The lingering tragedy of Japan’s ‘lost generation’

I met Hiroshi S. a few years ago at a support group in Tokyo for socially isolated Japanese.

A chain-smoking 43-year-old in a puffy down vest, he was one of an estimated one million or more Japanese known as a “hikikomori”, which roughly translates as “extreme recluse”. Typically male, between the ages of 30 and 50, jobless or underemployed, they have largely withdrawn from society after Japan’s extended economic malaise since the 1990s prevented them from getting their working lives in order.

Hiroshi, who asked that his full name not be used, had crashed out of Japan’s corporate job market roughly 20 years before and had been living off his aging, unsympathetic parents in their home, where he racked up credit card debt on pop-culture merchandise. He even contemplated suicide.

“Japan has changed,” he told me, referring to the shrinking opportunities and hope available to his generation. He never once looked me in the eye.

That was in 2017. Since then, Japan has done little to address the despair of the hikikomori or the much larger “lost generation” of economically marginalised individuals to which they belong.

It’s a national mental health and employment crisis that has persisted for years, and there are concerns that it is being worsened by the COVID pandemic. But political leaders and a society that values stoic conformity and steady employment seem fundamentally unable to summon the willpower and tools to confront the crisis.

Japan’s lost generation is estimated to number as many as 17 million, men and women who came of age during the decades of economic stagnation that the country is still struggling to fully shake off.

Their predicament is back in the public eye after the assassination of the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in July. Mr. Abe was gunned down by Tetsuya Yamagami, 41 at the time, who sent a letter to a blogger one day before the killing, blaming the Unification Church — an organisation with longstanding ties to Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party — for “destroying my family and driving it into bankruptcy.” Mr. Yamagami’s mother, a member, had made large donations to the church.

No details have yet emerged to suggest that Mr. Yamagami being from the lost generation was a factor in the killing. But some Japanese media outlets and academics point out that details of his life that have emerged — his trouble fitting into society and the work force — mark him as a member of that struggling group, and that the deeper roots of his anger are being ignored by the conservative establishment’s focus on the hot-button political issue of Liberal Democratic ties to the Unification Church.

Those roots lie in the fading promise of Japan’s postwar socioeconomic model, which centred around the “salaryman” whose lifetime corporate employment supported his nuclear family. This model has frayed badly since the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble — a period of easy credit and hyperinflated stock and real estate values — in the early 1990s, which tipped Japan into an ongoing economic sluggishness.

The response by the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated postwar Japan, is blamed for worsening things with policies focused on sustaining corporate profits. In the process, the full-time work force was trimmed and short-term jobs without reduced or no benefits have increased. A period of job market paralysis known as the “employment ice age” ensued. Middle-class incomes fell, marriage and birthrates declined, and the percentage of single-person households rose.

The isolated Japanese often have nowhere to turn. Despite recent improvements, mental health services in Japan remain inadequate and often expensive. Psychological counseling remains unpopular in a country where cultural principles like “gaman” — Japan’s version of Britain’s “stiff upper lip” — stigmatise seeking help as shameful. Domestic media typically frame those of the lost generation not as victims, but as self-absorbed ingrates.

Resentment over this labeling was clear in the support group I attended, which met in a basement lounge in Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukicho (I attended several meetings as a journalist with the support of all involved). None of the roughly 40 participants, dressed casually but neatly, looked out of the ordinary. They were calm and articulate but arrestingly candid about their insecurities, joblessness, loneliness and, especially, their anger — directed at an older generation whose response to their problems was often expressed as “ganbaru” (“work harder!”). Some lived with their parents but rarely spoke to them.

In 2019, an unemployed 51-year-old recluse went on a stabbing spree that killed two people and injured 17, most of them schoolgirls, fueling public concerns about violence by the economically and socially marginalised. A week later, the government drew up plans to create up to 300,000 jobs for those stranded by the “employment ice age.” But little came of the plan and Mr. Abe’s own trickle-down economic policies are, ironically, blamed for exacerbating the pressure on job-seekers.

To many in Japan, Mr. Yamagami is a prime example of the lost generation’s marginalisation and distance from unsympathetic parents and, for some, a focus of sympathy.

Yet no policy relief appears on the horizon. Mr. Abe’s successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, took office last year with plans for a “new capitalism” that will include wealth redistribution, wage increases and benefits for part-time or short-term workers.

But Mr. Kishida’s administration is on the defensive over Liberal Democrat connections to the Unification Church, the conservative religious group founded in South Korea by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954 and which has been accused of aggressively soliciting donations from members. Mr. Kishida’s unpopular decision to hold a taxpayer-funded state funeral to honour Mr. Abe, rising inflation and a falling yen also have sent his cabinet’s approval numbers tumbling, weakening his ability to push anything through. He no longer mentions new capitalism, instead echoing the late Mr. Abe in prioritising economic growth.

Missing from all of this is any real public discussion of ways to get the lost generation on track. Solutions will require real change — not by these millions of long-suffering people, but by the hidebound society in which they live.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Roland Kelts is a Japanese-American writer and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. He is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and “The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus”.
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