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Young adults may be going nowhere after Coming-of-Age Day

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Robert B. Livingston

    As idyllic as it sounds, Japan’s youth cannot return to a feudalistic life.

    They must join with their peers in other countries to take power away from
    greedy financial oligarchs and militarists who are cheating them from a
    sound and healthy future.

    The world’s youth must develop a socialist political consciousness.

  • Lawrence Klepinger

    Robert B. Livingston is dead right! Japan’s youth must move to another country, fight capitalism – and become successful – via a “Socialist Political Consciousness.”

    My question is, what kind of job does Mr. Livingston actually have? He sounds like a Liberal College “Professor” who is, more than likely, telling his charges this kind of bunk.

    Please show me ONE Socialist country that works well, one Socialist country that does not have oligarchs, one Socialist country that still holds that the Sovereign Individual is at the core of society. Freedom? Simply stated, there is none.

    Until the concept of Socialism is eradicated – and replaced by a FAIR system of moderate Capitalism, the globe will continue to sink into World War III.

    By the way, how is Socialist Europe doing these days? Scandinavia is the only region where Socialism seems to be working – at a toll of 70% taxation on its citizens. The rest of Europe is sinking by the minute. Many Socialist Central and South American nations have already sunk. And where do they all want to put their money? The American Stock Market.

    Funny world we live in.

    Lawrence Klepinger

    • kayumochi

      You asked someone to show you one socialist country that works then you answered your own question.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        Yes, you are right – but you forgot to read the whole reply – at the cost of freedom. 70% taxes is, in essence, a slaves donation to the state. It works, but at the cost of the Sovereign Individual. That was my point. Cheers!

      • Amund Helgaset Røthe

        Make that roughly 36% in Norway on average my good Sir.
        Hell, those making less than an an equal amount of 30.000 USD a year has NO taxes at all..
        Assumptions are not facts I’m afraid.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        Amund, That is terrific. I will check it online (where I got the first percentage) and if you are right, then I stand corrected. If true, I am packing my bags – if the rest of the articles was correct – free schooling throughout college, free medical and dental care, mostly free transportation, low crime rate, great food and very kind people. I hope this is all true. Many thanks for your input. Will check right now. Cheers! LK

      • Lawrence Klepinger


        I just found this on line. Looks like I was wrong – but this is talking ONLY about income tax. I was referring to ALL taxes incurred by citizens. Some headlines of other articles actually say that the tax rate is as high as 78%, with Norway having one of the highest corporate rates in the world.

        Do you have any other “facts” that you would like to share with me?

        Article below:

        How does the Norway Income Tax compare to the rest of the world?

        Norway has one of the lowest income taxes in the world, charging a maximum income tax of 24.55%. Countries with similar tax brackets include Sweden with a maximum tax bracket of 25.00%, Spain with a maximum tax bracket of 27.13% and Canada with a maximum tax bracket of 29.00%. Keep in mind that our ranking measures only nationwide income taxes, and does not account for local income taxes at state, province, or municipal levels.

      • Amund Helgaset Røthe

        I’d quite like to see those links if you don’t mind, such numbers are news to me. Unless you are looking at prime property in bigger cities along with a inheritance-tax on huge amounts of money you have deposited in Norwegian banks, I fail to see how that would have slipped by me.

      • Amund Helgaset Røthe

        Unless, if the problem IS the high taxation of corporate petroleum activities, then sure, I can see your worry.

        But remember, we ARE socialists. Every oil-company in Norway is partly state-owned. Therefore, unless you are looking for administrative positions in existing companies (and still this tax-rate would not impose on your salary), I find it hard to believe that you’d be able to start an entirely private-owned oil-firm over here.

        Apart from this tax-rate, the corporate taxable profits are taxed at a flat rate of 28%. So unless you have a look at the marginal tax rate on the power sectors excess which is at 58% (also majorly stately owned), you’ll find we are quite affordable. ^^

      • Amund Helgaset Røthe

        “The taxation of petroleum activities is based on the rules governing ordinary business taxation. There is considerable excess return (resource rent) associated with the extraction of oil and gas. Therefore a special tax of 51% on income from petroleum extraction has been introduced, in addition to the ordinary income tax of 27%. Consequently, the marginal tax rate on the excess return within the petroleum sector is 78%.”
        I believe this must have been the numbers you were looking at.

      • kayumochi

        Norway has $828 billion saved up for a rainy day so every Norwegian is a millionaire.

      • Lawrence Klepinger


        That sounds great. How do you withdraw your million dollars? I mean, who decides when it is a rainy day and for what purpose can you get that money? Cheers!

      • kayumochi

        Mmm … I am guessing you are intentionally missing the point. Would you rather be a citizen of Japan and have a national debt twice the size of the GDP or a citizen of Norway and have a genuine surplus of $828 billion dollars?

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        No, I did not miss the point at all. You stated that “every Norwegian is a millionaire” due to the STATE’S rainy day fund. I was just curious as to how you would ever be able to actually put that money into your pocket. To SAY you are a millionaire – and to actually BE a millionaire – are two different considerations.

        To be clear, I am not a Japanese citizen, just a permanent resident. We are fortunate enough not to have to depend upon the STATE to take care of us – not YET anyway :o)

        So, I am still curious. How would you actually get your hands on the million dollars? Or is this a ploy to make people believe that they are millionaires – so they keep paying taxes at 24% VAT, and 25% income tax. I was just wondering, that’s all. Cheers!

      • kayumochi

        No, you are still missing the point.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        I am afraid that someone is not willing to answer a VERY simple question. You said you were all millionaires – and I simply asked how do you get your hands on that money. That seems very easy to answer – if you have one. Apparently, you don’t.

        However, that is understandable. Most people cannot actually answer how they benefit from a combined tax rate of over 50%, so the best way is to convince yourself that you are a millionaire. That is, what some would call, “self-deceiving.”

        I am now convinced that you cannot answer my question?

      • kayumochi

        Okay. You are not missing my point. You are being disingenuous. I hesitated to communicate with you when I noticed your use of the phrase “Sovereign Individual,” a sure sign of a tin-foil hat.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        My apologies, Kayumochi. I feel sorry for you, in that you have fallen into the trap of calling people names – when you fail to back up a very simple question. You cannot do it – so you revert to epithets.

        And I feel especially sorry for you – if you cannot understand the concept of “Sovereign Individual.” It is probably an idea somewhat beyond easy comprehension.

        If you care to read about it, you might try Carl Jung, Edward Tillich, Ayn Rand, Harry Truman – or my favorite – John Kennedy.

        Take care and have a good week.


        Lawrence Klepinger

      • kayumochi

        Sure, I could go into great details explaining how it is more akin to the kind of trust very wealthy families set up for heirs to ensure the wealth is passed from generation to generation and no one gets to withdraw “the million dollars” blah blah blah but as I explained you are disingenuous and who wants to deal with that? Not me.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        I did not think you had an answer. Funny how people of your ilk always resort to calling people, with whom you disagree, all sorts of names. I am glad my parents taught me not to act in such a childish manner. You should seek professional help. You don’t sound like you are very happy with yourself. Please consider seeing a doctor. Best wishes. This conversation is closed. Cheers!

      • Mark Garrett

        “To be clear, I am not a Japanese citizen, just a permanent resident. We are fortunate enough not to have to depend upon the STATE to take care of us – not YET anyway :o)”

        Do you have national health insurance? Do you have children that attend public school in Japan? Do you feel safe living here? Then you most certainly DO depend on the STATE.

      • Lawrence Klepinger

        Good points, Mark. But, what really is your point? I have national health insurance – but I PAY for that. My daughter went to school – but I PAID for that. I feel safe living here – because I PAY for taxes to help secure the National Safety of ALL the citizens.

        So I guess I am missing your point, too.

        Please remember – NONE of these services are PROVIDED by the State. The PEOPLE are the ones who pay the taxes.

        It is a complete fallacy to assume that the State does these things. The people who pay the taxes are the ones who are paying the bills.

        This is one HUGE point that most people – many times those who pay little if any taxes – care to realize.

        Nothing is provided for by the State. In all cases, it is the people who foot the bill.

        Best wishes.

      • Mark Garrett

        “Good points, Mark. But, what really is your point? I have national health insurance – but I PAY for that. My daughter went to school – but I PAID for that. I feel safe living here – because I PAY for taxes to help secure the National Safety of ALL the citizens.
        So I guess I am missing your point, too.”

        You claimed that here in Japan we do not have to depend on the State for anything. My point was that you are wrong.

        First you claimed there are no successful socialist countries. That was quickly debunked. Then you claimed that their success came at the expense of 70% taxation and loss of freedom. Both also clearly not true. Finally you tried to say that no one in Japan depends on the State for any of their needs which is simply BS. And of course the citizens pay for it. They always pay for it. Whether it’s directly to the care provider or through an intermediary like the government, we still always pay for it.

        Going all the way back to Mr. Livingston’s original comment about Japan’s youth today not being able to go back to a life where the “haves” were generous and fair with the “have nots” and there was a healthy middle class. He was absolutely spot on. We live in times where the youth either stand up and fight back against corporate tyranny, or they stand by as the country sinks further into economic despair. Of course Abe’s plan to prevent that is to ratchet up the war rhetoric so that he can continue to build up the military. Nothing like a good war to stimulate the economy!

      • Barry Rosenfeld

        Garrett, what a lying SOB you are. Oh yeah, you really sound like someone who lives in Japan and has PR. Take a high dive in a low well you middle American uneducated can’t get a job in your own country fool. Just stop writing before you make a bigger fool of yourself. And get a life will you and most of all, get an you education you loudmouth ignorant Yank.

  • Luc

    What a negative article…

    • leftlite

      It is but it is also quite realistic. That’s the way things are in the Land of the Rising Sun. More like sundown.

    • hilldomain

      Negative is well…not always negative. There is a popular trend to ignore the facts an=in favor of posivitism and “happiness”. This down turn will force people off the couch and force them to innovate. It happens or should happen every fourth generation. Post war generations should just be happy with the company man life. This is acceptable but for a country to progress we need to move beyond safe company jobs that provide only security and high levels of comfort and convenience. The ramen comment was right on. It is the epitome of all the negative problems with “progress” as we have defined it. It is negative but it also provides hope and for real change. Furitas unite!

  • Barry Rosenfeld

    There is more to life than aspiring to becoming chained bound salaryman. How about the law, medicine, teaching? A ‘profession’ rather than a soul destroying ‘job’ and for the uneducated here (no pun is intended) these are entirely different things….

  • bob

    what the article fails to mention is that there jobs for the young just “donkey” jobs. These kid’s are not stupid and so they pursued education as a means to get them out or keep them out of poverty and into a future, however the powers that be realized that there simply have been to many of them after the same position and no one wants to be the “donkey” The jobs that pay well are for those who are gov, property owner, or high end business family relatives. Socialism at its best.

  • Amund Helgaset Røthe

    Well, will have to give you that one. The VAT tax is a hassle for major purchases I will agree. Since I’m in the low-pay end of the market, I can’t say most of these increased taxes influence me directly, like wealth taxes and surtax on my income. I will admit though, if the taxes are indeed that steep in the corporate market and for well off individuals there should be no reason to move here on the basis of great personal wealth and future business projects.

  • Lawrence Klepinger

    Many thanks for the followup, Amund. Very much appreciated. Nice talking with you and I wish you well in Norway. It STILL sounds like a wonderful place to live. My wife and I are in Japan and intend to retire here. Best wishes, and thanks again.

  • Lawrence Klepinger

    Many thanks, Mark. I don’t remember actually saying that “nobody” depends on the government. I do remember saying that it was not free – we pay as taxpayers. I am getting the feeling that you might be British in your assumption that the government “takes care of people.” It absolutely does not take care of anybody. Your concept of the government being the source of helping people is simply a Socialist concept. But please bear in mind – the people pay, so it is the people that do the taking care of – not the government.

    However, if I am wrong, let’s suppose that nobody paid taxes. Then, where would the government get its money?

    You remind me of my grandson (10 years old). One time his class was going on a field trip. I asked him how much it would cast – and he said it was “free.” I told him that it actually was not free. He argued that it was free. “Jiji” (Japanese for grandpa, he is bi-lingual and living in the USA) he proclaimed, “But it is free. My teacher told me so.”

    Kind of the same thing, wouldn’t you say? Imagine, a government employee (school teacher) telling her charges that it is free.

    Talk about a subtle input to misdirect a child.

    Best wishes,

    Lawrence Klepinger