Japan’s Shy & Retiring Youth

“High among the reasons for this crisis is the difficulty of being a Japanese parent. Working mothers are still treated as an aberration; inadequate nursery care and lack of flexibility in the workplace often enforces a choice between career and family; many people, especially women, choose the former. However, there is something more mysterious going on: a growing distaste among the young for relationships.


Japan has long been the demographic pressure cooker of the developed world: steadfastly refusing to relax its closed door immigration policy, despite a record 5,000 applications for asylum in 2015 – of which 11 were accepted – and the unprecedented workforce crisis induced by its ageing population and falling birth-rate. As The Times reports, ‘1.3 million Japanese died last year, but only a million were born. The total fertility rate, the number of children the average woman will bear in a lifetime, is 1.43, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1. Old people are living longer and longer but the bill for their pensions and medical bills falls to a shrinking number of taxpayers’. As a result, Government estimates last year projected a workforce reduction of 7.9 million (12.4%) to 55.61 million in 2030. Its 128 million strong population is estimated to fall to 86 million in 2060; 40% of that total will be 65 or over.


In its excellent Demographic Destiny series, the WSJ last year charted the creative approaches already being used to harness Japan’s pensioner workforce; the exo-skeleton clad septuagenarians heavy lifting in the factories; the robot-run care homes fending off Alzheimer’s with memory games – highlighting the paradox of innovation that has always sat at the heart of Japan’s deeply preservationist culture.


Now, in the wake of a new sluggish economic reality – which aims to boost GDP from the current 491 trillion yen to 600 trillion yen [5 trillion US dollars] by the end of the decade – a new crisis of youth is emerging which spells even more dire demographic consequences.


Millions of young adults are turning away from relationships and marriage: caught in the crossfire of deeply traditional social norms and changing economic trajectories. Men, no longer assured of the ‘Salaryman’ path of steady, lucrative corporate work and shamed by their inability to provide for a wife, are opting out; women, increasingly unwilling to sacrifice work for motherhood in a culture where the two remain mutually exclusive, are doing the same. A recent survey of 5,300 18-43 year olds found that 70% men of 60% were not in a relationship; 42 and 44 per cent respectively had never one. Combined with the decline of traditional matchmakers and the ferociously abstinence-based education in schools, ‘“the research is consistent,” says Masahiro Yamada, a professor of sociology at Chuo University in Tokyo. “Japanese young people are losing interest in, and a desire for, relationships.”’


Add to this the growing recognition of the hikikomori – individuals, mostly young males, who entomb themselves in their bedrooms, for months, years, or even decades at a time; rejecting the intensely pressurised education system with its years of evening ‘cram school’; uniform routes to success; declining opportunities and prevalence of Karoshi, or ‘death from overwork’ (a quarter of all Japanese companies log more than 80 hours of overtime a month per employee ) – and there is no doubt that Japan is in the grip of a deep cultural crisis.


Though exact figures remain elusive, a 2016 study by the Japanese government estimated that there were roughly 541,000 hikikomori; enabled, through a culture of parental dependence and technological escapism, to abdicate completely from education, work, child-rearing or indeed caring for their ageing parents – a figure that is sure to increase as the pressures of modernity continue to collide with tradition. As the New York Times observes, ‘a leaner global economy… demands the kinds of skills – independent thinking, communication, entrepreneurship – that many parents and schools don’t teach. Boys have spent their young lives being educated for a work system that has shrivelled, leaving many feeling inadequate and stuck.’