Monday is Coming-of-Age Day, in honor of those who will turn 20 this year.

What do they see, these fledgling men and women, as they look into the future? Most of them — the lucky ones, those whom circumstances have not forced to mature too soon — will still harbor a child’s view of the world. They know little, know they know little, but feel ready to know. Their time has come. What will their first years of adult experience teach them?

The starkest fact facing them is that theirs is not a youthful environment. In 1976, 2.76 million Japanese turned 20; this year, 1.26 million do. Youth in Japan today seems an afterthought, a footnote. In their parents’ time it was the main text. A chilling thought.

In young countries young people tend to be more absorbed in broad themes than in narrow ones, in airy generalities rather than in concrete particulars, in “life” rather than in the economy — but today the economy is life, or at least a lifeline. A very unsteady one.

For several months past, the weekly Spa! has been reporting on the anomalous growth of poverty — what it means to be poor in one of the world’s richest countries. It means, for example, being in your 40s and having zero savings, as 34 percent of 200 full-time company employees in that age-group polled by the magazine claim is the case with them; or of being in your 30s or 20s and unable to latch onto full-time work — now a common experience. The part-time or contract work on offer instead, and the conditions under which it’s done, sound, as described by Spa!, more like slavery than employment. Even making allowances for possible exaggeration and unscientific polling — what would a 20-year-old reading this think of his or her own prospects?

“Lucky I went to college, eh?” says “Yuichi” sarcastically. He’s 25, a qualified chemical engineer. He graduated with hopes of joining a cosmetics or pharmaceutical firm. When 30-odd applications went unanswered, he went back to school and got his master’s. He applied now to 50 companies. Again, nothing. What could he do? He took what was available — in the pharmaceutical industry, yes, but not researching. Packaging. Part-time. For ¥180,000 a month.

“My hobby,” he says wryly, “is saving” — and he actually manages, by dint of assiduous application, to put by ¥50,000 a month. How? By spending nothing except on rent and food. He lives on instant noodles and never leaves his rented room, except to go to work.

“Takeshi” at 38 is, or should be, a systems engineer. He took a part-time job in his field on the understanding that it would become full-time. It never did. Turning 35, feeling the situation was hopeless, he quit. Now he does night-shift roadwork and asks himself, “Where did I go wrong?” Occasionally freelancing as an engineer, he earns, altogether, ¥210,000 a month, saving ¥30,000. Both roadwork and systems engineering, he says, “are really for young people. I could get fired any time.” Marriage? “I’ve given up on that.” Once a month he seeks relief at a sex club.

Then you hit the 40s. People that age now were in their 20s when the economy, so buoyant throughout their childhood, suddenly sank. Their generation was the first to experience the notorious “ice age” — you get out of college and no one is hiring! A new word came into being — “freeter,” which sounds free, and is, in the sense of being free from corporate discipline and conformity: But the shadowy world it describes — of part-time jobs that pay little, lead nowhere and are terminable at any time — is attractive, if at all, only very briefly, before reality sets in and reveals the setup for what it is: a potential life sentence to pinched marginality.

Or let’s say you escaped that and got a decent corporate job. You didn’t know it, but the fateful year 2008 lay ahead. You don’t need to grasp the intricacies of the “Lehman Shock” to know what it implies — ruin for a lot of honest companies and their hardworking employees. Unwitting fool you were if, like “Yukio,” you took out a home loan in, say, 1999, on the basis of prospects that looked pretty solid then. After 2008, Yukio’s salary dropped from ¥6 million a year to ¥5.1 million, and his home-loan arrangements went to hell. He finally sold his midtown Tokyo condo and moved with his family to a shabby rental apartment in outlying Saitama. They’re not happy — but he’s lucky. His major expense from here on in is his two kids’ schooling. What he doesn’t seem to have is a burden increasingly common to his age cohort — aged and infirm parents to care for, with all the expenses and emotional drain that entails. At worst, it becomes impossible to work — in the past five years 500,000 nationwide have left jobs to nurse parents or in-laws. And how will it be when today’s new adults are at their career peak? Not better. Almost certainly, much worse.

It’s strange that Spa! doesn’t take up the question of alternatives. Many young adults must be wracking their brains trying to think of some. Is an urban, corporate career all there is in life? If circumstances are such as to close that path, does that mean you’re stillborn, with poverty and slavery your only prospects? What about the country, the vast underpopulated rural hinterland — green fields, fresh air, work that builds you up, physically and mentally, instead of wearing you down?

In December, the Asahi Shimbun Sunday supplement Globe ran a feature on rural communities — population a couple of thousand, if that. Once upon a time this was “the real Japan.” Nowadays you can go through a lifetime not even knowing they exist. In fact they’re dwindling, as the elderly die off and young people focus elsewhere. Ninety-three communities simply vanished between 2006 and 2011, according to a government report which forecasts the same fate for another 450 over the next 10 years.

“It’s hard work,” says Masaharu Matsumoto, 62. Forty years ago he chose this life for himself — growing rice in terraced paddies in the backwoods of Saga Prefecture. “I remember when we used to plough with oxen.” It’s not like that now, but progress hasn’t gone very far, which is all to the good as far as some are concerned — Matsumoto’s wife, Chizuru, for instance: “What keeps me going is the joy of growing and harvesting our own food.” Hyper-progress has taken that away from most of us — and given us what instead? Instant noodles?

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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