from Asia Unbound

Japan’s Twenty Somethings Speak Out

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009

December 14, 2012

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline? Today, by invitation we are featuring two essays by former interns of the Japan program, Miyuki Naiki and Go Katayama, who share their perspectives on Japan’s future.

Choosing Japan’s Future by Miyuki Naiki

Japan today is struggling to keep up with a rapidly globalizing world and has been experiencing a long period of economic stagnation and political gridlock. Having been raised in post-bubble Japan, I became accustomed to hearing about my country’s economic collapse and predictions of a bleak future. I did not feel the negative effects of this decline, however, and so came to the conclusion that this “decline” would be a gradual process rather than a rapid plunge.

Over a decade later, I am increasingly concerned that Japan has no alternative but to head straight downhill. Many younger Japanese feel that we have reached a critical point where our country must pick itself up again, or be destined for a dim future.

I would like to see a future for Japan that is characterized by steady development and innovation; a future where Japan keeps its historically unique position in the international arena and emphasizes its advanced industries and worldwide soft power. Unfortunately, I think it is highly unlikely that Japan will recover unless it instates a stronger leadership that can address problems at home and create a realistic strategy for long-term stability. Japan faces tough challenges—such as a declining birth rate, increasing welfare costs, and strained relations with neighboring countries—and the country is in urgent need of leaders who can implement necessary reforms.

I believe one of the great sources of Japan’s strength is a shared attitude among Japanese people that drives them to persevere and strive for perfection. High standards in technology, human resources, and a unique mix of traditional and modern culture are areas of immense pride that have made Japan successful and attractive to foreign investors. However, these strong points are undermined by the current political situation, which could hasten Japan’s decline.

Political infighting and a dysfunctional government have resulted in a delay in passing the necessary legislation in the Diet. Initially, the tragic triple disasters on March 11, 2011, appeared to bring the Japanese people together, as seen by the nationwide relief efforts and countless volunteers that came from all over Japan to help those in Tohoku. Today, however, thousands of Japanese are still displaced and the energy future of Japan remains uncertain.

In order for Japan to fully recover from last year’s disaster and flourish internationally, we will need to concentrate our efforts on creating a comprehensive growth strategy that surpasses any of the current plans by tenfold. Take for example the problem of Japan’s enormous national debt. Rather than focusing solely on increasing the consumption tax, we should address Japan’s fiscal problems head-on through broader structural reforms that improve local fiscal systems. Our society must be resilient enough to accept these reforms, and our leaders must be more adept at defining the solutions.

As a twenty-two-year-old, I would like to see my country take a stand for its future and implement strategies that go beyond just fixing political ineptitude. Much discussion is going on about policies in the upcoming election and the abilities of political leaders to take action beyond campaign promises. I want to see the leadership of my country take actual steps to implement policies that can set Japan back on the right path.

Despite the overall pessimism in Japan, I have felt recently that many Japanese in their early twenties have a greater desire to play an active role in choosing new leaders for their country. Younger Japanese want to vote for policies that will empower them in the future, but unfortunately the flood of new political parties confuses many constituents who are voting in national elections for the first time. Many of my friends and colleagues have told me that they were still not sure for whom to vote. Their confusion makes them think that politics has no real influence on their lives.

We must, however, start thinking more critically about tomorrow’s life-changing issues. Over the past few years as I’ve watched so many prime ministers struggle to lead our country, I have realized that we cannot always rely on our government to function properly. In the face of the many challenges facing us ahead, it is extremely important that the younger generation be proactive in thinking of ways to contribute to the future of our country.

Choosing a new kind of political leader—a leader with the ability to confront Japan’s problems head on—is the first step.

Our second step must be to become problem solvers ourselves.

Miyuki Naiki is an undergraduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Wanted: Japanese Classmates Abroad by Go Katayama

I find Japan’s so-called “decline” quite hard to contextualize. I am of the generation that came into adulthood after the bubble and grew up never having known Japan as a flourishing economy. It is hard for Japanese young people to be optimistic about the future when we don’t even know what a strong and growing Japan looked like.

Instead my generation grew up with uncommitted and revolving political leadership (fourteen prime ministers in the last twenty-seven years), two decades of economic stagnation, China surpassing Japan in GDP, devastating natural disasters, and an employment ice age for young Japanese.

Living abroad, I can’t help but notice how much Japan has fallen off the radar. For being the world’s third largest economy, and a key U.S. ally, the lack of Japanese presence abroad worries me. There’s nothing more tragic than to be ignored by the rest of the world.

The reason is simple. There are just not enough young Japanese going abroad. Japan needs a “going out” policy. Over the years, I have seen many of my Japanese colleagues return to Japan, while more and more South Koreans and Chinese have filled those seats. In the 1980s, the number of Japanese studying abroad in the United States was 45,000. Last year, the total declined to 19,000, while the Chinese have about 200,000 U.S. enrolled students. Some make the argument that Japanese young people are going to China instead, but I didn’t feel a strong Japanese presence during my two years studying there. I instead once again shared classes dominated by South Korean students vigorously mastering their Mandarin skills.

South Koreans and Chinese that go abroad are ultimately more competitive and much more ready to compete globally than Japan. By turning inward and not venturing abroad, Japanese professionals will find themselves bypassed and marginalized in today’s complex globalized world.

Japan has created its own Galapagos paradise, and has become so safe and comfortable that there is little incentive for younger people to live abroad. Why go abroad when Tokyo has it all, if not better?

The education system is also to blame. The notorious shuukatsu (job-hunting) process dictates that students dedicate the third year of their undergraduate studies—the year most students study abroad—to searching for a job. This shuukatsu process is a crucial period as it is perceived as the only opportunity to gain entry into major firms and government agencies that effectively guarantee employment for life.

Furthermore, young Japanese are not interested in going overseas because the current system doesn’t reward studying abroad. Over the past couple years companies have coped with a sluggish economy by hiring fewer new graduates, making the process even more competitive. Those who choose to go abroad find it hard to compete for jobs at home. Ironically, those who show incentive in becoming more globally trained are paying the price for the country’s economic “decline.”

I often explain to my peers that there is a difference between “normal” Japanese and “weird” Japanese. “Weird” Japanese includes anyone from Japanese Americans who don’t speak a word of Japanese to Japanese who have spent even a little time abroad. Going abroad shuts young people out of social harmony in Japan, and handicaps them in their search for employment. As I look for a job myself, I am experiencing firsthand that my global background actually puts me at a disadvantage when applying for work in Japan.

Two sets of reform are needed: education reform that incentivizes more young people to study abroad and a national leadership that is committed to developing the global potential of Japan’s next generation.

Japanese education reform should instead take a holistic approach and encourage flexibility in the hiring process. High schools care much more about preparing their students to pass the English section of the college entrance exam than the actual development of English proficiency skills. It’s a well-known fact that Japan has ranked below North Korea in the Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. I was even more shocked when I was applying for jobs that some companies required a TOEFL score in order to be interviewed for a position, even though I had more than a decade-long experience abroad. Much more flexibility is needed to incorporate “weird” Japanese into the economy.

The lack of interest of young people in politics must be also restored. It is quite obvious that distrust exists between Japan’s youths and its political leaders—young people view lawmakers as untrustworthy and lawmakers consider youths out of touch with the real world. Voter turnout among those in their 20s and 30s is alarmingly low. In the 2009 general election, voters in this age group represented only 9 percent of ballots cast. Many factors may account for this. Politicians say only what they think people want to hear, the older generation are focused on securing their retirement, and Japan’s youth are blaming the older generation for what they has left us.

But in my opinion the most obvious factor is the lack of hunger in my age group in Japan to look outward to the world. I spent one summer in China teaching English to Chinese high school students. Although at first there was some reluctance to learn English from a Japanese person, the hunger to learn English from these students was striking. It was as if they all had a clear view that English would enable them for a better future. Chinese students are worried about their future and that drives them to all they can to improve. In Japan, I hear too much of “it’s okay to be decent, even if I try, it won’t change anything”.

Many have noted that 2013 will be a year of the resurgence of Japanese nationalism. I worry that this sentiment is simply a response to China as the usually quiet Japanese public has become increasingly tired of getting pushed around. I think Japanese need the right kind of nationalism—pride in our country and commitment to improving it. Only by going abroad can Japanese gain this perspective on their country. At the moment, young Japanese tend to isolate themselves and they are losing the opportunity to see their nation in a broader light.

Rather than allow our country to become isolated and stagnant, I think we should go out into the world and stimulate our thinking and creativity. We should have confidence in ourselves and in our ability to make Japan a great country.

Go Katayama is pursuing his master’s degree at New York University.

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