Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009

The New Activism of Japan's Youth

A modest house in western Tokyo might not seem like the birthplace of a Japanese social movement. But in this warren of tatami mats, a cluster of earnest students are sitting with their laptops, sipping cold tea and, through their nationwide network of 5,000 volunteers, quietly making a difference. The mission of Katariba, meaning "a place of sharing," as the group is known, is to teach young Japanese that they have a place in society — and that they need to use their political voice. "It's only a small step," says Kumi Imamura, 29, who runs workshops at public high schools to introduce youth to role models, political and otherwise. "[But] you need to take that step forward yourself."

An even bigger step could take place on Aug. 30, when Japan is set to hold parliamentary elections that will pit the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) against the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Usually, that's a snore-inducing prospect in a country where the LDP has governed virtually uninterrupted for the past 54 years. But galvanized by an impending sense of doom from manifold economic and social problems, this election will likely unseat incumbent Prime Minister Taro Aso and replace him with DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama. Two recent polls showed respondents nationwide favoring the opposition over the LDP by roughly 15 percentage points. "For the first time," says Daigo Sato, 35, who started dot-jp, a nonprofit that helps university students land internships in the offices of Japanese politicians, "it feels like a real election."

The overriding challenge for the next government is nothing less than to reset the nation. Japan is the world's most rapidly aging country — from now until 2050, its population is expected to contract about 25% to 95 million people; of that number, nearly half will be more than 60 years old. Even more daunting, the young people who must now shoulder the responsibility for an elderly explosion already feel marginalized in society. No longer assured of the lifetime employment previous generations enjoyed, Japanese youth are the first to lose their jobs when companies cut back. They will also inherit a national debt that is spiraling close to 200% of GDP. No wonder many young Japanese worry that the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is not a hopeful ray of progress — but the beams of an oncoming bullet train. If Japan doesn't address the needs of its youth — family-friendly policies, a social safety net, a vision for the future — Japan's lost decade, as the 1990s economic meltdown was dubbed, might spawn an entire lost generation.

Just as young Japanese are facing up to the burden of their homeland's bankrupt policies, many of them are also realizing that they have no choice but to carve out a space for their future. With traditional employment opportunities shrinking, more young people are turning to volunteerism and the number of youth-led NGOs is rising. Others are trying to convince the under-30 set that their ballots do, in fact, matter. Here are five young Japanese who, in ways big and small, are trying to remake their own lives — and perhaps in doing so, Japanese society as a whole.

— with reporting by Yuki Oda / Tokyo