"In recent times, reflections on the future of Japanese society have not generally been couched in optimistic terms," says Yuji Genda, a professor of Labor Economics at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Social Science.

Many people probably know what he means. First, there's the massive problem of an aging society and a declining birthrate. Then there's economic hardship outside of the big cities, known as the "shrinking regions" problem. And then there are fiscal deficits, concerns about North Korea, as well as problems that other nations face such as increased globalization and growing social inequality.

"These overwhelmingly gloomy prospects for society as a whole may in turn be taken to signal a widespread loss of hope," says Genda, "which raises the question of whether, and in what form, hope exists among the individuals living in such a bleak society."