The Young and the Old

The Young and the Old post image

Japan is a place where you can visibly see the difference between old and new. Kyoto’s Gion district is famous for its old houses that look like they did a hundred or more years ago. Meanwhile, nothing can match Tokyo’s modern monuments to architecture. Although they were built in the same country, they almost look completely different.

And much like those buildings, the culture seems to be divided between old and new. Japanese youth are often portrayed as sexless, non-working lazy bums leeching off their parents who worked hard to make the country great. They tend to get blamed for a lot of current issues like the dwindling birth rate and stagnant economy.

At the same time, the older generation is getting a bad rep as being an uber conservative elitist group that is pulling (possibly dangerously) the country in the  wrong direction. Recently, Abe has come under fire for boosting the military’s role in Japan despite a vehement and vocal opposition.

They seem to be two sides of a widening battle that is leading to a stalemate in Japanese policy making. So what’s up?

The Young

Well, the youth aren’t as lazy and passive as the news media might lead you to believe. There is a problem with shut-ins (hikikomori) that, to me seems to be caused by the utter lack of emphasis on socializing and presentation skills in school. Most students don’t make a presentation in front of their classmates until college. Children aren’t placed in that many socially awkward situations, like school dances. These are seen as distractions, when in reality they should be seen as learning to overcome social anxiety.

But then there are radical departures from this. For example, the SEALDs protesting Abe’s recent pro-military legislature. There are thousands protesting his moves. Protesting and speaking out in this way is pretty daring, considering there is no protection from an employer discriminating against them when they go to get a job (something that is also mostly true in the States by the way).  It’s encouraging to see students speaking out more and more as well as a nicely organized movement.  It gives me a little hope.

On the other side of the coin, some youth are not even motivated to get out of the house in socialize.  The success of Japan has made it so that they don’t need to really go out and hunt to find a good job or even to get money.  A lot of people’s parents have the resources and money to provide for their grown children.  Life has gotten a little too easy.  I’ve met a lot of these people.  Yes, they do exist.  It’s kind of sad in a way, because I feel like there is so much to experience about life.

And there are a lot of easy victims to blame here.  For instance, over protective parents, ‘monster moms’ as they are called here tend to push and pull for their little ones.  In the rough and tumble States, where I was raised, my parents let me fight my own battles, unless I truly needed them.  It’s something I remember when I’m with my daughter.  I always make sure she is okay, but when she falls down, she can get herself up.

I have met a few, very ambitious young Japanese that are starting their own businesses or designing their own careers.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see them with such hope in their eyes ready to do anything for their plan.  They are, however, few and far between.  It is just seen as something not very safe, and if you fail, even once, it can be a scar on you.  But, failing is a huge part of being successful at business.  You have to fail a lot to succeed (much like language learning).

I feel like one of the biggest problems is that people in Japan have been raised to fit into a machine.  They were trained in a fairly regimented style of digesting massive chunks of information and turning around and barfing them back up on a test.  This was a great system when the Internet didn’t exist because the more knowledge you had the better off you were.  It was a limited commodity, now it isn’t.  It’s everywhere.  We have so much data, we need data miners to make use of it.

And younger teachers know this.  Whenever I speak with high school or junior high school teachers, they bemoan the use of standardized testing and regurgitating data.  They would love to have more presentations and critical thinking.  But the standard nation-wide curriculum dictated by the government doesn’t allow for that.

The Old

If you have read anything about Japan’s aging problem, you know the stats – somewhere around 25% of the population is over 65.  Adult diapers are now outselling baby diapers. The old have taken over, and are here to stay for the perceivable future.

All those retired people that were trained to be a part of a machine and then retire, now have plenty of free time to go vote.  They tend to get what they want too.  Conservative values rule the day.

Of course, this is what they were promised when they started work 30 some years ago – work really hard being this cog in the machine and at the end you will be taken care of. Most companies force employees to retire at the age of 65 and sometimes at the age of 60. So instead of giving older people a fulfilling role in society, they are regulated to living off the government and sitting at home.

You can see why they have a strong desire to keep the status quo, keep what they know. They tend to have tremendous savings and with Japan’s traditional deflation, they make money by not spending money.

That is changing of course, inflation is starting to creep in, which will erode the value of their savings. I see the Bank of Japan’s move to keep printing money to increase inflation a way of taxing those with savings (like the elderly) without actually coming out and saying it. It’s quite a neat little political trick if I do say so myself.

Darth Abe Strikes Again

Abe is the conservative leader, and there is no one more conservative than the older generation, and boy does he know how to work this crowd. He is one of the most powerful prime ministers of Japan in recent times.  He is one of the only ones worth mentioning in recent times to be honest.  And there is a reason for that. He strengthens his base at every opportunity, to the detriment of other things.

Case in point, Abe’s visits to Yasukuni shrine, where a couple class A war criminals in enshrined. This basically amounts to Abe flipping the middle finger at China and Korea. It causes tensions and makes everyone angry and stick their hands in the air. But, it strengthens his conservative base. With a stronger base, he push major changes.

This might be a good thing, but currently he is pushing reforms through that aren’t so popular with the general public, and that is why SEALDs are protesting him.


I think when history is faced with these difficult problems, people just tend to keep barreling ahead until the ship sinks. Much like climate change, I think most people like doing what they do and believe that a solution will come to light when it needs to. Or when something forces that change to happen.

What Japan needs is a trigger – a technological revolution, space exploration, a great cultural movement, or a charismatic leader.  Triggers like that can create fertile ground for a spur of development, like silicon valley.  Having a little nest like that is important because those that have been successful and made a lot of money can turn around and invest and nurture other companies that are similar to theirs.  But that takes a hunger for something more, and Japan hasn’t had that hunger for a long time. It’s a pretty rich country even in a recession with only minor problems with homeless and the poor.

Japan’s youth aren’t hungry because they have plenty of money and even if they did want to get rolling there is plenty of conservative regulation blocking them. Hulu tried to open shop in Japan, and ended up selling it to a Japanese company because of all the red tape. Netflix has now entered the market, but their future doesn’t look very bright either.


Underpopulation is quickly becoming a global problem and Japan just happens to be on the front lines. Unfortunately the older generation hasn’t quite woken up to what needs to be done. Other countries have taken initiatives to increase the population, like France.

However, these policies cost money which Japan doesn’t have a whole lot of at the moment, except for large overpriced sports stadiums. Apparently there is an enormous budget for that.

There is also a lack of triggers. People don’t feel that under population is a problem. Cities are still very crowded due to the massive influx of immigrants from more rural areas. You can’t really see underpopulation right now. There needs to be a visualization of the need in order for people to react I think. Maybe a modern artist can help with that. Banksy, where are you?

What do you think?

What could trigger a change? What give people hope or make them realize? Obviously stats on a page doesn’t do it. So what will?

Photos by Danny Cho and nubobo

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Chad October 20, 2015, 8:06 am

    “I have met a few, very ambitious young Japanese that are starting their own businesses or designing their own careers.”

    That’s funny. My experience is just the opposite. At age ~40, I do not know of a single one of my American classmates from my high school or college days that primarily earns their living with their own business excepting inherited farms. In contrast, I count a large number of small businesspeople among my Japanese friends. It is just so much easier to set up a small bar or shop here than in the US (no six-figure liquor license required!), and the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure favors small businesses over McFranchises and Big Boxes. Not that Japan lacks either, but the proportion seems quite a bit smaller than in the states.

    Few are ever going to get rich running their twenty-seat izakaya or four-seat hair salon, but at least they are working for themselves rather than the absentee owner of the local Wendy’s or Walmart.

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