For a moment, it looked as if the most powerful people in Japan were three 20-something women.
In a country where the young are taught to keep quiet and defer to their elders, the trio of women decided to speak out after the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee made sexist remarks this month when he suggested that women talk too much in meetings.
An online petition the women started mushroomed into a vociferous social media campaign that helped dislodge the Olympic leader, Yoshiro Mori, 83, and prevented him from handpicking another octogenarian man to succeed him. Instead, his replacement is a woman more than 25 years his junior: Seiko Hashimoto, a former Olympian and current lawmaker.
To some, the moment was a hopeful sign that Japan’s rigid age-based hierarchy could be breached. In this instance, the old had been forced to take their cues from the young, who have felt stifled by a society in which plum jobs are often awarded on the basis of years served rather than merit, and the most powerful political and business leaders are in their 70s, 80s or even 90s.
“Among young people, I think this encourages us because we feel like we want to make a change of such situations in society,” said Momoko Nojo, 22, an economics major at Keio University in Tokyo, who was one of the three authors of the petition, which garnered more than 150,000 signatures. “So this became our source of energy to keep making these actions.”
Not so long ago, Mori might have been expected to keep his job solely on the basis of his seniority. Now, though, there was no avoiding public sentiment. As he tried to cling to his post with an apology, he acknowledged what people were thinking by invoking the Japanese term “rougai,” which is used to describe an older person considered an obstacle or a burden.
Yet even as these generational shifts gain attention, broader change is likely to come slowly. While attitudes are evolving, and younger people are finding an unaccustomed voice through social media, there have been only flickers of change in the workplace, and the upper reaches of Japan’s government and corporations remain firmly the domain of graying men.
“There is a generational change taking place in civil society,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “But in the halls of power in politics, business and organizations in general, the iron grip of the old men’s club is still very much there.”
Other efforts to harness online platforms to force social change have not yielded widespread results in Japan. Yumi Ishikawa, a Japanese model, actress and temp worker, led a viral social media campaign two years ago calling for an end to requirements by employers that female workers wear high heels. The Labor Ministry acknowledged that it needed to “raise awareness” of the issue, and a few employers relaxed some dress codes, but many women still feel compelled to wear heels — and skirts — to the office.
To a certain extent, demography dictates the hegemony of the old in Japan. More than one-quarter of the population is 65 or older, the highest proportion in the world. Japanese tend to live longer and in better health than many people elsewhere, and the media is filled with examples of vibrant craftspeople who remain active well into their seventh and eighth decades. But at times, outdated values of the older generation prevail.
And while age in many cases brings with it valuable experience, in Japan it is often the credential that outweighs all others.
“Seniority and age is still more important than ability,” said Jesper Koll, a senior adviser to investment firm WisdomTree who has lived in Japan for more than three decades. “Japan is the world champion of pulling rank on you, and rank is not ability, but predominantly just age.”
The seniority system endures in part because it provides a sense of security. Workers know the path forward, and the values are inculcated well before they enter the workforce, with hierarchies enforced even among children.
“When I was in school, I heard that if you listen to your older sempai now, then when you become a sempai, people will have to listen to you,” said Ryutaro Yoshioka, 27, using the word for older mentors. Similarly, in the workplace, Yoshioka said, employees who “stay in the company will eventually rise up.”
Now that he works at a large marketing firm in Tokyo, he sees the limitations of this system.
“Even if you don’t have a lot of abilities, there are people who have been at the company for 10 or 20 or 30 years who are in very senior positions,” he said. “And with these people in power, there is a tendency when they say something that everyone else in the room just shuts up and feels they can’t say something.”
This culture has hamstrung the Japanese economy, some analysts say, by rewarding obedience and eliminating incentives to take risks.
“We are a country with a shrinking population, stagnant economy at best and little innovation,” Nakano, of Sophia University, said. “Japan used to produce Walkmen, and now we buy vacuum cleaners from Britain. It’s almost comical in the way in which Japan stopped innovating.”
Although employers have been chipping away at the traditional job-for-life system that developed after World War II, a majority of large companies still hire new recruits through a system known as shukatsu, in which workers enter as a cohort straight out of college and are expected to stay until retirement.
Many young people, while lamenting the fact that they cannot take on leadership roles until they are older, are resigned to the way it works. Others feel little reason to do anything that might upset the stability of the current system in a country with little economic growth but enduring wealth and largely comfortable lives.
“We feel some frustration,” said Kayo Shigehisa, 22, who will graduate from Kyoto University of Foreign Studies this year and plans to start teaching in a nursery school, “but that is our fate as the young generation.”
Some young workers say they are seeing signs of change, even in more traditional companies. Kaisei Sugawara, 25, joined one of Japan’s largest security companies as an engineer last year, recruited into a program for college graduates with international experience. He will be posted abroad, he said, by his fourth year at the company, far earlier than in previous generations.
Such shifts may be forced on Japan even if it does not want it. Given its declining population — Japan posted its lowest level of births on record in 2020 — the country has already begun to relax its notorious insularity, including, before the pandemic, by inviting more foreign workers. Japan might struggle to attract the most talented people, though, if it does not reward merit or give young employees chances to try out new ideas.
If generational change is to continue in Japan, it may come quietly as young people remake the world that their elders bequeathed them simply by making different choices.
This type of change is “a much gentler matter and made up of private decisions,” said Gordon Mathews, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a co-editor of “Japan’s Changing Generations: Are Young People Creating a New Society?”
He cited women who are opting out of marriage in record numbers or young people who sidestep traditional corporate recruitment and pursue freelance careers.
“It’s not as if anyone has planned it out,” he said. “It’s young people making decisions not to live lives like their parents. The compilation of personal decisions is what makes generational change.”
In some ways, the pandemic has empowered young people, said Wakako Fukuda, an activist who is studying sociology at Wako University in Tokyo.
In Japanese society, “we were never taught to speak up or speak out on anything,” Fukuda said.
But people are spending more time at home trawling social media, she said, where young people can express opinions in ways they have not felt empowered to do so before.
“The space we deserve is already there,” she said. “And it is dominated by young people.”
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