Rising to the Challenge

Can its young people save Japan? After the earthquake and tsunami, they're rolling up their sleeves — and shaming an ossified Establishment

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

In Tokyo, young people have sent donations and cut electricity consumption to help the victims up north

Of all the calamities that have befallen Kouhei Nagatsuka, age 18, in the past month — the March 11 earthquake that devastated his home in Futaba town, the radiation seeping from the quake-and-tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant next door, the fleeing from shelter to shelter with nothing more than the clothes on his back — it is the smallest of privations that elicits emotion. In March, Nagatsuka graduated from high school in Futaba. But there was no commencement ceremony. Describing his family's plight, Nagatsuka answers questions in a brave monotone, assuming the mantle of the eldest of five siblings, the man in the house now that his father is in the hospital. It is only the lack of a proper graduation in this ritual-based nation that finally makes him crack. "Graduation ceremonies are for sending us out into the world as adults," he says, blinking hard as he waits in line for free clothing at an evacuation center in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. "But for me, I cannot start my future yet. I don't know what I will do."

As Japan has floundered for two decades since its economic bubble burst — a postindustrial, high-tech society that had resigned itself to a slow, inexorable decline after the boom years of the 1980s — its young people have languished. The over-indulged and underemployed cohort has given rise to a dictionary's worth of sociological neologisms: freeters, young Japanese who choose part-time, dead-end, low-paid work instead of striving for more fulfilling careers; hikikomori, anxious youth who have completely withdrawn from society, even locking themselves in their bedrooms for years at a time; herbivores, grazing, passive young men who care more about their looks than their careers; and parasite singles, young adults who, even if they have good jobs, live at home to avoid paying rent and rely on their parents for food and laundry so they can use their disposable income for frivolous purchases.

But as their nation tries to cope with the costliest natural disaster the world has ever seen, one that has left tens of thousands dead or missing and some 360,000 homeless, the country's coddled youth are rising to meet a new era's challenges. In unprecedented numbers, young Japanese have volunteered to help earthquake victims, bringing time, money and in some cases social-networking expertise that can reunite missing family members and coordinate aid efforts.

At the Saitama Super Arena, where recent graduate Nagatsuka is sheltering, crowds of local teens who usually come for rock concerts are here today for another reason. By 9:30 a.m., the emergency center has reached its maximum of 500 volunteers, most of whom are young. An additional 1,500 waiting for a chance to help will have to come back tomorrow. Masayuki Ishii, 18, is one of the lucky ones who scored a volunteer spot. He wears a big grin and is holding a sign that says 60s. His friend is holding another that says WOMEN. Together they form a duo that is organizing evacuee women in the 60-to-69 age bracket to go for their daily baths. "Some people say that young Japanese don't have a good spirit," says Ishii, stamping his feet in the frigid weather. "But when it comes down to it, we want to help, not just with money but with real work."

Other young people are battling a bureaucracy so swaddled in red tape that it has strangled attempts to provide speedy aid to quake survivors. "We've always thought that, even with our problems, Japan is No. 1," says Tomoko Yamashita, a 29-year-old employee of Peace Winds, a Japanese NGO that was one of the few local groups to immediately assess the needs up north. "But we have staff who've worked in places like Haiti or Sudan, and we've discovered that Japan's plans for emergencies are not adequate and need to be changed."

Still others are contributing just by changing their personal priorities. Many older Japanese — like 78-year-old Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who initially called the earthquake "divine retribution" for the country's consumerist excesses — fulminate against the material addictions of the young. But there's not much sign of that where you would most expect to see it. In Shibuya, the nerve center of Tokyo youth, a self-described freeter named Hikaru Tanaka giggles with her girlfriends in a usually neon-dazzled square now dark because of power cuts. With her designer handbag and geisha-style slathering of makeup, the 20-year-old looks like the ultimate material girl. But Tanaka bats her false eyelashes and says she has happily reduced the heat at home to save electricity and has sent a donation up north. "I know it's a small thing, but I want to do all that I can," says Tanaka. "Japan may be dark right now, but if we all come together, it will be bright again."

Looking for a Catalyst
It's standard history that the unexpected can turn social attitudes upside down. "Often it takes a huge crisis to make a society change," says Toshihiko Hayashi, an economics professor at Doshisha University in Tokyo, who has studied the legacies of natural disasters. "For Japan, even two lost decades after the bubble burst were not enough to fundamentally change the country's economic and political systems. But this crisis is different. It could be the catalyst that finally changes Japan."

There are precedents. Twice last century, Japan rose from the ashes, first from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000 people, and then from World War II, which left about 3 million dead and many cities in ashes from U.S. firebombings. But these days, few would have predicted that Japan's way to renewal would be blazed by its young people, who were supposed to have other things on their minds: nearly 1 in 10 young Japanese is unemployed, and almost one-third of university graduates get no job offers. Many more can find only part-time work.

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