From We to Me

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The pulsating beat and flashing neon lure university student Mirai Honda into a videogame palace in Tokyo's Shibuya, the glitzy entertainment hub where Japan's youth culture comes alive at night. He plops two 100-yen coins (about $0.85 each) into a slot, taps his game choice on a video display and waits for the music to begin. Standing on a small platform in front of the screen, the 19-year-old tries to match the moves of a digitized dancer. Perfect! the screen's message announces as Honda furiously stamps on four large neon squares. Great! it assures him. Dance Dance Revolution, the full-body, rap-enhanced interactive game, speaks volumes about the generation that will lead Japan in the 21st century. Talk about escapism: Honda--his first name, Mirai, means future--doesn't bother with clubs and discos; he prefers dancing with a machine. I love the competition; you don't get that in regular clubs, he says, wiping perspiration off his brow with his shirtsleeve. Japan's youth are out for thrills, stepping clear of the buttoned-down, uniformed life of their parents and onto society's dance floor. They are crafting their own style, an unfocused commitment to doing things differently with in-your-face manners that are shocking a country that reveres politeness. They dye their hair shades of brown, red, yellow, blue and purple. They tan their skin until their complexions resemble those of California lifeguards. They jabber noisily on phones in public. They are rude. They cause trouble; a juvenile crime wave is spreading across Japan. Teenage girls from middle-class families prostitute themselves for middle-aged men. Schools once famous for rigidity and discipline have turned into chaotic places where students even physically assault teachers. Advocating disharmony in a land that venerates harmony, this generation is talking revolution. I want to change Japan, says the young mayor of a bedroom suburb of Tokyo. I want to change Japan, says a 29-year-old entrepreneur. I want to change Japan, says a 24-year-old student who was the victim of bullying in high school. They all want to overhaul a government that seems out of touch with the people, to reform a business climate that rewards longevity instead of performance and to change an education philosophy that values conformity over creativity. It's quite an agenda they have set for themselves. But can this passionate generation unite to transform Japan? Is this truly a revolt of individualism that can shake the country to its core? And will affluent kids who depend on their parents for everything really give it all up to foment change? The young man working up a sweat at the video arcade might look to his parents like something from the future. But is he really such an anarchist? Listen to him talk about his obsession. I like it because the machine gives you the pattern to follow, says Honda. This is dancing, all right, but with all the rhythm of a drill sergeant. There's no soul, no romance, yet Honda is just the first in a long line of beaus on this machine's dance card. Born after 1970, the members of this impatient generation are 44-million strong, about one-third of the country's population. The oldest among them, who will start turning 30 next year, make up Japan's junior baby boom, children of the postwar baby boomers. It's the Japan that they were born into and grew up in that distinguishes them from previous generations. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the under-30 crowd grew up in affluence and endured little hardship. They missed the years of war, the rigors of postwar reconstruction and the single-minded drive to catch up to America. By the time they were heading off to kindergarten, Japan had caught up and was passing the world by with the startling speed of one of its bullet trains. Statistically it was becoming the world's second-biggest economy, and in spirit and reputation it had become No. 1. Its managers and workers created an economic marvel unparalleled in modern history, though they may yet screw it all up before the kids get a chance to run things. They have had it easy, these kids. Their parents tried to coddle them, to provide all the things they couldn't have but always longed for. But they possess a certain emptiness, as Hideo Takayama, who has been studying Japanese youth since the early 1960s, has learned. Takayama assembles kids in focus groups, talks to them about their dreams and fears and observes their behavior. Over the years, he has asked kids what they want, what they yearn for. In the early 1960s, the kids were certain: A TV! A refrigerator! A washing machine! A decade later, their desires grew grander: A color TV! A car! By the 1980s, the responses had shifted from the tools of a family's needs to the objects of an individual's desire: A baseball glove! A Walkman! A Nintendo! But this year, when Takayama posed the question, he got the most disturbing response of all: nothing. Even after being prodded, they couldn't name a thing. In other words, this is a generation that has it all. Unfortunately, they are in for a shock. Just as they are coming of age, getting out of school and hitting the job market, these kids are finding out in a painful, first-hand way that Japan's economic reality no longer resembles the boom times they grew up in. Even graduates of Úlite universities aren't waltzing into the jobs they expected to get and keep for a lifetime. Suddenly, the rules are changing before the kids have a chance to rewrite them. It may be that revolution isn't a choice, but a necessity. The first sign that this generation was in trouble came two years ago, but nobody was listening. A Kobe teenager decapitated an 11-year-old boy and left his head on a post at his schoolyard gate. For a few weeks, everyone was appropriately shocked by the gruesome crime. The nation even engaged in a bit of soul-searching, out-of-character in this reserved society. But then people retreated and reassured themselves that the case was an anomaly, that no larger lessons could be drawn from it. People want to believe the boy was mentally damaged and so what happened has nothing to do with them, says Toshiko Toriyama, a former elementary-school teacher who recently wrote the book Can You Hear What Children Are Saying? But children do things to make adults realize they have problems. I assume more appalling incidents like that will take place. In March of this year, the parents of the 14-year-old Kobe killer published an emotional book that pleads a common lament: How could such a bad child come from such a normal family? Why didn't we realize even a bit of the problems that our son has? they write. Why couldn't we understand him? The generation gap in Japan today is so wide that parents and their children are nearly unable to bridge it. In 1996, 85% of the 16-to-18-year-olds surveyed said they had the freedom to rebel against their parents, compared with just 16% in the U.S. Parents, single-mindedly focused on the middle-class dream during the period of Japan's economic rebirth, worked long hours and showered their children with toys and gadgets. But they spent less and less time with their children, alienating them and causing them to feel lonely, which in turn has led many of them to rebel. This generation doesn't know how to relate to people, says Mariko Kuno Fujiwara, a specialist in youth culture. Their groups are much less committed to each other. Getting along is much more important than getting involved. Toshio Kawase, 24, understands the sense of floating, of feeling disconnected from everyone else. From the time he was in elementary school, Kawase fell victim to bullying, an all-too common practice that takes taunts and teasing to ugly, violent and sometimes grave extremes. Gangs of boys would surround Kawase and kick and punch him because he was different. He wore colored socks, for example, when everyone else preferred black. He didn't have friends. Life was so bleak he considered suicide. Finally, at 17, Kawase dropped out. He worked several odd jobs, as a waiter, a cook, a newspaper delivery man. He even recorded taped stories for a telephone-sex line, for $25 an hour. In short, he got by. Fluent in English, bright and creative, Kawase obtained his high-school diploma by taking equivalency exams and is now in his final year of college in Tokyo. I'll never work at a Japanese company, he swears. I can never be restricted like that again. I just want some freedom. In school, I lived in this society where everybody had to follow the rules and I never could seem to adapt. In Tokyo and Nagoya, there are now telephone hotlines for children who don't fit in or just want some companionship. One evening, according to an Asahi Shimbun publication, Hachidai Nishiga, a counselor, took a call from a high-school freshman. Do I have to say something? the boy tentatively asked, adding: I'm sorry. But don't hang up. Nishiga assured him he would stay on the line. I want to feel like I'm with someone else. Is it all right? the boy asked. Nishiga reassured him that he didn't have to speak. Thank you, the boy said. Then he fell silent. Three minutes passed before he spoke again, pleading: Are you still there? Are you? Nishiga asked what he was thinking about. I'm so glad there is a person who can spend useless time for someone like me, the boy said. Can I call you again? Then the line went dead. It can be hard to make a connection. And those who can't often fall to disturbing depths. I couldn't trust anyone, especially adults, says a 15-year-old student from Kyushu who wound up at National Musashino Gakuin, a Saitama prefecture reformatory for troubled kids. They easily change what they say to suit their convenience, says the boy, who doesn't wish to be named. Teachers? They lied to me. My father came home late so I didn't have time to talk to him. I didn't like my mother very much, so I didn't talk to her. The boy is just back from planting sweet potato cuttings on a small farm at the reformatory, so his clothes are covered with mud. He ended up here, at one of Japan's 57 institutions for juvenile delinquents, after being caught stealing. Youth crime has become something of an epidemic in Japan, with the number of prosecuted juvenile offenders jumping 14% from 1996 to 1997. The problem has snowballed so quickly that Japan isn't prepared to cope with kids who go bad. The reform schools, whose ranks include juveniles guilty of hard-core crimes like murder, rape and assault (a junior-high school boy who fatally stabbed his teacher last year was ordered to one of the schools because he was only 13), are relatively comfortable dormitories without high walls or fences. Juveniles escape easily and are not severely disciplined when caught. The boy from Kyushu has broken out three times. His punishments included having to jump rope repeatedly and scrub the dormitory floors. Our job is to give boys a chance to get back on the right track, says Tatsuhiko Itagaki, head of the instruction section. But more than one-third of those who leave his school in Saitama are forced to return after getting into more trouble. There's a term in Japanese for juveniles who suddenly, and violently, fly off the handle: kireru, which literally means snapping. When they are pissed off, they don't have words to express their feelings, says Itagaki. The unexpected nature of this snapping behavior is what alarms Japanese, for it is so far removed from the ordered, predictable working of a society that values the group ethic over individuality. Ryuta Koike was 16 when he snapped. In high school in Tokyo, he was prone to dozing off during class, listening to his Walkman and ignoring his teachers. One day, a teacher ordered him to the principal's office. Ryuta refused to go. He says the teacher shoved him. Ryuta pushed back. I was so angry. I grabbed the teacher's neck and started shaking him. That got him expelled, which doesn't seem to bother Ryuta much. I'm much better at real life, he says. Now 18, Ryuta still lives with his mother, but she cut off his monthly allowance and he now works part-time jobs. He dreams of being an actor to express my complete freedom, he says. The worst thing in the world would be to be a salaryman. That kind of attitude may represent self-protective armor for many young Japanese, as finding a job--any job--is getting harder. Several large companies, including Sony and NEC, announced this year that they were severely cutting back on recruiting. Aspiring computer engineer Tadashi Minemura, 22, found out just how tough the job market can be when none of the 20 software firms that interviewed him a year ago came back with an offer. One bank did--but it wasn't the sort of job that appeals to a young man who races go-carts on the weekends and posts his photography on his Internet homepage. You have to deal with an ATM or some boring job for 10 years or more before you get involved with something interesting, Minemura says. I don't want to waste time. Instant gratification is the ideal. Their motto is enjoy now, pay later, says sociologist Fujiwara. That's a complete reversal of the ethic that motivated their parents. But Minemura is unapologetic. No matter what company I work for, I don't want to do what I can't enjoy, he says. If he can't find what he's looking for, he's happy to take a part-time job and join the growing ranks of freetas: a newly invented word that combines the English-language free and arbeiter, the German word for worker. The term refers to Japanese who deliberately avoid the traditional career ladder for short-term jobs with little possibility of promotion. In the past, these jobs, which include everything from waitressing to truck-driving to washing windows, were the domain of high-school dropouts and kids who didn't go to college. Because of the shrinking economy and the shifting ambitions of youth, they are now popular among college graduates as well. I look at my friends, they are all wearing suits, says Chisato Yoda, 24, a cashier at a coffee bar. They all had dreams about what they wanted to do; they all had to compromise. I don't want to do a Japanese-style job search, wearing a blue suit and telling lies. She dropped out of an interior-design school after starting work at the coffee joint last summer. This is only for now, Yoda says. She plans to quit soon and might take up interior design again. Or cooking. Or something else. I want to do something I like, she says. Being impatient can be a virtue, of course. It has driven many entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into companies; it can motivate inventors to build better mousetraps. In Japan, though, it is patience that is regarded as the virtue, which may explain why the country has a dearth of the risk-takers that populate meccas of creativity like Silicon Valley. Ryo Ogawa and Yosuke Shindo are a lot like those prototype computer geeks who struck gold in California. As teenagers five years ago they started a company, Equal Inc., in Shindo's tiny bedroom. They fiddled with a videocamera and digital-editing software, producing amateurish computer-edited movies. That evolved into creating websites, and they soon found themselves in business designing computer-generated advertisements. Now they employ four people and work 16-hour days, often sleeping in the cubicles in their small office. For several years, they lost money and racked up $25,000 in debt. Recently, Equal finally started turning a small profit. Ogawa, 24, is the creative force of the company. A bleached-blond with two silver hoops in his left ear, he dresses for work, depending on his mood, in everything from suits to kimonos to hip-hop threads. He is also the dreamer, drawing feverishly to illustrate points he wants to make in conversation. Originality is vital, he says. I look at computers, commercial design, architecture, and I know that I could improve on what's out there. I want to abandon the mundane. Shindo, 23, is more conservative but no less ambitious. Where Ogawa dropped out of college, Shindo is set to graduate with a management degree next year. He hopes to strike it rich someday, like his heroes Akio Morita of Sony and financier George Soros. I'd buy a bus or a plane and put everybody in the company in it so we'd always be in a different country, he says. Why not? There's nothing I can't do. This kind of confidence is just what Japan needs to get the country rolling again. Hideaki Morita represents the new strain of youthful bravado with a capital B. Now 29, Morita was one of the cool, hip kids in high school toward whom others gravitated. He made the most of his good looks, charm and intelligence and cashed in on his popularity. Marketing companies came calling to ask him and some friends to figure out what Japanese teenagers did and didn't like. Morita parlayed that assignment into TV talk-show appearances and modeling assignments for teen magazines. He earned enough money to buy a silver BMW. But Morita turned out to be more than just a pretty boy. At age 19, he and four college buddies started their own consulting firm. They tapped into their network of friends from high school and soon built a stable of trend-spotters. Advertising companies were interested and now, 10 years later, Morita heads Teens' Network Ship, a 10-person company that earned $1.7 million last year. At any one time, Morita has 3,000 teens at his disposal. Many of them come into his office in the youth-centric Harajuku section of Tokyo and spend the afternoon chatting about music, film and fashion. After 10 years of doing this, I can say I have connections with every young person in Japan, Morita boasts. The teenage world is really quite small, and if you know one, you know 100. This is his strength, understanding Japan's youth and relating to them. One electronics manufacturer, for example, used his crew to test-market new packaging for a portable CD player. The company thought kids would go gaga over pink. They didn't. Instead the youngsters suggested a transparent case that would show off the player's internal gears and mechanisms. It was a hit. Morita has big plans for the future. He is creating satellite companies--a fashion design house, a cable TV network for high schools, restaurants and bars, a mail-order catalog for youth-focused merchandise--which he hopes to build and then sell. Meanwhile, he can look back with pride. I wanted to be a president of a company, and I didn't want to wait until I was 60, he says. So the only way was to own my own company. For all Morita's success, however, he hasn't been able to overcome some of the limitations of Japan's business culture. Because he is young, he is sometimes not taken seriously. Getting start-up money was nearly impossible--unlike their American counterparts, Japanese venture capitalists are reluctant to fund 20-something entrepreneurs. At times, Morita has had to drum up business as a subcontractor for bigger, more established companies. Even somebody like me who is not afraid to take risks has to fight against the Japanese way of doing things, Morita says. Falling back on tradition is not the typical approach of this generation, but there are young people discovering they can learn from their roots, and even their elders, while injecting new energy into old customs. Sakurako Tsuchiya, 29, is one of the few female sake producers in Japan. For many years, women weren't even allowed to pursue the field. But when her family's brewery, established in 1873, lacked a male heir, this graduate student in computer programming decided to pick up the family business. I didn't want to extinguish the fire that has lasted four generations, says Tsuchiya. She works alongside older men, masters of their craft. One day, when they needed a large basket, they decided to make it on their own, painstakingly cutting and sharpening bamboo stalks. Young people wouldn't think of making something themselves, says Tsuchiya. They try to buy everything with money. If there's one area of Japanese society that would seem particularly hostile to youth, it's the political system. The pervading old-boy's network rewards longevity, and political relationships sometimes go back several generations. So when a young upstart decides to crash the gates, people notice. Especially when the upstart is someone like Kazuyoshi Nagashima, a windsurfing, snowboarding 32-year-old former TV reporter who campaigned for mayor of the Kanagawa prefecture city of Zushi on a populist platform to, among other things, cut the entertainment budget for the mayor's office to zero. He won. My young age helped me, says Nagashima, a handsome man with a serious demeanor. During this recession, voters expect change. They think someone young will do something new and different. Nagashima first made a dash for the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, three years ago, running as an independent. He lost, but the results encouraged him to try for local office in Kamakura, a city not far from Zushi. He won a seat in the city assembly and two years later, in December 1998, ran for mayor of Zushi. Although there was some resentment that he was abandoning Kamakura for a higher office, Nagashima's role as an outsider seems to have helped him. For many years, political debate in Zushi centered on a plan to develop part of a forest as housing for American servicemen based nearby. Nagashima was just about the only politician around who hadn't based his platform on that issue. Voters weary of that debate found a fresh face they could flock to. When I was covering the Diet for TV, I got quite irritated with politicians, he says. The results of debates were far different from what the people wanted. Nagashima, who was Japan's national windsurfing champion in 1988, isn't preoccupied with image. He has ideas. Zushi is a wealthy bedroom community of 57,000, and the recession has hurt tax revenues, which declined by about 8% last year. So he's looking at ways to cut the city budget. Like all of Japan, Zushi has a large number of elderly residents. Nagashima is devising a welfare system for the aged in which people would receive healthcare and other assistance according to the number of hours they or their spouses worked. While careful not to criticize the city government's bureaucracy too much, he does say he wants to improve communication among its different departments. First I want to change Zushi, he says. Then I want to change all of Japan. Nagashima is a dreamer. Like Morita the entrepreneur and Shindo and Ogawa, the computer designers, he dreams of building a better Japan. And like others of his generation, he wants change--now. Very few people in Japan really do dream, says Nagashima. That's because for so long in Japan, you could see what your future was like from a very young age. It was determined. There was no way to change what would happen to you. To talk about dreams was a waste of time. Back at the video arcade in Tokyo's rollicking Shibuya district, Mirai Honda can be found most days around midnight, stomping and spinning on the Dance Dance Revolution machine. Lining up to take their turns are other members of a generation that desperately wants to connect, to fit in and at the same time stand out. In robotic fashion, they follow the steps laid out for them on the video screen. The machine establishes a pattern to follow, Honda concedes. But different people can interpret that pattern in their own ways, he says. People have their own styles, so a move that doesn't work for one might work for another. You need to experiment until you've found the moves that are perfect for you. It may be only a baby-step toward transforming society, but Japan's youth aren't just talking about change, they are experimenting with it. Sure, some of this amounts to no more than dabbling with frivolous things like hair color. But Manabu Sato, an education professor at the University of Tokyo, sees a deeper significance in the rude behavior, the delinquency, the teenage prostitution, the violence, the frenzied dancing in front of a video screen. These are rites of passage, he explains, and they fulfill an ancient tradition. During medieval times, the samurai class initiated youngsters into adulthood: boys' heads were shaved except for a small topknot. The grandparents and parents of today's youth were initiated by war and the task of rebuilding. Contemporary society has no initiation rites, Sato says. So young people have created their own. It is a part of their search for the things that will unite them in the future. It's an exciting search, and it's just beginning. The country, like the rest of the world, is anxious to see what Japan's youth find. With reporting by Hannah Beech, Mari Calder, Donald Macintyre and Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo and Hiroko Tashiro/Saitama