The wise have always inveighed against materialism. But most people are not wise, and it remains a material world. The economy dominates the news, an indication of where our strongest interest lies. Our spirits rise or fall with the stock market, the unemployment rate, the value of the yen, the consumer price index, favorable or unfavorable developments among overseas trading partners. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rode to power in December on the strength of promises to revive the economy. His giddy support ratings reflect the apparent success of his first measures.

The hope and enthusiasm he has generated have muted even the mass fear and revulsion toward nuclear power. The public, shell-shocked still two years after the Fukushima meltdowns, seems nonetheless to be forgiving him his inclination to restart idled reactors.

But that is by the way.

“Satori” is a Japanese word that has long since gone global. It means enlightenment, in the religious sense. In Zen practice satori is apt to descend suddenly and mysteriously, the fruit of mental discipline and deep meditation. What is it? “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know,” said Lao Tzu, the 6th-century BC Chinese Taoist. How does it feel? “Like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground!” said the modern Zen master D.T. Suzuki.

Three years ago word began circulating of a “satori generation.” Young people — in their 20s — seem to have overcome desire. More prosaically, they don’t want anything. They don’t drive cars, don’t wear brand name clothing, aren’t active in sports, don’t care about career advancement, can’t be bothered earning more than enough to cover basic needs, don’t travel, don’t fall in love much, don’t dream of a better life, don’t make plans for the future.

Is this what satori looks like when it filters down from the monks to the masses? Actually, monks have very little to do with it. It’s not religious satori so much as economic satori. In an economy like Japan’s, torpid for 20 years, the opposite of materialism turns out to be not spiritualism but torpor.

The phenomenon was first identified by journalist Taku Yamaoka, in a 2010 book titled “Hoshigaranai Wakamonotachi” (“Young People Who Don’t Want Anything”). “Satori generation” is not his coinage, however, but that of readers discussing the book on the popular Internet chat site 2channel.

There are no statistics indicating how many people the description fits, but the Asahi Shimbun earlier this month drew thumbnail sketches of a few representative individuals. All are university students. One, at 26, has never been farther from his Tokyo birthplace than Hokkaido. He has no passport and no driver’s license. What’s the point of traveling, he asks, when you can get foreign food in Tokyo and see the world on the Net? His ambition, he says, is “to live within my means. I don’t see myself doing anything remarkable.”

A 20-year-old Chiba student also has no interest in foreign travel — “the paperwork is too much trouble.” She hopes to work for a cosmetics company after graduating — “I don’t care about the salary.” Long-term, “I want to lead as unstressful a life as possible.”

A 20-year-old Yokohama-area student is described as handsome but has no girlfriend, just friends who happen to be women. That’s fine with him but it astonishes an uncle of his, who every now and then bursts out, “Are you really satisfied with that? In my day it would’ve been unthinkable!” The student shrugs. “It’s just normal,” he says.

Are these satori youngsters wise beyond their years, or disillusioned with life before they’ve begun to live? Shall we compromise and say it could be a little of both? Here’s another question, to which we might venture a firmer answer — to wit, No: Is desire dead?

It is not. The weekly Shukan Bunshun finds it alive and well — pulsing and throbbing, in fact. You just have to know where to look for it. Where, if not among the young? Among the old.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our 10th-anniversary get-together!” The venue is a restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza. The banqueters number about 60, men and women, ranging in age from their 30s to well into their 60s. The emcee at the mike winds up, “So, this year too, let’s all enjoy sex!”

It’s a swapping club. You come as a couple and leave as a couple, but in between you form new couples. Shukan Bunshun’s interest is less in the younger participants than in the aging and the old, who are in the majority. If the young are chilly toward sex, the elderly will gladly pick up the slack. The torch has been passed — not from old to young, as is usually the case in torch-passing, but from young to old. In a 2011 poll, the magazine found 60 percent of men and 30 percent of women over 60 are sexually active, many of them open to anything.

Why not? “Life is too short,” it used to be said. Now, life is too long for child-rearing and work to be all there is to it. Generally you’re in your 50s when the kids move out, in your 60s when you retire — and what then? Shukan Bunshun drops a hint. It visits an adult goods “showroom” and encounters men and women in their 70s, the women shopping for vibrators, the men checking out aphrodisiac penis rings.

Which is the satori generation after all?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.