Before You Accuse Me

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Japan's jibetarians have attracted a lot of attention recently. These are the kids who squat on the ground (jibeta), in the street, on the train, in any public place--oblivious to the disapproving gazes of passers-by. Older Japanese deplore their behavior as an indication of social and public moral deficiency. There are other things the old folks dislike: youngsters speaking loudly on mobile phones in crowded trains as if no one were around; teenage girls in public places putting on makeup or changing stockings, again, as if nobody else were present. How to interpret the phenomenon? To older Japanese, and to many outside the country, young Japanese seem to have lost a sense of public morals, to have turned away from group consciousness toward individualism. In my opinion, however, there hasn't actually been a great change in attitudes. Rather, these so-called deplorable manners are in fact typically Japanese. Shinji Miyadai, a sociologist who was my mentor, analyzes public awareness in both Japan and the West in his book Manners at the End of the Century. He argues that Western societies developed public manners so that people of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds could live peacefully together. Exchanging smiles with a stranger in an elevator, for example, represents the wisdom to ease relations with total strangers, he writes.In Japan, however, we have no concept of the public. We are not trained to deal with strangers. We are told, from the time we are small children, to get along with fellow members of our group. At an elementary school excursion, for instance, teachers tell us to make sure not to exclude any pupils when walking in small groups. When a student was hospitalized in my junior high school, the instructor told us to visit him because we were all friends. But nobody taught us how we should relate to strangers. Look at adult Japanese. They courteously greet people they know and behave politely with them. But as soon as they are out of sight of their company, they behave as they please. It's just like the old saying, When away from home, have no shame. In the past when Japan was made up of small rural communities, it was common for respectable men on trips to shed their inhibitions and act wantonly. I think the youth whom older people frown upon today are acting just like these men. Modern Japan has rapidly urbanized. The once solid kinship-based communities are breaking down, and large extended families have been replaced by nuclear ones. In Iwate prefecture, where my father is from, I recall how the entire township would get excited about a summer festival. Everybody dressed in cotton yukatas, a kind of kimono, and went to see the fireworks and dancing. Summer festivals are still held in Tokyo's Setagaya ward where I live, but I don't go. The local young men's group, which plays a key role at festivals by carrying the mikoshi (portable Shinto deity's house), has all but disappeared. It is not that young people are becoming individualistic. Rather, they have attached themselves to ever-smaller groups. At each level of education, from kindergarten to university, classes are now divided into tinier segments, generally composed of two to four students each. These small groups hardly interact with one another. The small-group mentality allows Japanese, like the men traveling from home, to be free from the rules of the local community and behave as if nobody is around. Young people tend to act quietly near their homes and act up in the entertainment districts. Grown-ups may deplore that youngsters don't even say hello properly, but we do so among members of our own group. We pay every respect to the norms of the group, even the colors of rubber bands for our hair, and try not to deviate. To us young people, the strangers we see on the commuter trains and stations are like a part of the scenery. Perceptions of Japan's young are distorted by the media's favorite youth topic: enjo-kosai, teenage prostitution for older men. One girl told me that the first time she dated, the man gave her 40,000 yen ($333) just to go to a restaurant with him. I asked what she did with the money. I spent it all before the end of the day, she said. I bought the first things that came in sight--I don't even remember what. But she worried about getting pregnant and stopped the practice. She now lives a quiet life and obeys her parents. The enjo-kosai girls I've met are totally different from what the media, including foreign news organizations, portray. I think adults should help these girls return to a normal life, instead of judging them. Besides, these girls reflect the kind of morality adults share. According to a recent survey conducted by a women's group, the majority of Japanese men age 25 years and older have paid for a prostitute; among men in their late 30s, the percentage is 64%. They apparently think it's O.K. to have sex in exchange for money. I hope grown-ups look at themselves when they criticize young people. We may seem as if we've lost the sense of public morality. But in reality, the Japanese haven't had such a thing to begin with. Our sense of ethics is decaying? What about yours? Kenji Oikawa, 19, began his freshman year at Tokyo's Waseda University in April. He has written about youth and sex culture for Japanese magazines