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Lifestyles: Japan

Kids These Days
JT Brown in Japan

...the ‘parasite singles’.

As surely as time marches on, older generations everywhere will shake their heads at younger generations and find fault with their morals and their mettle. In my previous two essays on Japan, I began addressing the topic of what’s up with the youth of this country. Keeping things in perspective –that emerging generations often are scorned and discounted by their elders- there are, nevertheless, disturbing trends with the latest Japanese set coming of age.

As I did in last month’s essays on Japan’s ‘Generation Y’(and latter day X’ers), I will now state again that it is the older generations in Japan which I hold responsible for the shortcomings of their youth. (For more on that, if you have not already, please see my exposé on Japanese teenage prostitution at ( Regardless of who is to blame, however, Japan’s under-30-set is increasingly distinguishing itself as being rather undistinguished, and unaccountable.

In a time only recently gone by, the Japanese worker famously led the world in productivity and hours worked. Everybody knows the legend of the Japanese company man slaving away for long hours until just before the last train left the platform each night, showing up for work on days off, and often going years without a vacation. Some of that legend, was just that –legend. Especially the working late each night part. (But that is dirt best saved for another article.) There is no refuting, though, that Japanese workers lived for, and were essentially owned by, their employer. And traditionally, no employees toiled harder or for longer hours than the youngest, newest employees.

Yet a look at the Japanese landscape during these times -the post-war years up through the go-go 1980’s- would seem to be incongruous with the workplace conditions tolerated by Japan’s most precious commodity–its young people.

Indeed, Japan was constantly starved for workers. Be it for the factory floors, or the headquarter highrises downtown. Things got so frenzied that in the late 1980’s, even the bluest-chip companies like Toyota, Pioneer, etc., were falling all over themselves trying to meet hiring targets. Even for new first-year employees, bonuses equivalent to six extra months of salary were guaranteed, as were partial or sometimes even fully subsidized company housing. Paid vacations to Hawaii, and even new cars or company supported wedding ceremonies could become enticements to getting kids leaving secondary schools and college to sign on the dotted line. Perenially, there were simply more jobs waiting to be filled than there were young people to fill them. This was a buyer’s market if ever there was one, if you were young and in the job market.

Yet, despite what seemed at the time to be a ‘can’t go wrong’ future, nobody took time off to goof around, or in todays parlance, become a ‘slacker’. This was the world-renowned heyday of full employment in Japan. Nobody cashed in on those accrued vacations in Hawaii or anywhere else. Mindlessly, and in retrospect, unnecessarily (corporate Japan would have had no choice but to hire slacker returnees anyway), children started studying hard from an early age, preparing down the line for an ‘examination hell’ to get into a good high school, and then again to get into a good college. Those who didn’t follow the higher education route and went straight to work out of high shool or trade school, worked no less hard and found full-employment in the blue collar fields.
And so it went as Japanese society hummed along.

But my how quickly things have changed. Hitting Japan like a one-two punch a bit more than decade ago, came the now 13-year old recession, coupled with the impact of an emerging generation that
refuses to pull their weight. Economists and the media have begun to document this listless generation’s effect on the economy. And theyhave given a major collection of them a name: the ‘parasite singles’.
Put succinctly, a parasite single is a twenty-something or thirty-something child that refuses to move out of their parent’s nest. They sponge off their parents, and use what money they may earn on their own for an indulgent lifestyle. With large numbers of individuals following this lifestyle, Japan’s low childbirth rate is being driven even lower, and entire economic sectors are demonstrably losing business (such as housing and almost all other durables). Conversely, vendors of luxury goods, such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, etc., have made a killing in Japan as the ‘parasites’ have been oblivious to the pain of the recession. (For more on parasite singles, here are two reports. One by the major Japanese advertising firm Hakuhodo, and the other by a Japanese female law student writing about her own generation. *1, and *2).

A subset of the parasite single is the ‘freeta’. The ‘free’, of course, is from the English word ‘free’. The ‘ta’, depending on the etymological explanation your choose to believe, is from ‘taimu ’(‘time’, as in ‘free time’), or (‘arubaita’, derived from the German word ‘arbeiter’ meaning ‘worker’). You get the point. A ‘freeta’ is person freely drifting from part-time gig to part-time gig, earning just enough to have spending money as Mom and Dad pay for everything else. There are estimated to be two million of these young adult freetas now spinning their wheels in Japan.*3

The third, most extreme variety of the parasite, is the ‘hikikomori’, or the ‘shutin’ sons (almost all of them are males). Shutins, though not exclusive to Japan, are growing here in great numbers, and are now said to be over 1,000,000(!). That works out to be approximately one out of every eleven males in their age group. (See the BBC’s "Japan: The Missing Million" *4).

And yet, despite all this dissoluteness I’ve been writing about for the last three essays, at no time in over half a century have things ever been less secure, has the future outlook ever been bleaker, and should young people have been more diligent and alert. Major financial institutions, retailers, and manufacturers have collapsed or are on life support, taking down jobs with them across the nation. Japanese manufacturers are racing to shift jobs elsewhere in Asia. Corporate Japan which used to lavish everything on potential recruits in bids to get them to join up, has now actually begun the invidious practice of overrecruiting -committing positions to college juniors- just to retract many of the job offers once students graduate and are ready to report to work.

Once again though, the response of the most affected parties –this time the Gen Y and late Gen X’ers- is downright counterintuitive. Jobs and career paths perceived to have no future -such as pediatrics, or railway company positions- are indeed being shunned. But there is not a corresponding scramble for all the rest of the jobs out there that hold promise or at least would seem stable. Nor, as in recent downturns in the U.S., is there an upsurge in people returning to school, retraining and retooling themselves for a more competitive, more specialized job market. Everyone’s gone Bobby McFerrin.
Meanwhile, the crime rate in Japan has reached new highs and still continues to rise. And in large part, this has been spiked by an increase in crimes committed by Japanese youth. On this, however,
I am of two minds. While Japan is both statistically, and palpably, not the incredibly safe country it used to be, it still is no Sao Paulo slum. I’d venture to say that here in the year 2003, any other G7 country would willingly swap their own crime rate for Japan’s. And the erstwhile extremely low crime rates here were, I believe, an aberration even for Japan. Society was experiencing its special, post-war ‘miracle’ where there was a place for everyone and nobody had time to feel alienated or left behind. Of course that couldn’t be sustained forever.

But what people don’t know -and are afraid to find out- is ‘when, and at what point, will crime rates finally start to level off?’ Even as youths are making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the Japanese population, heinous crimes committed by them are taking over the news more and more.*5 What to make of this? If anything at all? The jury is still out. The rest of this first decade of the new millenium will have to play out for us to see.

But it does not bode well for Japan that great swaths of its teenagers and young adults are feeling alienated and shafted by both their parents’ generation and the gerontocracy that pulls the levers over everbody. For we’re not talking about the ‘60’s generation of Western countries which channeled their restlessness into efforts(albeit naïve efforts) to change the world. This Japanese generation doesn’t tune in, it doesn’t turn on, it only drops out.

As I stipulated at the top of this report, every generation gets dumped on by its predecessors. Perhaps great things do await Japan’s youth. (It is relevant to note that in Japanese parliamentary elections held this past Sunday (November 9), younger voters were given some of the credit for boosting turnout for the emerging opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Some voices are now even waxing optimistic, saying that Japan is finally on the eve of a true two-party competitive democracy. Myself, I’ll believe that last one when I see it.*6).

Whatever Japan’s youth do about their future and the future of their country though, they’ll have to do it on their own and get about doing it soon. The current powers-that-be have proven themselves to be too feckless and self-centered to be counted upon. Problem is, Japan’s youth haven’t done much to prove they are any different.
© JT Brown November 13th 2003

{All of JT’s previous articles are indexed at

*3 The Asahi Shimbun, "New Plan to Help ‘Freeters’(sic)
Get Full-time Jobs", June 16, 2003.
*5 /423111.shtml
*6 (Ten years ago, the Socialist Party actually toppled the eternally ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an election. But that was an historic anomaly. Today? The LDP rules with 244 seats. The Socialists have just six.)

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