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May 30, 2008

Will Young Leaders in This Aging Nation Please Stand Up

Long victimized by systems favoring older generations at their expense, can Japan's youth channel simmering anger into political progress?

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)

As Japan's population declines and the number of young people noticeably shrinks, it is not uncommon to hear elders complain about younger generations' dwindling respect for seniors, reduced patience and perseverance, weakened loyalty to organizations and communities, and insufficient work ethic. But while there is no shortage of grievances, they should also treat the young with greater care. After all, they depend on younger generations for their survival, now and in the future.

In truth, however, this is a land surprisingly cruel to the young in its political, economic and social systems. Tension between the generations is not necessarily rising, but it seems the elderly take the system for granted without realizing that they are actually abusing their juniors.

On the other hand, younger generations are surprisingly meek in protesting their position in society. Their anger seems to be suppressed and inarticulate, shown only passively through behavior that is frown upon by their elders.

If young people, realized how they are victimized by the nation's political and economic system, which serves the interests of older generations at their expense in the name of respect and protection of the weak - a category in which the elderly are classified more often than not - more visible anger would be justified.

Most telling of all is the staggering proportion of public debt, at both the central and local levels, which accounts for 150% of Japan's gross domestic product - worst among major industrialized countries. Oblivious to the implications - burdens, that is - for future generations, the government unapologetically kept borrowing money through bond issues to finance current needs and largely meet the demands of older citizens.

Of course, the burden of servicing the debts will fall heavily on the young and future generations in the form of increased taxation, restricted budgets for public services, or even inflation. The prospects are indeed bleak, an yet, do elders feel sorry about the situation when they criticize younger generations' lack of hope for the nation's future or apparent unwillingness to work for it?

Old generations, recalling hardship and poverty in their younger days, are apt to find fault with the young for taking affluence, convenience or comfort for granted and failing to appreciate what made those luxuries possible. They decry the nation's worrying future, but they stop short of admitting that their selfishness - evident in accumulated public debts - is in no small way responsible for making the young less hopeful.

A large number of younger people, some well into their 30s, are without regular jobs or decent employment. They constitute a large proportion of the so-called working poor and find it difficult to lift themselves out of that situation.

They were thrown into this predicament as businesses refrained from hiring new school graduates during the post-bubble economic slump in order to protect the jobs of elders. Even though many companies were forced to shed employees in their 40s or 50s to cope with the recession, they basically tried to minimize such job cuts at the expense of the employment of young people.

Stirring the pot
Last year, an article printed in the monthly magazine Ronza - published by the liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper company - stirred up some controversy. It was written by a young writer about his life as working poor; his experience had been so hopeless and desperate that he was driven to assert that war seemed to be the only way to overturn the whole situation and give him a chance to escape his misery.

Tomohiro Akagi, 31, described himself as a victim of the socioeconomic system that protects established interests and the status quo at the expense of young people. There are hundreds of thousands of such desperate, quietly angry young people, viewed contemptuously by their elders as bums who lack motivation and competence.

"I want to slap Masao Maruyama in the face. My hope is war," declared the title of Akagi's article. Maruyama, a revered and influential University of Tokyo professor, was an icon of the liberal intellectual world of postwar Japan. The unnerving title referred to an episode in which Maruyama, as a young infantryman in the prewar Imperial Army, was beaten by a superior of a lower social origin with only an elementary school education - a common occurrence in the military hierarchy.

Akagi's argument was that such a reversal of social order was possible in the wartime military. Talking at a workshop organized by students of Waseda University's Graduate School of Journalism, he said that his despair about the status quo was so deep that war seemed to him the only way to break it. Although his argument might be a rhetorical exaggeration, it indicated the depth of his desperation.

Another recent phenomenon drawing attention is the sudden revival of popularity among young people of a prewar left-wing novel that describes the harsh reality of workers and their rebellion on a crab factory ship operating in northern waters. Takiji Kobayashi, a Communist, wrote the book, titled "Kanikosen" ("The Factory Ship"), in 1929 before he was tortured to death by the police for his ideology at the age of 30s.

Rumbling beneath
These are signals of an unsettled mood among the nation's youth. The question is, how many people harbor such feelings and how deep do they run? More importantly, how this mood can be organized into a viable political force should be considered.

Debate on lowering the voting age to 18 from the present 20 is starting in earnest. This is the right direction, from the viewpoint of giving young people more political representation and a louder voice now that their demographic presence in Japan is only to diminish.

What the country really needs is young leaders who can inspire their own generations, replacing old guard politicians largely concerned about pleasing senior citizens - demographically a powerful force. Japan definitely needs its Barack Obama. Whether he eventually wins the U.S. presidency or not, he embodies the kind of political viability Japanese should admire.

(Originally appeared in the May 26, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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