Not long ago, I came to loathe a particular word. The word — which I used to believe in and cherish — is now, perhaps, the most misused of all those in the Japanese language. It is yume (dream).

How, you may well wonder, did this lovely sounding and often poetically connotative little word become demeaned and degraded?

When my four children were attending Japanese kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, every single principal at every single graduation ceremony — and I went to them all — gave a speech exhorting the young graduates to “have a dream.” At face value, it sounded quite innocent and inspiring — yet as the years went by I began to wonder what those sincere and dedicated educators truly meant by “dream.”

I had to look back to my own childhood to realize what was behind it. At that time, there were only three “dreams” for a NJB (Nice Jewish Boy). You could dream to be a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. Anything else was considered a nightmare. In fact, back in the middle of the last century (before accountants were a dime a dozen), a lawyer would often be termed “a Jewish boy who couldn’t stand the sight of blood.”

I realized in 1957, at the tender age of 13 — when I told my parents that I wanted to be an astronomer and started an argument with them that lasted well into 2006 — that the dreams I was supposed to be having were not my own. They were theirs. They broke down and bought me a telescope, but only if I promised to take a year’s subscription to The Wall Street Journal in the bargain.

In actuality, every generation has its own dream or dreams — and surely, that’s how it should be. The one thing that young people in any country and any era should be wary of is taking on the unfulfilled dreams of the previous generation.

To see how this applies to Japan in 2011, it’s instructive to consider the country’s two great modern eras of progressive transformation. Indeed, this may even tell us what is lacking in the present era, and why young people today are trapped in a very undreamlike quagmire of their elders’ making.

The Japanese people of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) had a dream: To absorb global values of education and development in order to create a modern nation state that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those of the West.

They rejected the principles of national isolation that had been rigidly enforced for nearly 250 years. Their individual pride derived from the achievements of the collective, be it their village, town, city or their modernizing country. And, though the leaders of the Meiji Era were young, they were aiming, no less, to reinvent what it meant to be “Japanese” in the modern world.

The second great era of transformation came after World War II, when virtually every major and most minor cities had been reduced to rubble by U.S. bombing. Again, young men and women felt betrayed by their past. They were bitter about having been indoctrinated in school and society with a militaristic and chauvinist mindset.

In response, they rejected the past and created a new ethos that allowed for individual achievement in culture and commerce. Their pride came from their conviction that Japan could be reconceived as a robust, peaceful and creative force in the world.

In other words, the people of the Meiji Era and of postwar Japan followed their own dreams. And the leitmotif of these dreams was none other than hangyaku no seishin — the spirit of rebellion.

By the 1960s, when the postwar generation of writers, playwrights, filmmakers, graphic artists and photographers were coming into their own, the media — particularly the print media — was awash with lively polemical debates; little theaters were booming, staging plays that questioned fundamental notions underpinning Japanese society; filmmakers attacked every stultifying aspect of Japanese social life, past and present; and thousands of ordinary people joined students in demonstrations against what they saw as a new acceptance of militarism in the guise of strategic cooperation with the United States.

Twenty years later, in the 1980s, there was even a fascinating variation on that earlier generation’s dream of an independent and open Japan. That was when the so-called shinjinrui (meaning, “new breed of Japanese”) debunked the overly serious messages of their elders and created a “Japan Lite” brand of playful merchandise and self-indulgent fun.

This esprit translated easily into the video game and anime booms that were to follow — and it was, too, a kind of rebellion against a past that required Japanese people to be diligent, disciplined and dour.

But what of the present? Aren’t today’s young the very people, like my children, who were urged to followed a dream? Yes, they are. But it was a dream that could no longer provide pride, either collective or individual, for them as the country’s new generation of Japanese.

They saw through the dream as being a vehicle to take them backward, back to the “good old days” when Japanese kept their noses to the grindstone and their heads humbly low in the face of authority.

After all, where is the spirit of rebellion, the hard cold eye on the vagaries of the past of all those principals and their peers? That generation had, as today’s young people can see, only succeeded in plunging Japan into a 20-year stagnation. Moreover, the seniority system in business and government today is a euphemism for the institutionalization of stodgy and repressive inaction.

The medium of the Internet and its use in social networking might have given young people the tools they need to take the dissemination of information into their own hands. But young Japanese are unlike their counterparts in many other countries, who use such media to invent their own take on their societies — even going so far, as we see now in the Middle East and North Africa, as employing modern communications technology to affect significant political change.

Instead, Japanese have taken the new technology as an excuse to withdraw further into themselves or their own world of private little happinesses.

Pride in the nation today is surely expressed when Japan’s soccer team clocks up another win, or when a Japanese film or actor wins an Oscar. But such pride is outwardly generated: It depends on recognition awarded Japan or Japanese people by the foreign world.

What is lacking is the hangyaku no seishin, the gut feeling that you have somehow been misled by your parents’ and grandparents’ generations and that you must muster your own sense of pride on the basis of values which you yourself create, in the first instance, for your peers.

Those principals at my children’s schools had self-styled dreams for the new generation. But you can’t pass on your version of a dream. Education should give children the tools and weapons to rebel and dream their own dreams.

In that sense, Japan’s older folk have failed the young generation by not doing that, and in many cases by trying to pawn off their own stale dreams of a “once great Japan” to them. I, for one, am waiting patiently for the time when young Japanese realize our failure and act on that realization in their own fashion — and on their own terms.

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