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In violent times, young Japanese just shrug


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

  • aa00145

    The only ‘violence’ Japan will receive will be due to its complicity with American foreign policy. The best way to reduce terrorism directed at Japan would be to distance itself from American influence.

    • Erdal Tan

      Masahiko Fujiwara said that before.

    • Manfred Deutschmann

      That’s highly speculative. Japan has yet to show it can be a peaceful country by its own will, and not because it is forced to by a post-war constitution.
      Without adult supervision, it seems that this kid is bound for trouble again, as the election results of recent dramatically prove.
      The only way for Japan to become more independent is to show that it can get rid of the dangerous elements of its society, but the world is waiting for over 70 years now and not a lot has changed under the faux democratic surface.

  • GBR48

    What is described here as fatalism, is perhaps the most realistic take on life that is available to the majority of us, if we were to be brutally honest.

    As you get older, experience and circumstance beat this ‘fatalism’ into you by degrees. If young people have accepted it early on, and discovered a way to still be happy, then good for them. I wish I had.

    The lack of sex is good for their health, too. Those who fall in love and want to have families, will still do so. The rest are simply avoiding a range of health issues that they could cheerfully live without. The human race wastes too much of its time obsessing about sex and dealing with the consequences.

    These are positive findings. The economic consequences will not be as dire as folk fear, if Japan’s politicians finally accept the social and economic circumstances that they find themselves in, and plot a sustainable, low-growth course that enables their citizens to live comfortable lives. That is, after all, their job: They aren’t there to make the richest (the ‘1%’), the markets, the economists or the high-financiers happy. They are there for their citizens, or at least the ‘99%’ whose lives and well-being are influenced to a greater or lesser extent by government policies. As for the rich, the ‘1%’ that politicians tend to pander to: They are not really dependent upon the government for anything and can be left to their own devices.

    Judging by this survey, we could all learn from Japan’s youth, even if for most of us, it’s all a bit too late.

    • The CronoLink

      Are you saying you don’t care if Japanese culture cease to exist in a few decades?

      • GBR48

        I’m not saying that. I’m not entirely sure how you get to that from my comment.

    • Guido ‘lenix’ Böhm

      first you have to believe you might archive something great in live, else you will never get there. you just have to be still ok even if you fail. giving up without even trying is a fail from the start.

      • GBR48

        Guido, It’s possible to live a full, happy life without spending half of it trying to change the world, and repeatedly failing. The well known stories of those who achieved greatness from humble beginnings are lovely, but they are well known because they are rare. For the vast majority of people, an early understanding and acceptance of one’s own limitations in a world that favours the wealthy and the beautiful out of all proportion and against good sense, is more likely to allow a person an achievable sense of personal fulfillment.

        Good for those who are determined to shoot for the moon: if they want to optimistically attempt the unlikely, that is their prerogative. I would just point out that there is nothing wrong (and much good sense) in settling for just being happy within the circumstances that life dumps you in.

        Simple happiness is undervalued.

        Nobody has to become a more famous, richer or successful person to be happy. Many who take that route, including many celebrities, often find happiness hard to come by when they have achieved their goals, and done something ‘great’.

      • Lacertoss

        How is the lack of sex between married couples a good thing? If you meant lack of casual sex between young people I might agree, but that’s not the point here.

      • GBR48

        I meant lack of casual sex, and I thought it was the point, that young people were not that bothered by it, preferring alternatives.

      • Lacertoss

        The article says that: “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. ”
        So, the couples who are not having sex are married ones, which is terrible for society as a whole. I mean, almost 50% of married people not having sex with their partners? Something is CLEARLY wrong in that pattern.

      • GBR48

        It’s up to couples to decide what they do in the bedroom. They may be very happy as they are. Good luck to them. It’s not something I’d worry about. It only takes one shot on target to score a goal, if they want to have children. Sex isn’t a daily or even weekly requirement in a happy relationship.

      • Lacertoss

        Actually, it is.While it’s up to the couples to decide what to do in their bedrooms, it shouldn’t be an encouraged behaviour, as it destroy society from within (have you seem japanese birth rates for the last couple of decades?). It’s also frankly odd, as humanity only biological reason to ever have relationships in the first place is to reproduce. People should have sex and children if they are married, at least the majority of people should do so. If you have almost 50% that don’t, your society is having a serious problem.
        Also, I doubt sexless couples are happy in the majority of the cases. This statistic most likelly also indicates widespread male infidelity and marriages for the sake of appearence, not only ‘herbivorous males’.
        In the end, it’s a social problem, not an individual one. A few examples: it’s up for people wheter they do drugs or don’t, and they may be happy doing so, but I know I wouldn’t like to live in a society where 50% of the people use cocaine, so I wouldn’t endorse the use. It’s up for people wheter they should be shut-ins or not, but if 50% of the society is shut-in it will become a terrible distortion in the social order, and etc.

      • GBR48

        The idea that people who marry have a duty to pop out children is offensive to many, but if you hold it, you might consider joining the LDP, where recent news reports suggest it is popularly held.

        Whilst I know what you mean by ‘herbivore males’, and appreciate the quotes, as a sexually active vegan, I still find it offensive.

        Maybe you should worry less about what other people are doing, simply because it doesn’t fit in with how you think they should be living their lives.

      • Lacertoss

        Honestly, I don’t care if you think that it is an offensive term, it was obviouly not meant to be offensive. And if I care about offending anyone I couldn’t write anything because anything is offensive to someone. Treating society as a secondary thing is offensive to me, but you don’t see me complaining. Anyway, being it offensive or not doesen’t have anything to do with the validity of my argument. But, just for the sake of the argument: I never said it was the duty of married people to have kids, I said that if you have 50% that don’t care about it you have a social problem, which is merely stating a FACT.
        Also, I don’t worry about their lives, as I am not Japanese, but obviously if I am commenting on an article about it I am allowed to expose my opinion, right?

      • RiverHollow

        @GBR48:disqus Although i think adopting the same “fatalism” that japanese adopt is a profound and rational choice, I personally do no adopt this way of living.

        I’m still trying to change the world, and transcend my own limitations in society. Even if i fail by the time my life is over (which i accept is a likely scenario), I will have no regrets.

        And I think it’s people like me that help this world move forward. Most of us WILL fail to achieve anything. But there will always be a few that make the breakthrough.

        So in a way, we are sacrificing/risk our life to pursue happiness. Do you think this is not a worthy way of living?

      • Oliver Mackie

        Unless you’re unlucky, it doesn’t require much sex to initiate a pregnancy, but bringing up one or more children is an incredibly time and energy absorbing task, (as well as being an incredibly fulfilling experience) that can, believe it or not, leave little time or energy for sex, without it being a problem at all for the marriage. Once they’ve finished college, you can both hit the sack as often as you like.

      • Ceci Pipe

        The only reason for a relationship is to reproduce?

        You’ve never been in a relationship and can stop talking right now. :P

      • Ceci Pipe

        Why is it terrible for society? Because we need children?

        Why? So more children can be born poor and stay that way? If I can enjoy someone’s company, why do I need sex? If I can avoid cursing someone else to a futile existence, isn’t it my duty to do so? And if the feudal lords object to the idea of one day having to do things for themselves, well frankly I don’t give a damn and I’m happier for it.

      • Lacertoss

        Zzzzzzzzz…. Get out of the XIX century, please. Life conditions have changed A LOT since the nihilists developed that kind of speech.

      • Ceci Pipe

        This may sound weird, but you can have all the faith into the world and still starve to death in a gutter somewhere through no fault of your own.

        People say we should be optimists, we should believe that there’s an invisible hand, an automatic, cosmic, karmic, and above all immediate action of a reward of success for our hard work. But there isn’t. We are born, we live, we die, some people rule like feudal lords thanks to their birth, others get a lucky break, the rest of us stay where we are or drop down.

        Be happy, or be angry, those are your only choices. And anger is not a kind mistress, it’s painful, and sooner or later you’ll forget to be happy. Just be happy. You can’t change anything, your work doesn’t matter, be happy and be nice.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Maybe the youth of Japan have discovered what philosophers have been harping on for centuries: “Life is life and no need to get your panties in a bunch over it.”

  • Time to re-read “Brave New World”…
    Consumerism, social norms and dirty politics all around the globe have led to this situation. Japan, due to its history and social structure has ran into these issues faster than any other country, but it’s going to be more or less the same elsewhere soon (if not already).
    But it’s so difficult to break that cycle!

    • Fogetti

      Well, I could hardly imagine the same happening in the US (or any other western countries) which in my opinion is driven by individualism, consumerism and sexism. Completely the opposite which is going on in Japan now.

      • drkvenger

        I would argue the last two – consumerism and sexism is pervasive here as well. As for individualism – an argument can be made for Japan’s collective mindset being more dangerous to society since a select few in the government has broad powers overall in defining morality and social norms. At least in the US, the voice of a few has the power to dissent.

  • Robert Benesh

    I have checked this website regularly over the last 8 years and this is the most inspired article I have ever come across. I think you should consider expanding this concept into a book. Fantastic work.

    • COMP

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Peter Lööf

    Young people have always been a mirror reflected image of adults – a spitting image – yet completely different.

  • drkvenger

    At what cost is this generational mindset? Creativity, innovation and the improvement of the human condition – to be replaced by laissez-faire, status quo, “ignorance is bliss”? Sounds more like capitulation and reliance on a socialist heavy government.

  • Two Cents

    Cue Grandma: Now, when I was young, people didn’t do things like that…

    “The world seems to have spun murderously out of control…” Since when? WW2? The Aum sarin gas attacks? The Akihabara stabbings?

    Murderers who have fantasized about killing somebody are something new?

    Status, prosperity, success, victory, love, sex, truth, and justice mean very little to exactly whom? A sampling of which young people? A sample size please. I can usually find at least one of these in the people around me.

    Grit in manga has not been seen since the 60s…er,…since last week’s Slam Dunk.

    Gaming skills back in the 80s required the skills of pushing buttons, choosing one of several directions for a toggle stick, and inserting an endless stream of coins or tokens into a slot.

    Sexless couples are on the rise? Or maybe it’s more acceptable to talk about it and easier to get data on it these days.

    The number of young adults in their 20s and 30s who feel “effort is not
    rewarded” has risen eight percent since 1998? A margin for error analysis
    on each study could bring that down to about zero. And what was the
    percent back in the good old days?

    And if young people do believe there is little possibility of social mobility between birth and death despite their efforts, then maybe they are better educated these days and have a better knowledge of the way the world works.

    If this “fatalism” simply means they are choosing not to hand themselves over as corporate slaves, then more power to them. Let them enjoy their lives now because forty years in the future, they’ll be having the same discussions about sex and cannibalism, and articles of little substance in the news.

    • Lacertoss

      “‘The world seems to have spun murderously out of control…’ Since when? ”
      Since WWI, actually. WWI meant the end of traditional life and the definitive start of our current modern world.

    • alek kolba

      Just look at the birth rates. Look the the falling GDP growth. The 230% GDP debt, highest debt in the world. Current generation of young in Japan is called ”lost generation” for a reason. They grew up in a bubble economy, and now they have to face difficult economy and deal with unemployment.

      The situation in Japan is changing for worse, and you can’t deny that.

      ”Gaming skills back in the 80s required the skills of pushing buttons,
      choosing one of several directions for a toggle stick, and inserting an
      endless stream of coins or tokens into a slot.”

      Uhm…. have you ever played Call of Duty? Don’t even compare dumbed down, pathetic games of our current age, to the best games of the 80’s.

  • KaiHarate

    Generalizing millions of people from wide ranging geographic areas with all sorts of subcultures would never bring an accurate portrayal of anything.

  • Jiru Ryōichi Cazzano Kawasumi

    I am most often not much for discussing so I am once again short and sweet. Happiness is happiness, people have sex or not. Pecorina or pompino.

    People do what they want and that is it.

  • ring ding

    apathy, fatalism, OBEY…. doesn’t matter how you frame it. they sold their souls for politeness and remain, to this day, anchored by this waning cultural ball-and-chain. the young generations are stuck to obligation not fitting their modernity and too weak to change things (everyone for that matter). See group think (use sadistic working hours as an example). cultural filial piety will continue dictate younger generations endlessly in Japan. to reach their potential, they must leave japan for a long time… it’s a psychological morose in Tokyo. I’ve given you more clear direction for a book. write away….

  • This has the ring of the “No Future” generation in England in the mid 70’s and into the 80’s. Why work so hard if you have to pay more in taxes and never seem to get ahead? Of course the English youth in that period didn’t have much work at all, they went right on the Dole. All those people hanging around with nothing to do. Does this sound familiar? It’s happening right now also in the U.S. This is why we have young people trying to join ISIS. They face a slow death in our inner cities where their basic needs are taken care of by the State but they have nothing else to do with their time. The Devil will find them work. This is the curse of the welfare state.