The following was originally published in Seiron, Sankei Shimbun:
I have long questioned the wisdom of intellectuals who view the status quo and future of Japan pessimistically. Although we face a number of challenges, Japan is prosperous and stable, and more than anything else, the number of young people who view the future optimistically is increasing.
To be certain, the majority of young people currently view the future with pessimism. In a 2013 survey of individuals aged 13-29 years from seven different countries conducted by the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office, only 12.2 percent of Japanese respondents answered that they were hopeful about the future. That was half as many as France, which was second-lowest, and only a quarter of the United States which had the highest number of hopeful respondents.
Such scores reflect increasing anxiety about the aging society and declining rural population, as well as government debt that amounts to twice the gross domestic product (GDP). Moreover, apprehension regarding the future of the pension and medical systems, due to an annual increase of 1 trillion yen in social security costs, is something that cannot be overlooked.
In a time when half the world’s wealth is held by the top 1 percent of the population, the trend is toward an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, even in Japan’s so-called “egalitarian society.” According to a survey conducted by the Japan Foundation, 1 in 6 Japanese children live in poverty and unless we address this issue, the social loss is estimated to reach 42 trillion yen.
However, the situation is decidedly worse elsewhere: for instance, in the Middle East, where ongoing conflicts make predicting the future impossible, in the European Union which is dealing with issues such as the refugee crisis and rise of the far-right, and in the United States, where public opinion has cleaved significantly following the recent presidential election.
The deceptive cliché of Japan’s inward-looking youth
But that is not why Japan’s future looks rosy. I hold high hopes for the future because of my high expectations regarding the new changes seen in the current generation of young people. The ideal of “graduating from a first-rate university, to work for a first-rate company”, is really beginning to change amongst the nation’s youth. According to a survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the turnover rate of university graduates is 30 percent within three years. Talking to young people working their way around the country or involving themselves in volunteer work, the reality is that a surprisingly increasing number of them say “As long as I can have a normal life, I would like to do something that feels like I am making a contribution to society.”
At the Social Innovation Forum held in Tokyo in September 2016, more than 2000 young people from around the country gathered for three days to engage in a heated debate about issues relevant to the nation’s future, such as the population decline. The head of the Liberal Democratic PartyYouth Division, Shinjiro Koizumi, attended, receiving a round of applause when he stated that “Isn’t a nation with a population of 60 million optimists more likely to succeed than a nation with a population of 120 million pessimists?”
After World War II, Japan developed steadily under the leadership of its government, but it is impossible to deal with the challenges of an increasingly complex and diverse society by relying solely on local and national governments. Even within the government, there is a growing trend toward seeking the cooperation of the youth of the nation.
These trends encourage youth participation in society, thereby increasing the motivation and sense of responsibility felt by the young. It is premature to say that “The youth are inward-looking” based only on something like a decline in the number of Japanese students heading overseas on exchange. For the future of the nation, there is no greater force.
“An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”
For the past 25 years, Japan has been number one in the world in terms of net external assets, totaling 340 trillion yen, and unlike countries such as Greece, over 90 percent are held by domestic investors. Moreover, at 3-4 percent the unemployment rate is lower than that of other countries, and Japan has a rich natural environment, low crime rate, and a wealth of knowledge, such as cutting edge energy conservation technologies.
Furthermore, as one of the world’s more disaster-prone countries, characteristics such as safety awareness, compassion, cooperation, and kindness have evolved naturally within Japanese society and the notion of working together to rebuild has become a cornerstone of Japan’s societal development.
In recent years, corporate social values (CSV) have garnered attention as an alternative to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Japanese society has also lead the way in this since the Edo period (1603-1868 CE) with the merchant philosophy of “everyone benefits,” where the buyer, the seller, and society must all benefit. Unlike foreign companies which prioritize shareholder profits, the majority of Japanese companies have contributed to society for the past 300 years and are well-placed to lead on CSV.
Winston Churchill once said “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” In the midst of a turbulent era, where a new international order is being developed, with the next generation of increasingly aware young people in front of us, Japan need not be pessimistic about the future.
I believe that we should face the future with great optimism instead. This is a time when all of us, including the elderly, should make an effort to cherish hope.
Yohei Sasakawa is chairman of the Japan Foundation