LONDON — An article in the Jan. 31 issue of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun began with these words (my translation): “It was afternoon when he woke up. There was nothing he had to do. To avoid meeting his parents he got up without making any noise and went out of the house. It was the same thing for him every day. . . . He was 27 and a ‘freeter.’ He had been enrolled at Waseda University for eight years and had graduated last spring. He said: ‘I went to university but there is no job I want to do,’ Last spring he had become a company employee, but had left after three months. Now, apart from a bit of part-time work, he did nothing. His father, who was over 60, was annoyed with him and told him to get a job and leave home, but he could not take the decision to live on his own.”

The article, which will not have aroused much surprise in Japan, went on to quote a Labor Ministry White Paper. This had reported that there were 1.51 million “freeters” — or casual part-time workers — in 1997 and that this number had risen over the last five years by an additional half-million.

Sadly, there are dropouts from every society. In North America and Europe, the phenomenon is often linked with drug problems, although emotional stress, homelessness and poverty are often also factors in young people’s reluctance to face up to the demands of modern life. In Japan, fortunately, drugs do not so far seem to have been a major cause of young people dropping out of society. One factor which, though not confined to Japan, has been a particular issue in Japan has been the country’s highly competitive examination system — the so-called examination hell — in combination with the parental pressures personified by the “education mother,” or “kyoiku mama.”

It is also possible that, as a result of the decline in the number of children in most households, parents have tended to be too generous, as well as reluctant to see their offspring leaving the family nest. Some children have been given more pocket money than they need. If parents can afford the money, it is understandable that they want to meet the costs of their children’s university education, but unless a child is properly motivated and determined to get the best out of his or her university course, they may be wasting their resources.

In Japan, it seems that 80 percent of parents meet the costs of university education for their children. According to the Nikkei, this is more than double the number of parents paying for their children’s education in America and Europe.

In Britain, the government has introduced a loan scheme for students to cover university-education costs. This scheme has been criticized by some on the left who think university education should be free, but when students know that in due course they will have to repay their loans, they recognize that the onus is on them to choose suitable courses and get the best out of their studies.

Most young people in the West are reluctant to be “tied to their mother’s apron strings” and want to branch out on their own as soon as they can. At home, they are likely to be subject to parental restraints in such matters as making a noise, coming home late or bringing friends to the house. The desire for independence is understandable, and it is puzzling that young Japanese seem keener to stay in the “nest” than young people in North America and Europe. Is this because of the difficulty of finding reasonable accommodation and the high cost of living in Japan, or are there other psychological factors involved?

The heavy demands made by Japanese companies, which seem to leave young people little or no free time in which to deal with the ordinary chores entailed in living away from home, could be one problem, although Japan almost certainly has more convenience stores per 1,000 inhabitants than almost any other country.

Another factor, I suspect, is that many young people, noting the stifling environment in Japan’s large firms and the suffocating effect this has often had on their now staid parents, want to opt out of such an environment, but cannot easily do so without the means provided by those same, perhaps overly generous, parents.

An even more important factor in Japan’s conformist society could be that the individuality of young Japanese is suppressed. Naked, ruthless ambition can be an unpleasant characteristic, but we all need a reasonable amount of ambition to get on and study effectively. Encouraging the young to have a sense of achievement and a maximum of self-confidence should be important parts of any sensible education policy, but I would attach even more importance to the goal of encouraging them to develop their capacity to think as individuals.

There is, in my view, far too little debate in Japan about policies and aims. Open discussion will not cure the problem of the freeter phenomenon, but it could contribute toward more individual thinking among the young.

Teachers and parents need to do more to encourage ambition. They should stop regarding the desire to shine above one’s fellows as undesirable because it goes against their philosophy of equality. I recognize the importance of maximizing equality of opportunity, but this should not be at the expense of individuality and does not require the sort of conformism that is such a depressing element in modern Japanese society and which may well be a major factor in the freeter phenomenon.

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