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Japan’s Worsening Social Divide: A Looming Political Risk



Around two and a half thousand years ago in Greece, Socrates despaired of young people. “The children now love luxury,” he lamented, “they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in the place of exercise.” Given his intellect, you might have expected a little more self-awareness; enough to realize that his criticism is one levelled at their successors by every generation before and since. The sentiment is repeated through thousands of years of human culture; the young people are lazy, preferring luxury to hard work, ignoring their elders and spending their time on mind-rotting activities rather than the wholesome ones preferred by earlier generations. In the West, we see this today in the endless public hand-wringing over the Millennial generation. “Just what is wrong with them,” ask more wrinkled commentators, reciting a grocery list of complaints that Socrates might have found oddly familiar (once you explained a few key concepts like a “smartphone” and a “Kardashian”).


Japan is no exception; here, too, each generation finds themselves convinced that the kids aren’t alright. Rather than Millennials, Japan has the Yutori Generation; those who were in school during and subsequent to the “yutori” (roughly translated as “breathing room”) education reforms. Designed to reduce the overwhelming pressure on pupils, the reforms were implemented between the late 1980s and early 1990s and were controversial from the outset. Debate over specific reforms, however, has been drowned in a broader wave of dissatisfaction with the generation identified with them – who are routinely criticised as being underachieving, unambitious, self-obsessed slackers whose lack of due care and attention to their responsibilities as members of Japanese society is to blame for all manner of problems, from economic decline to the falling birthrate. Like critics of Millennials, those who attack the Yutori generation overstate their case, ignoring economic and demographic realities in favour of an easy narrative with good applause lines.


However, there really is a significant social divide between the Yutori generation and the generations that preceded them. It may, in fact, be the most important social divide in Japan today—more significant for the country’s political, economic, and demographic future than any other social cleavage. The name, however, is wrong. The Yutori education reforms just happened to occur in the right timeframe; what has really divided Japan’s generations from one another isn’t some tweaks to curriculum, but the collapse of the Bubble—the massively overinflated asset prices which flooded Japanese society with wealth for half a decade in the late eighties and early nineties, and whose inflation and bursting marked the closing chapter of Japan’s postwar economic miracle.


If you’re a Japanese person in your mid-forties or above, you graduated and entered the workforce in time to experience the Bubble era. If you’re in your late thirties or below, you graduated not only post-Bubble, but in the era following the neoliberal labor market reforms the Japanese government implemented in the 1990s. The ages are approximate, as always with generational cohorts; the impact of the end of the Bubble took time to ripple through society, and impacted different people in different ways. The younger you are, though, the further from any recollection of the Bubble you are. 35 year olds today were only 11 when the Bubble Era ended; new university graduates entering the workforce this April weren’t even born. To them, the stories of the extravagant spending and economic dominance of 1980s Japan are just that—stories, from someone else’s past.


The divide between those who entered the workforce pre- or mid-Bubble, and those who entered it after the end of the boom, has major material effects. In 1990, only 10 percent of the Japanese workforce were in “nonregular” employment; now, after decades of sluggish growth and labour market reforms, over 50 percent of young people are “nonregular” employees with low wages and no job security. Unemployment may be low (around 3 percent) but underemployment is a critical problem; the issue of “working poor,” those in employment but still within spitting distance of the poverty line, becomes more serious every year, as does the related issue of child poverty. Real wages are stagnant or even falling, another effect most strongly seen in the young, whose wages are lower in real terms than the wages their parents’ generation earned at the same age.


Prime Minister Abe’s much-vaunted but only part-finished economic recovery program, Abenomics, has had its successes—but has worsened this generational inequality. His government’s unwillingness to challenge Japan’s corporations, which are sitting on most of the capital unleashed by Abe’s fiscal and monetary reforms, means young workers have seen no benefit from the policies, but face higher costs of living and higher sales taxes nonetheless.


Even more dramatic than the material difference between the pre- and post-Bubble generations, however, is the psychological difference. The post-Bubble, “Yutori” generation holds a very different set of values and priorities to their predecessors, not because they went through a slightly different education system, but because their social and political consciousness was formed in a very different Japan. A majority of the pre-Bubble generation have, underlying all of their political beliefs, one core motivation—the recapture of Japan’s economic boom era. If Americans are, as John Steinbeck (supposedly) said, incapable of seeing themselves as anything other than “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” Japan’s pre-Bubble generations are incapable of seeing their country as anything other than a temporarily embarrassed economic superpower, its lost decades only a pause before the disco lights of the 1980s can be turned back on. This, they believe, is the Great National Project; restoring the boom era is the rock to which everyone in the country must put their backs and heave as one. Anyone who demurs from that task is, in essence, betraying the nation and the people.



To the post-Bubble generation, however, the boom and the excesses of the 80s are a fairytale. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the Bubble burst, and it’s never coming back; for a generation who never experienced it, some of whom weren’t even born, being asked to throw their backs into the Great National Project of restoring Japan’s economic supremacy is lunacy tinged with cultish fervor. Indeed, there is an element of the cargo cult to the pre-Bubble political consciousness: if only the nation can arrange things just as they were before, then economic prosperity will return. The post-Bubble citizens’ concern with things like work-life balance and their desire to emphasise quality of life over slavish devotion to their employers are upsetting that grand plan. To those who long for a return to the boom, this is a shirking of national duty, lazy, and selfish.


It goes without saying, of course, that most of Japan’s political establishment—opposition and government alike—are of the pre-Bubble generation. That helps to explain why the post-Bubble generation is so unenthused about politics. “Disinterested” is bandied around in reference to young Japanese people far too casually; in my experience, a great many young people are not politically engaged, but they are paying attention. They just don’t like anything they see and don’t feel that politicians, obsessed with somehow engineering a return to a far-off economic past, have any workable solutions to offer to problems in the economic present.


Abenomics, with its focus on providing capital to Japan’s corporate giants and its failure to confront business interests over issues of labor reform or quality of life, feels more like an incantation designed to open a door into the past than a forward-looking plan for a mature, prosperous nation faced with a declining population, vast intergenerational inequality and huge rises in insecurity and even poverty among its young workers. Such policies ensure that this divide is only going to grow deeper and perhaps more acrimonious, especially as the post-Bubble generation grows and ages. The older generation blames them for the country’s failure to return to grand prosperity; they, faced with job insecurity and low wages, consider their parents’ economic pipe-dream a long way down the priority scale.


That divide runs through the heart of Japanese society; if a truly successful populist leader is to emerge here, that’ll be the faultline into which he plunges his rhetoric. Even if the nation avoids that eventuality, the division between the pre- and post-Bubble generations is going to be the key source of political and social tension for many years to come.


Rob Fahey is a PhD researcher at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @robfahey

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