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As potential carriers of the coronavirus, young people have been asked during the pandemic to change their lifestyles not just for their own well-being, but for that of all members of society.

For that reason they carry a hefty responsibility — but perhaps they shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame as well.

Recent surveys and news coverage in Japan have cast young people as brazen wrongdoers, some argue, which is distracting the public from more pressing issues such as the country’s haphazard attempts to contain the virus or its sluggish vaccine rollout.

Aggressively addressing those problems instead of scapegoating youths, advocates say, could not only inspire more concern among young people and the public at large, but would surely help end the pandemic sooner.

“It doesn’t make sense to blame young people for the worsening situation when it’s clearly because Japan’s coronavirus measures are weak and have barely changed over the past year,” said Momoko Nojo, 23, a student at the Keio University Graduate School of Economics and founding director of No Youth No Japan, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising political participation among the country’s younger generation.

People in their 20s and 30s account for more than half of new cases in Japan. Convincing members of those age groups to voluntarily stay home, refrain from traveling or resist gathering in large groups is one of the country’s biggest challenges in containing the deadly virus.

But compassion for their predicament is often overshadowed by public condemnation.

“To all young people, I must speak frankly,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters in early May. “I know it must be difficult — not being able to go out, see your friends, have fun — but for you to stay home could help stop the virus from spreading so quickly and allow society to return to normal sooner.”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has chimed in as well.

“The virus is spreading rapidly — primarily from young people to the elderly — and the situation continues to put a heavy strain on the health care system,” Suga said on Friday, just moments before announcing the country’s ongoing state of emergency would be expanded for the third time.

Enduring quietly

Research conducted by public officials also tends to focus on young people.

In a survey released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government earlier this month, a majority of young people surveyed on the streets of the capital said they felt it was safe to go outside because they were wearing masks. Some said they went out because they had already made plans to meet friends or because others were going out, too.

On April 30, several dozen public servants spent four hours collecting responses from people gathered in groups of two or more near Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku stations. When identifying possible respondents, they specifically called on people who appeared to be younger than 30 and ignored all other passersby.

Officials said their goal was to better understand why public traffic hadn’t declined even after a state of emergency had taken effect on April 25 in the capital. By surveying young people — “whose continued activities in public may explain the ongoing spread of the virus,” they said — the city hopes to develop more effective ways to communicate the severity of the situation at hand.

But it was the way in which the survey was conducted that drew frustration.

“If you selectively choose like that, sure, it’s going to look like young people are going out more than everybody else, but that’s not helpful,” Nojo said. “The younger generation is enduring quietly, in its own way.”

More recently, the capital released on May 20 the results of an online survey of coronavirus patients in which 98% said they had been wearing a mask all or most of the time in the 14 days before they tested positive. Asked whether they had held any conversations without wearing a mask during the two weeks before they knew they had been infected, more than 35% of respondents in their teens and 20s said they had, while 21% of those in their 30s said they did so.

Areas of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, popular with younger people, have come under increased scrutiny during the pandemic. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Areas of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, popular with younger people, have come under increased scrutiny during the pandemic. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The data Tokyo officials often reference when analyzing the flow of people mostly focuses on crowds gathered in the Ueno, Ginza, Roppongi, Shibuya and Ikebukuro districts, as well as the Kabukicho and Ni-chome areas of Shinjuku.

It is largely in these locations that staff are dispatched to stand near train stations or crowded intersections, where they hold signs bearing warnings of the spreading virus and call on passing pedestrians to go home and stay there.

Similar methods are being used in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and a number of other major cities.

This presents a challenge for the media, since no single location can be expected to accurately represent the age distribution of those infected by the coronavirus. But large crowds in public places are useful visual references all the same.

Meanwhile, these statements and figures — complemented by photos and videos of districts where young people have always gathered — are being broadcast and telegraphed nationwide by leading television stations and newspapers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, television stations have repeatedly aired images of crowded clubs and karaoke bars packed to the brim with seemingly carefree youth. But more recently, those segments have focused on young people who supposedly account for a majority of curbside drinkers, restaurant-goers and people picnicking in public parks.

But critics say the focus on these activities is arbitrary, and that other behaviors — like living together with family, commuting on a packed train or working in a busy office, to name a few — carry a far greater risk of infection.

“It’s not fair at all,” said Yuki Murohashi, 32, inaugural director of the Japan Youth Conference. “Not only are there loads of older people on the streets, young people often have a greater need to be outside.”

‘Closed off’

Nearly a year and a half has passed since the onset of the coronavirus in Japan, and the country’s young have suffered in their own right.

Month after month of virtual classes or remote work. Graduation, Coming of Age Day, summer break — all stolen by an invisible pathogen that has tormented the mental health of the youth and derailed an irretrievable portion of their childhoods. And the virus still continues to spread.

New variants of the coronavirus that are highly contagious, deadlier and more difficult to detect emerged earlier this year. These new strains of COVID-19 are most likely aggravating the ongoing fourth wave in Japan.

The central government aims to finish vaccinating the country’s older population by the end of June — after which those with pre-existing conditions will receive their shots — but it’s not at all clear exactly when the general population will be inoculated, much less how much time that part of the process will take.

While estimates vary, it seems unlikely that many young people will get vaccinated by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the country entered its third state of emergency in late April further weighing down what was already a slumping economy.

But young people — especially young women — often bear the brunt of a national crisis, both financially and physically.

Last year, Japan saw a dramatic increase in the suicide rate among young people and women, as well as an uptick in reports of domestic violence.

Men accounted for over half of the more than 21,000 people who took their lives in Japan in 2020, but the number of women who committed suicide rose by more than 900 from the previous year — the first increase in two years.

Issues at home are often triggered or compounded by financial instability, unemployment and problems at work.

Between April and September last year, the country’s unemployment rate was highest among those between 15 and 19 years old, and the second-highest group was those in their late twenties, according to the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

In a JILPT report published in December, more than half of respondents in their 20s and 30s said they were impacted by loss of income and a reduction in work hours.

Part-time jobs that can’t be done remotely, and are frequently staffed by high school or college students, are often the first to go when budget cuts arrive, and struggling companies haven’t been able to hire as many college graduates over the past year due to a pandemic-induced recession.

A nationwide survey published in March by the Nippon Foundation showed that more than half of children in Japan age 17 through 19 felt “closed off,” and a majority experienced stress while isolating, attending classes virtually or being separated from family, friends and romantic partners.

Regardless of the often uneven distribution of shame and suffering across different generations, the behavior of young people could be decisive in the battle against the coronavirus. That is to say, if they can be held liable for its proliferation, maybe they deserve to be credited for the pandemic’s conclusion — if and when that happens.

“The notion that we’re failing society, and to be criticized when so many of us are doing our best to survive, is truly unfortunate,” Murohashi said. “But there’s no point arguing over who’s right or wrong because what we need is a serious dialogue about what’s working and what isn’t, or else the coronavirus will never go away.”

While younger people are being blamed by some media outlets for the spread of COVID-19, adults and older residents continue to crowd the capital's train stations each morning and evening. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
While younger people are being blamed by some media outlets for the spread of COVID-19, adults and older residents continue to crowd the capital’s train stations each morning and evening. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

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