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

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Yet even if the new mood of sleeves-rolled-up volunteerism persists among young Japanese, they may still need leadership: someone to organize where the supplies and relief efforts should go. But in today's Japan — a nation of lackluster politicians, bureaucrats and salarymen — that seems to be lacking. "The sad fact about many young people today is that if there's one person who leads the way, they will follow and work hard," says Ayumi Yamamoto, a Tokyo graduate student who has volunteered to help earthquake survivors as part of a newly formed group called Tohoku Rising. (Tohoku is the northeastern region that bore the brunt of the disaster.) "But right now I don't see that one person stepping forward on the political stage."

The country has cycled through five Prime Ministers in the past four years. The current one, Naoto Kan, was supposed to be different. For one thing, he is from the Democratic Party of Japan, not the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the epitome of the Establishment, which ruled Japan almost without break from 1955 to 2009. Second, as Health Minister in the mid-1990s, Kan won popular support for daring to take on a Japanese bureaucracy that had hidden the fact that hemophiliacs were given HIV-tainted blood. But now, at a time when the country is craving leadership, Kan has not provided it. He labeled the March 11 disaster Japan's worst crisis since World War II — then abruptly receded from public view. As the recovery phase has gathered steam, he has largely left day-to-day management of the quake's aftermath to a snail-paced bureaucracy. One of his only public moves has been to call for a national-unity government, but the LDP — with grim predictability — snubbed his offer. Given the uninspired state of Japan's politics, it's no surprise that one-third of young Japanese are what are called election virgins — people who have never bothered to vote.

It's not just that Japan's politicians and bureaucrats are dull. They also form an Establishment phalanx with Japanese industry. In a phenomenon known as amakudari, which literally means "descent from the heavens," retiring government officials often take on top jobs at companies, some of which they were once charged with regulating. The cozy ties between government and Big Business are exemplified by Tokyo Power Electric Co., the operator of the damaged Daiichi nuclear plant, whose executives are beneficiaries of amakudari. The power company has been criticized not only for being less than forthcoming with information about the ongoing nuclear crisis but also for securing a license for an aging reactor earlier this year without making adequate safety checks of equipment that ended up failing during the March 11 disasters.

Outside the Establishment, though, the ice may be cracking. In Tokyo, one unlikely change agent could be 38-year-old Yujiro Taniyama, who has used Facebook to organize earthquake donations. Brash and flashy, the sometime TV entertainer is running against Ishihara, whom he refers to as "a dinosaur," in the race to be Tokyo's next governor. Taniyama, who grew up outside Japan and wants the country to embrace internationalism, won't win. For one thing, election regulations prohibit the use of the Internet for campaigning. The Web didn't exist back when the laws were enacted, and Taniyama's support base is the wired generation. But at least he is articulating the frustrations of a younger cohort that has tended to isolate itself from politics rather than do something about it. "We're floating adrift in the ocean, and there's no dynamic leadership in Japan," Taniyama says. "The young people have to say, Enough is enough. I want to shake up this outdated system."

Can the new generation actually change Japan? If they're to do so, the first step will be simply recognizing the magnitude of the problems facing the country. "After this earthquake, a lot of us feel energized for the first time," says Kentaro Adachi, a student at Waseda University in Tokyo, who admits he has never voted. "My friends who were never interested in politics, even if they majored in politics, are saying, What can we do?"

Whether that momentum will carry through in the months and years needed to rebuild Tohoku is far from clear. Nevertheless, encouraging signs are emerging even from the most ruined places. Keita Kanazawa just graduated from the middle school in Kesennuma, a town largely torn up by the tsunami. After the 15-year-old's apartment building was damaged by the tidal wave and later consumed by flames, he and his family evacuated to the middle school, which was turned into an emergency shelter. To fill his free time, Kanazawa has volunteered at the school, helping to clean floors made dirty by evacuees who, eschewing custom, are wearing their shoes inside. "When we do something, we forget," says the rosy-cheeked, broad-shouldered boy.

And if you're young, even in Kesennuma, there are things to look forward to. On this sunny day, as puffy clouds drifted through a brilliant blue sky, Kanazawa and two friends took off for another school, where the results of the high school examination they had taken before the earthquake were posted. All three, it turned out, had made the grade for their high school of choice. Head butts, high fives and much whooping ensued. For a moment, life on Tohoku's wounded coast was bright with hopes and dreams for the future.

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.

with reporting by Lucy Birmingham / Tokyo and Krista Mahr / Kesennuma

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