When the political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) visited the infant United States in 1831, he was struck above all by the “equality of condition” that prevailed there.

He was a French nobleman with aristocratic biases, but his American observations forced the conclusion on him that equality was the way of the future, not only in the New World but in the Old as well. The evidence, once his eyes had been opened, was unmistakable. “The whole book which is here offered to the public” — “Democracy in America” — “has been written under the impression of a kind of religious terror produced in the author’s mind by the view of that irresistible revolution … It is not necessary that God himself should speak in order that we may discover the unquestionable signs of his will.” God’s will, Tocqueville had discovered, was “equality of condition.”

Agrarian America gave way to industrial-capitalist America, and equality got swamped. A Tocqueville returned to life circa 1985 would have been more impressed by Japan. Here, a rough equality really had taken shape. Executive salaries were modest, rank-and-filers earned enough to make most of them feel securely middle class, and the down-and-out poor were numerically negligible. Effort, not wealth, opened the doors to higher education. Americans took note. In 1983, an American professor of education was quoted by Time magazine as saying, “The whole culture (of Japan) is pervaded by the ethic that with true effort you can succeed; that if you’re not achieving, you haven’t tried hard enough.”

A generation later, almost nothing of that remains. “Divided world” is the Asahi Shimbun’s description of current reality — not Japan’s alone but a global side-effect of globalization. A 17-year-old boy the newspaper profiled last month speaks of Japan’s “caste system,” and of himself as hopelessly at the bottom of it. His mother was single and unable to raise him. He ended up at a children’s facility, which does its best but facts are facts: only 24 percent of kids growing up in such institutions go on to university, against 28 percent of kids living with poor families earning under ¥2 million a year and 62.8 percent of offspring of parents earning ¥12 million. “With true effort you can succeed” — if you have financial backing.

Even then, success, narrowly defined as defense against poverty, is not assured. One-quarter of university graduates must settle for part-time jobs, reports Spa! magazine. How do you pay back a student loan of, say, ¥8 million on a part-time salary? Answer: very slowly. Figuring a rate of ¥50,000 a month, subtracted from a monthly salary of ¥200,000, that loan will be weighing you down for 14 years.

Someone in precisely that situation is a 28-year-old man Spa! introduces (pseudonymously) as Mamoru Ono.

As interesting as the man himself is his place of residence, situated “somewhere in Chiba Prefecture,” way out in the country, 40 minutes by car (the reporter’s car; Ono doesn’t have one) from the nearest train station. The house looks like what it once was but no longer is — a somewhat rundown private residence. Now it’s a somewhat rundown company dorm, in which Ono lives, for the time being, alone.

He studied law in college, hoping to be a lawyer, but failed three times to pass the bar exam. He had no time to study. He had to support himself by working part-time. Those who did pass, he says, were spared that necessity by family wealth.

So there he was, college behind him, ¥8 million in debt, and nothing offering but part-time work with a construction company. He grabbed it. What choice did he have? The pay was low but there was a dorm, rent free. A real dorm would have been preferable to this big empty abandoned house, but one takes what’s available.

There’s nothing else in the neighborhood — no restaurants, no shopping facilities, no convenience store. A bus comes by every morning at 5 a.m. It’s the only way out if you don’t have a car. The bus stops at a convenience store en route, and passengers stock up for the day. Then it’s on to Tokyo and the day’s work.

Ono’s neighbors and fellow passengers are part-timers like himself, living in dorms like his. They populate the district. Everyone’s alone, wrapped in solitude. There are no families, no kids, no women. Perhaps at some point Ono will acquire a roommate or two, but what would it change? He works, sleeps, lives on instant noodles and wonders, “Will I ever get out of here?”

Making full allowances for inequalities of ability and luck, you can’t help seeing in Spa!’s down-and-out young people a problem — grinding poverty — that postmodern society should have solved but instead seems to be exacerbating. It harks back far beyond the buoyant 1980s, when poverty really did seem largely a thing of the past, to the industrial urban slums of the early 1900s, whose most wretched denizens could at least tell themselves that what they had was better than the impoverished rural life they’d left behind. A 25-year-old new arrival in Tokyo personifies a 21st-century version of that plight. Fed up with the long hours and low pay of small-town restaurant work, he quit and migrated, determined to take whatever was offered, and something did offer, or seemed to — a job interview on his very first day. But a job interview is not a job, as prospective landlords informed him when he went looking for a roof over his head. They wouldn’t rent to someone who was not working. Well, there were always Net cafes. He slept there, wandering from one to another, showering seldom, eating little, shedding 10 kilograms in a month, finally landing a ¥150,000-a-month part-time job, living now in a cupboard-size room in a “share house,” feeling as if he’s in jail. He, too, wonders if he’ll ever get out.

The ideal of the self-made individual struggling out of poverty into prosperity struck Tocqueville about early America. Japan’s nearest equivalent, the postwar “economic miracle,” was a collective rather than an individual effort. It peaked in the 1980s, soon to deteriorate into today’s kakusa shakai, the “gap society” in which rich and poor stand poles apart. Will poverty prove self-perpetuating, poor parents passing it on to their children? The Asahi Shimbun’s figures on university entrance suggest that possibility.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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