National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

In violent times, young Japanese just shrug

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

The weekly Shukan Kinyobi discerns a “new fatalism” among young people. Meaning what? A feeling that effort reaps no rewards and so is not worth making; that the world is what it is and cannot be changed — at least not by me, even if I felt like changing it, which I don’t; that luck or inborn talent (which, being inborn, is just luck under another name) determines destiny, excluding most of us from the really good things in life — if they really are good, which they’re not, so to hell with them.

It sounds like despair but it is not. In fact, reports Shukan Kinyobi, young people have never been happier. A paradox indeed — one well worth exploring.

Fatalism. The first thought that comes to mind is, “No wonder.” The world seems to have spun murderously out of control, the Islamic State symbolizing rampaging insanity abroad while at home a 19-year-old Nagoya murder suspect has allegedly confessed to police, “Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to kill somebody.” It could have been anyone, she allegedly said, as, apparently, it can be anyone for the Islamic State. How not to be the unlucky “anyone”? Some places are safer than others, no doubt, but ultimately, with such a spirit at large, there is no refuge. An individual might well feel lost in the immensities involved.

Economic factors, always important, figure here too. Japan’s youngest men and women were born into a stalled economy. They grew up in it, are used to it and are now entering it as workers. In 2010, a journalist named Taku Yamaoka wrote a book titled “Hoshigaranai Wakamonotachi” (“Young People Who Don’t Want Anything”). Status, prosperity, success, victory, love, sex, truth, justice — the key motivators of our species since it became recognizably human — mean little to them. A half-ironic description took hold — the “satori generation.” Satori is a religious term suggesting the enlightenment that raises an adept above worldly desire. Very likely Shukan Kinyobi is right in bringing the whole thing back down to earth with the word “fatalism.”

The magazine enlists specialists and academics to examine the “new fatalism” from their various viewpoints. Psychiatrist Toru Kumashiro looks at pop culture — manga, anime and computer games — and observes an evolution over the past half-century in line with research he cites to this effect: In 1998, one-quarter of young adults in their 20s and 30s harbored a feeling that “effort is not rewarded”; by 2013, one-third did.

The surprising thing, says Kumashiro, is the absence of resentment among today’s young people. You’d think they’d think they were getting screwed and be bitter about it, but no, they have their escape hatches — the very manga, anime and games that Kumashiro studies — and seem quite reconciled. Happy, even. Maybe happier than their more driven parents and grandparents were.

What of those manga, anime and games? Fans today would hardly know what to make of the manga of the 1960s. “Sports grit” sums up their theme and mood: Effort, sweat, failure, more effort, blood if necessary — and then, finally, success, victory! As in sports, so in life. The prize — the good life, however defined — went to him (it was a man’s world) who wrestled it from the jaws of adversity.

By the softer 1980s, this was more or less passe. Sports grit yielded to “love comedy.” Effort mattered here too, but the goal was love and the struggle was subdued — subtle rather than feral.

The 1990s saw a culture shift whose effects, as Kumashiro sees it, are still with us — a shift to superheroes. Japan’s economy had crashed. Overseas, wars in Rwanda, Serbia and the Middle East bespoke a return to primordial chaos — ominous background to the triumphant march of science as symbolized by Dolly the cloned sheep and Deep Blue, the IBM computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Only superheroes could cope with this. Japan, with its rising otaku (nerd) culture, led the world’s retreat from “reality” into the virtual dimension we largely inhabit today.

Consider computer games, says Kumashiro. Back in the 1980s — the now-quaint Famicom era — gaming demanded skills that had to be honed. No longer: Now, “the biggest hits require the least effort.” Reasonably enough. If career, love, wealth and so on are not worth the bother, why should gaming skills be?

Separately in Shukan Kinyobi, but as part of the same package, Tsukuba University humanities professor Takayoshi Doi draws a comparison between the “new fatalism” and the old class system, under which birth was destiny: You were born into your future. Born a peasant, you died a peasant; born a samurai, you died a samurai, and so on. Some broke the mold, but very few.

Modernity, Doi explains, trashed that. Now there is no mold; we make our own destiny. We’re free! — if we want to be. Do we? Doi fears not. To him, the contentment the opinion polls consistently find in the young generation is mere resignation. “Dissatisfaction,” he writes, “is the gap between expectation and fulfillment. Low expectations to begin with make for less dissatisfaction”: I’ll accept my lot if acceptance spares me the trouble of changing it.

Less dissatisfaction seems good, but are low expectations? Strangely absent from Shukan Kinyobi’s discussion is eros. Has it been dulled too, along with “expectations” in general? It seems it has. The weekly Shukan Post is alarmed by the rise of “sexless couples.” It’s been going on for some time but the accelerating pace is “shocking.” Here are the figures, released last month by the Japan Family Planning Association: 44.6 percent of married couples aged up to 49 are “sexless,” defined as engaging in sexual relations less than once a month, which often enough, if Shukan Post’s supplementary research is trustworthy, means never. The JFPA figure is up 12 percent from a similar survey it did 10 years ago. And 10 years from now? Will sex have gone the way of cannibalism and other messy primordial practices — something it was high time we outgrew?

The most obvious consequence is visible already in Japan’s elderly-overwhelmed, youth-deprived demography, but there is, of course, more, and whether you call a de-eroticized society “satorial” or “fatalistic” or something less kind — “torpid,” for example — it is, most would agree, something altogether new in the history of civilization. Whether for better or worse, we’ll soon know.

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