Polls highlight dark times perchance prior to Japan’s new dawn


Second of two parts

Every five years for more than half a century, The Institute of Statistical Mathematics has conducted its Nihonjin no Kokuminsei Chosa (Survey of Japanese National Character) to study and analyze the values, opinions and lifestyle choices of Japanese people as they change from generation to generation.

Last week in Counterpoint I discussed some of those values, opinions and choices from the 1980s, the peak period of Japan’s so-called bubble economy. During that decade — as the survey showed — confidence in the strength of the national economy was at a peak.

On the surface, everything seemed hunky-dory. The shinjinrui (new breed) of young people were focused less on the pride of self-sacrifice that came from rebuilding the nation after the war than on the benefits of immediate self- gratification.

What were the shinjinrui like?

They valued the freedom of individual choice that their newfound affluence afforded them, expressing it through consumption — much as a generation of American youth had done in their “new breed” phase in the 1950s. The categories of the objects of desire harbored by the two new breeds were similar: cars, music and fashion. It was the tastes of the two young generations in the United States of the 1950s and the Japan of the 1980s that drove the booms in those three classes of consumption.

With the collapse of Japan’s real-estate bubble of the ’80s, a lot of the land whose value had been vastly overassessed and used for collateral to get bloated loans from banks was turned into negative equity. The number of bankruptcies rocketed. Large manufacturers severed ties with small and medium-size manufacturers around the country, trying to protect the status of their “permanent” employees by severing limbs to protect vital organs.

All this led to a decline in the economic fortunes of the provinces and an increase in the number of young job-seekers leaving home to try their luck in the big cities. Bureaucrats and politicians alike, however, were convinced that the collapse of the bubble in the early ’90s was no more than a “technical adjustment.” As one prominent businessman told me then: “We’ll be back on our feet in five years. This temporary setback will actually be good for Japan.”

The Nihonjin no Kokuminsei Chosa was still indicating that confidence in the economy was strong: In 1993, 73 percent of people surveyed believed the state of the economy to be “very good” or “good”; while 74 percent felt the same about the standard of living. Evidently, it was not only bureaucrats and politicians who were in denial about the profundity of Japan’s fall.

It didn’t take long for this to change.

The survey of 1998 showed that the 73 percent with confidence in the economy had shrunk, within just five years, to 32 percent; and the 74 percent who had rated Japan’s standard of living highly were now only 53 percent of the total respondents.

The two surveys conducted this century, in 2003 and 2008, have indicated an even bleaker outlook. In 2003, only 14 percent of respondents thought that people’s lives would become more affluent in the future; by 2008, this had fallen to 11 percent. In 2003, 47 percent said livelihoods would actually get less affluent; by 2008, no fewer than 57 percent expected to be less well-off in the future. Clearly, what many had thought to be a technical adjustment to the cosmetics was, in reality, a body blow to the fundamentals.

For two decades now Japan has been caught in “The Big Drift.” What of the staples of the shinjinrui lifestyle? Young people have turned away from cars. They still love their music, but they are purchasing it online, and the market for CDs barely survives. As for fashion, consumption at the high end has plunged. Retailers who can clothe you from tip to toe for less than ¥10,000 are thriving. Luxury has become just that: a luxury.

What happened to the shinjinrui values of the 1980s? After that time, what was worth sacrificing yourself for anymore, when the boom had just made the rich richer and the luxury items you had sought with such enthusiasm now gave you little pleasure? Young people who sought guidance on values were getting no more from society’s elders than strings of cliches about perseverance and working for the national good.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995, which left more than 6,000 people dead and many more with injuries and property damage, curiously energized young people. Undeterred by an official response that was clumsy and slow, many young people flocked to Kobe and its environs as volunteers. In other words, their response to disaster was not something abstract or tied to a national emblem but a personal calling to help individuals in need. This volunteer movement of young people had a marked effect on the government, which, thanks to those young people’s spirit, spearheaded its initiative in the United Nations to make 2001 the International Year of Volunteers.

This, to me, became symbolic of a shift in values. The outward selfishness of the new breed of Japanese youth was just that, a surface value. Deep down there was empathy. It needed only a catalyst to become proactive.

One disaster, however, does not change a society. The high-tech boom that was to follow facilitated the new breed in their inward turn. They took refuge in one or another mania, whether gaming, anime or simply the obsession with technology that has long been a feature of Japanese life.

The shinjinrui morphed into the otaku (obsessives), who would rather stare into a screen than a face. The shinjinrui of the ’80s and the otaku of this century don’t look alike. The former were the children of kokusaika (internationalization) and the new individualistic cool; the latter, the products of Japanese pop gadgetry. To the otaku, nerdy is the new cool.

But the two young generations were and are both self-obsessed in a similar way, being wary of the older generation’s preachy diligence-for- its-own-sake and self-sacrifice in the name of some amorphous and unobtainable goal. Their take on ethics was and is ultimately personal.

Today’s immense popularity among younger readers of Takiji Kobayashi’s 1929 classic about the oppression of the working class, “The Crab Canning Ship,” and of the new translation by Ikuo Kameyama of Feodor Dostoevski’s “The Brothers Karamazov” (which has sold more than a million copies) are indicative of this otaku generation’s genuine search for a morality that suits both society and the individual.

Perhaps the very technology that looms so large before their eyes is what allows them to reach out to others with a real sense of concern.

The survey on national character may be pointing in the direction of gloom, if not doom, with its findings that young Japanese people are disillusioned with their country. But I believe there is a values revolution taking place in the subculture . . . and this makes me hopeful.

Progress originates in the depths of dissatisfaction with a society, then marches into the light once that society, with its young people in the vanguard, finds ways to express itself meaningfully and concretely in personal values and lifestyle choices.