They have no manners, no ambition, no interest in anything; no consideration for other people, no knowledge of world affairs. New technology enabling instant communication with everyone everywhere anytime seems, paradoxically, to be locking them ever more tightly into an ever narrowing, increasingly featureless little enclosed space called “myself.”

Cases in point? Where to start? Sapio mentions university economics students who don’t recognize the kanji characters meaning “exchange rate”; statistics students floored by questions such as, “If you reduce the price of a ¥3,000 item by ¥600, what percent discount are you offering?” Job applicants struggle to fill out basic application forms. They burst into tears at the mildest challenge to their solicited opinions.

Kenichi Ohmae, the eminent management consultant, writes in Sapio that in his 40-year career he’s never seen anything like this. There’s much talk of a corporate hiring freeze. That’s a distortion, Ohmae argues, and quotes corporate executives who say they’re willing enough to hire, but “if we took on people of this caliber, our company would have no future.”

Sapio tells of a South Korean university student who once sought to engage visiting Japanese students in a discussion about Takeshima, a Sea of Japan island claimed, sometimes stridently, by both Japan and South Korea. Takeshima? The Japanese had never heard of it. If they haven’t heard of that, what else haven’t they heard of? A good deal, presumably.

The quality of Japanese education was once the envy of the world. In the 1980s, educators from all over came to Japan to learn the secret behind its world-beating test scores. Now Japan is the also-ran of Asia, far behind China and South Korea in reading and math as measured by international testing of high school students last year; faring somewhat better in science but still, ranking fifth to Shanghai’s first.

“Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth,” exhorts the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Sure. Japan is not a youthful country. It never has been. Ascendant, it drives its young people without mercy; in decline, it heaps abuse on them. “Sleep four hours, pass; sleep five hours, fail,” went a slogan of the 1980s. Homework, cram school, more homework, more rote memorization. Do it for Japan, sacrifice your youth for Japan. Kids turned into exam automatons. It started in nursery school. Some cracked under the strain. Bullying grew rampant. Classrooms descended into chaos. Teachers took increasing sick leave, often for psychiatric care. It’s likely enough South Korea and China are paying a similar price for their success.

In 2002, the education ministry introduced what it called yutori kyoiku, literally “relaxed education,” aimed at easing intolerable stress levels and giving young people time to breathe, maybe even to think independently. No school on Saturday. Thinner textbooks. Less detail to master, fewer facts to cram. No sooner was it off the ground than critics sounded the alarm. Japan was “dumbing down.” Other nations would outperform it, outscore it. Beware, critics warned, of the “2006 problem.” That year the first crop of yutori kyoiku high school grads would hit college, and what would happen to academic standards then?

In 2007, yutori kyoiku was deemed a failure and scrapped.

Young people have always been idiots. Their elders, so much wiser, were idiots once too, and were written about as such — by their elders, who had themselves passed through similar idiocy and abuse. Proof? Just leaf through old magazines.

Here’s Spa! in 1994, lamenting the declining ability of young adults to express themselves beyond monosyllabic mumbling, and Brutus the same year worrying that the ceaseless information barrage of the nascent information revolution was short-circuiting the faculty of understanding. In 1999, Sunday Mainichi was horrified at the intellectual vacuum it found in the nation’s universities, where students played Romper Room pranks, did their makeup and chattered on cell phones, quite oblivious to the lecture which the poor professor fantasized he or she was delivering to an attentive audience of budding young thinkers.

Sapio writers now in their 30s would in 1999 have been in their early 20s. Were they perhaps in those classrooms?

Not to belabor the point, young people, being young, disconcert their elders before becoming disconcerted elders in turn. That said, is there substance to Sapio’s arguments about Japan’s current young generation?

There may be. This is not an intelligent age. It is a postintelligent age. Our phones are smarter than we are. That nurtures passivity, not intelligence. If Japan is further along that road than South Korea or China, it’s only because Japan developed earlier. South Korea and China, playing catchup as Japan did prewar and postwar, are still “hungry,” as Japan was then. Once sated, their intellectual decline is predictable.

It looks dreadful for now, to Sapio and other defenders of intelligence as we used to know it. We are living through the birth pangs of an entirely new civilization. What will it look like once it is born and thriving? No one now living has any idea.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010).

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