Japanese Society: A New Beginning or the End?

Purikura (Source: mic.com)

Humans have a way of evolving—or, changing in some fashion or form with each new generation. Looking at a group’s culture over an extended period of time only proves that nothing ever stays the same, and Japan is no exception. There have been multiple shifts within Japanese youth culture. Of those shifts, there have been two major ones. The first occurred in the 1960-70s with the student revolts and rise in deviant culture and delinquent youth, and the other in the 1980s with the new breed of youth. The changes that were introduced during the “new breed of youth” from the 1980s is, in truth, still influencing the youth culture of Japan today. The introduction of technology—and the isolation resulting from it—has played a huge role in setting today’s generation apart from the preceding ones. Technology, isolation and globalism have become the key three factors that can attribute to the new “Japanese youth culture”—one of passive rebellion that can make or break Japanese society as we know it.

Global Youth Culture

Source: AsaiNews

Not only has technology made it possible to stay connected with each other through cell phones and computers, but as a result of globalization, Japanese youth have been subjected to outside influences as well. As the popularity of social media networks, as well as other modes of media (movies, television, etc), spreads, the idea of a “global youth culture” becomes stronger. The very purpose of the adolescent period, according to Sean Marston, an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University, is to “forge a sense of self.” The youth are meant to go through a period of “constant reevaluation of aspects of their lives and their worlds as they search to find their sense of place” (Marston,“Youth and Youth Culture”). However, because we live in a time of increased global connection, Japanese youth are unable to find their sense of self in the same way they would have in the past (which can be said for most of the youth throughout the world). It is understood that during this sensitive period, the ones who have the largest influence on the youth are the young people around them and the world that is created through that unity. So where is this world created by all of these youths leading Japan? If youth culture is the culmination of accepted practices, beliefs and views of the younger generation, then the Japanese youth culture of the twenty-first century may very well be one of unconscious rebellion. This is a pivotal movement because this could be the changing point for the future Japanese society.

In part, this “pivotal moment” is thanks to this generation of youth being the most connected generation ever. They are watching the “same movies, listening to the same music and accessing the same information” (Marston,“Youth and Youth Culture”). Which I guess is why I shouldn’t be surprised when I hear that the tv series my students are watching are many of the same American shows that my brothers are watching. But the similarities do not end there.  Japanese youth are doing more than just watching and listening to the same entertainment. As Japan opens up its borders more to the world, outside influences have naturally begun to pour in. Just look at the sudden surge of Korean Pop fans in Japan over the past few years.

However, instead of focusing on the superficial influences, it is important to see how the youth themselves are changing. As their awareness of the outside world increases, their lives slowly reflect that. Take, for instance, their fashion. There have been extreme cases where the youth have openly resisted the norm by dressing in gal or lolita fashion. What is more interesting, though, is what the majority is doing. Within the high schools, and even some middle schools, students can be seen altering their uniforms, dyeing their hair, and wearing makeup. Personally, I saw it on a regular basis when I was in Tokyo, and see it now that I am living in Shizuoka. This may seem like a small step to outsiders (or even expected), but in Japan, where unity and harmony are essential, for many educators, they find this to be the first step towards delinquency. On the flip side, the students prefer to view it as sign of individuality—their new way of developing their sense of self. It is this idea of individuality—a trait that is highly valued in Western cultures, and often portrayed as such—that has found its way into the Japanese youth of today.

Gal (gyaru) Fashion
Gal (gyaru) Fashion (Source: Flikr)
Lolita Fashion
Lolita Fashion (Source: Wikipedia Commons)



The Price for Change

For every step forward there is a price to pay; and sometimes the cost is not just a monetary value. Though technology has made it possible to stay connected with friends and to branch out to those all over the world, it comes with a heavy price. After cell phones and computers became a natural part of everyday life, the “isolation” that had first plagued Japanese youth in the 1980s became stronger. No longer do many adolescents spare the time to talk with parents or grandparents on a regular basis. Communication within the family has dwindled, and now bonds between friends are seen as more important. However, even the modes of conversing between friends has changed. Face-to-face contact is not as preferable—resulting in a gap between real life interaction and that of the technological world—and the schism between the younger and older generation has became even larger (not very different from America’s youth, unfortunately). The gap is not merely one that represents the lack of communication between the youth and the older generations, but it has led to a deterioration in understanding between the two age groups as well—sometimes so severe that the youth cannot even understand the dialects of their own grandparents. Though this is not the first generation of Japanese youth that have had issues with “isolation,” the growing gap and lack of understanding surrounding today’s youth has become a growing concern for Japan.

Generation Gap (Source: Joi Ito’s Web)

Concerning Today’s Youth

Any acts or behavior that are out of line with those of the previous generations are simply considered misconduct (or hikō); and the discussions on how to deal with this misconduct have only grown. In a nation like Japan, where the youth are constantly under the pressure of elder generations’ expectations, any misconduct is not condoned. That is to say, in some academic circles, Japan is defined as a nation that follows outer reference—meaning, that in Japan, people act based on those around them. They are guided by their reference of “shame,” and how their choices may negatively impact those around them. This idea relates directly to the enormous responsibility and stress placed “upon the individual, who must not point to ‘others’ or to ‘society’ as the source of one’s problems” (Ackermann). To better understand the expectations and the youth of Japan, Peter Ackermann phrases it like this:

Socialization – “growing up” – always implies having to deal with the pressure of expectations from people older than oneself. Such expectations might go hand in hand with force or coercion, exercised by concrete “official” persons such as parents or teachers…it is therefore important to pay attention to “social pressure,” i.e. to expectations that are not so much spelled out as just “present in the air,” felt to be limiting or channelling the scope of action one might take…. Consequently, these young people were not intent on irritating, shocking, resisting, or criticizing their elders. Rather, their desire was to maintain and defend their privacy, close friendships, and inner images of a happy life… (Ackermann)

Although the frustration of the older generation may grow as the gap between them and the adolescents becomes larger, the youths’ desire to protect their fragile world only grows stronger. However, as Ackermann stated, Japanese youth are not blatantly rebelling (after all, they’re not all delinquents). In fact, it is not their intention to oppose their elders at all—they are merely doing what they can to secure their little bit of happiness in a system where they are constantly oppressed and bombarded by the expectations of others. If this results in a passive or unconscious resistance—which fits the Japanese characteristic of expressing their position or desires indirectly—then that is simply the course of nature. Nevertheless, one has to wonder how feasible protecting such a fragile existence is within Japan, where “to be human…is to live within a social network outside of which the individual cannot exist…” (Ackermann) So, if by defending their “privacy, close friendships, and inner images of a happy life” leads them to become outcasts and pariahs from the social network—as is the case with some otaku, hikikomori and NEETs—does that make them less than human in the eyes of Japan? If that is the case, then maybe it’s high time for a restructuring of Japan’s society until it is no longer recognizable.

Should the youth of Japan continue in such a way, there may very well be changes to Japan at every level—educational, social and so on. And with all of these warring factors previously mentioned (the isolation, spread of globalizationism, passive rebellion), Japan’s society is no longer stable. The youth have changed too much to remain under the current system; and although technology may have stunted some of the youths’ growth in expressing themselves in the physical world, the changing nature of the bond between the youth worldwide and their common sense of identity will continue to shape and alter Japanese youth culture—leading to a collapse or rebirth of today’s Japanese society. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t expected to learn a lesson like this on the journey. Until next time. Class dismissed!

Shibuya 109 Entrance (Source: Flickr)

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