The "Freeter" and a Contented Japan?
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
The idea of Japan, as portrayed by the media in the West, has witnessed a fundamental change over the past few years. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the image of Japan in mainstream media was that of an aggressive economic monster. The New York Times Magazine, Business Week International, Fortune and the Far Eastern Economic Review spoke of Japanese brokers and conglomerates dominating foreign government bond markets, taking over Wall Street, and threatening Silicon Valley. The notion of "Japan as No. 1" propelled this Asian country into the spotlight as the next potential rival to the U.S., which at the time was reveling in a Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. What transpired between Japan and the U.S. was a new Cold War of sorts characterized by trade friction, nationalistic antagonism and mutual ignorance.
The picture today is much different. Japan, as described in the New York Times on 4 February 2004, is now a 'mature state' that is "more contented than driven". The "salary-men" of the 1980s, who were largely described as foot soldiers for Japan's economic machine, have been pushed aside and in their place have arrived the easy going, young "freeter" generation. These are Japanese youth who choose flexible, part-time work over secure company jobs and pursue leisure instead of wealth and prestige. The Japanese objective, according to the New York Times article written by Norimitsu Onishi, is no longer economic prosperity but the maximization of personal freedom. These "freeters", who were originally understood in Japan as a lost, aimless and confused generation, are now being portrayed by individuals such as Onishi as evidence of a "mature" Japan. One that is no longer obsessed with being number one and is simply content to find a "soothing" place to rest and enjoy.
It is from this perspective that Mr. Onishi projects Japanese society and politics. He uses this to explain Japan's hesitancy to compete with the world's greatest powers to explore space. It is also employed to frame Japan's military contribution to the occupation in Iraq. In Onishi's words, "Japan's decision to send ground troops to Iraq seems rooted not in an aggressive foreign policy but in a move to dispel worries over a nuclear North Korea and a rising China by cementing ties with the United States". The underlying ethos, according to Onishi, is "the young don't like to be stressed".
The truth is, no body likes to be stressed and before we accept Mr. Onishi's premise it must be said that while many Japanese are disillusioned with the rigid educational system and corporate world that pressed Japan on to be No. 1, very few idealize the "freeters". In fact, this minority grouping is continuously referred to in Japan as a social malaise. They are either regarded as victims of a system that pushed too hard or are treated as a product of a culture of overabundance. In other words, "freeters" are thought of as the spoiled youth that continue to depend on mommy and daddy financially, while refusing to study and work hard. In a way they are looked upon as lazy leeches who simply enjoy life without taking responsibility for their own actions and needs.
Contrary to Onishi's characterization, "freeters" are not considered role models in Japan. Rather, Japan continues to be a society that admonishes hard workers, good students and personal commitment. Certainly, there is a general consensus within Japan that believes that life should be enjoyed, however, Japanese do not see the "freeter" lifestyle as a way to this end. Instead, most stress the notion that Japan, and its companies, should relax a little and tone down the competitive spirit. Some point to Europe as an example of societies that have managed to reach equilibrium between high performance and high enjoyment. Unfortunately, reaching this objective in a globalized and profit driven workplace is extremely difficult. This is particularly so in a country that is experiencing record high unemployment, an aging population and increasing competition from countries in East and Southeast Asia.
Despite these worries, however, most Japanese are still well off economically, they continue to benefit from a functioning universal healthcare system and enjoy family and personal life. What Japanese are longing for is leadership. They are searching for individuals and organizations that can show Japan the path towards security, where the stresses of everyday life are minimized. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has failed to increase economic and social security and is instead placing emphasis on military security by building up Japan's arsenal and deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. So far this strategy has not worked. Regional tensions are escalating and Japan has been subject to terrorist threats. While it may be "soothing" to look at the free wheeling "freeters" as a sign of a "contended" Japan, this grouping is simply not representative. The majority of Japanese continue to work each and every day in the hope of a brighter future.
- Norimitsu Onishi, "This 21st-Century Japan, More Contented Than Driven", The New York Times, 4 February 2004.