Japanese Affluent Society and its Malcontents

All that glitters is not gold. The once affluent Japanese society that arose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Second World War is showing signs of ill health. Over the last decade it has been going through a period of intense social transformation. Old systems are malfunctioning, traditional values are dying and new ones have not yet emerged. A prolonged economic slowdown, scarcity of tenured jobs, the graying of the population and decline in birthrate have all added to the woes of the common man.

Some people can cope with these post-industrial problems and some cannot. Those who cannot, find it difficult to adjust to the bewildering social changes, become maladjusted, and show symptoms of abnormal behavior. In recent years many bizarre crimes are reported in the Japanese media from fratricide and matricide to infanticide and suicide. Not that these crimes have not happened earlier or are uncommon in other societies but their recent exacerbation are a sign of the weakening of the affluent and stable Japanese society. There has also been a rise in standard criminal activity, which has been further aggravated by the use of modern technology like the Internet and mobile phones. 

A fortnight ago in Nagoya, a 40-year-old man, Kenji Kawagishi, heavily in debt and living out of a van, posted a chilling message on the web, seeking accomplices to help him rob a woman and then kill her. Two men, Tsukasa Kanda and Yoshitomo Hori responded to help him accomplish his 'dark work.' The waylaid a woman, Rie Isogai, at night, robbed and murdered her and then abandoned her body on a mountainous area of Mizunami in Gifu Prefecture. All these three Japanese men were in such desperate need for money that they resorted to killing the woman with a hammer as she had seen their faces. With the widening gap in incomes, desperate men are now seeking desperate remedies.

After the Second World War successive Japanese governments have worked hard to equalize wages and create a uniform middle class, which was symbolized by the well-dressed Japanese 'salariman'. The bursting of the bubble economy in the 1980s, the economic slowdown of last two decades, and recession of the last ten years, have all created their own imbalance. In the April-June quarter of 2007, the Japanese economy shark to 1.2 percent, making it the largest contraction in four years. This shrinkage was mostly attributed to low capital investment, private consumption and exports. All these three factors pushed the gross domestic product into the negative. Though both the government and economic analysts downplay the fear of economic recession the fact remains that the economic reality is rather grim. 

The burgeoning economic gap between the haves and the have-nots has once again brought back many problems associated with a classed society, especially of people living on its fringes. The increase of Freeters (furita or part time worker), NEETS (no education, employment, nor training), Net-caf' refugees (spending nights in net caf' cubicles), parasite singles (young adults living living with patents), hikikomori (social recluse) and homeless, apart from poor and jobless, have shaken the complacency of the once predominantly middle-class society. It is possible to see a 4-tiered Japanese society'from rich and middle class to poor and semi-employed or unemployed. Japan is now facing a problem not only with increasing number of homeless, which are easy to identify, but a growing population of 'hidden homeless' which are more difficult to recognize. 

Since the hidden homeless are not as grubby as the regular homeless they cannot be distinguished from the rest of the population. Some of them are the semi-employed young who look quite fashionable with mobile Internet phones, colored hair and trendy clothes. Incidentally, there are over 10 million Internet phone subscribers in Japan. The semi-employed young, often called the Brown Men and Brown Ladies in dyed hair, spend all their money on personal wear looking for bargains and discounts in shops or on the Internet. The burgeoning of discount clothing stores and online retail shops could be in response to this new and growing clientele. However the swagger or lackadaisical attitude of these young people should not mislead us into believing that they are affluent or not concerned about their life. A lot of them are quite worried about their future.

In July 2007, the Japanese Cabinet Office conducted a survey of 10,000 young people in their twenties regarding savings and investments for future. 69.9% responded to the survey, a percentage considered the highest in the last twenty-three years. This itself showed the anxiety of young people about their future. About 69.5% felt rather anxious about something in their daily lives, especially in the light of recent discrepancies in the national pension records kept but the Social Insurance Agency. Most of the young surveyed felt anxious about planning for old age (53.7%), health-related problems (48.3%), family health problems (39.8%) and inadequate future income and assets (39%). Of those surveyed 60.5% wanted to save and invest, while 30.2% felt that they should spend all. The results of the survey revealed the systemic problems in Japan that would mushroom in the next decade, unless nipped in the bud.

There is a growing number of freeters in urban areas doing low paid, part-time jobs. Many high school and university graduates are no longer interested in pursuing the traditional Japanese dream of a lifetime employment in a big company. Instead they prefer to become Freeters working as part-timers in convenience stores, sushi bars or pubs earning a salary of about a hundred thousand yen a month. Some people become freeters because they do not find a stable job. Others become freeters because they never tried looking for a stable job or worse have left stable jobs and did not think necessary to find another. Many young people are no longer enamored with the drudgery of corporate life and see the 'samurai salariman' as a suffering salariman. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's annual White Paper on Labor Economics in 2004 reported that the number of freeters stood at 2,170,000 more than double that of 1992 when there were just 1,010,000 freeters. Today the number of freeters is over 2.5 million and is increasing everyday. Since freeters can make a living even on part-time work, the social system still holds together though somewhat precariously. Both the municipal and national governments are, however, worried that the freeters have a negative impact on the economy.


Close on the heels of the freeters are the NEET's who have further slowed down the regressive economy. Most NEETs are in their twenties and thirties and their potential to slow down the economy further for years to come is tremendous. In 2003 there were 520,000 NEETs in Japan. Since then, in these four years, their numbers have shot up to over one million. Obviously the NEET phenomenon has encompasses not only social institutions like the family and university but society at large. The rise of NEETs have to do with a general lack of motivation in adolescence, high cost of higher education, poor or weak family environment, and the ability to survive on part-time work.

The acronym NEET was originally coined in 1999 in the United Kingdom in a report entitled 'Bridging the Gap' which was brought out by the Social Exclusion Unit. The term was imported to Japan to represent a new class of men and women who were unskilled and without a job. During the 1990s and early 2000s the working conditions in Japan deteriorated dramatically and young people found it increasingly difficult to find jobs. During this period a lot of freeters, who had some sort of employment, became jobless and turned into NEETs. Even non-working housewives between the age groups of 15-34 increased. The Employment Status Survey reported that in 2002 there were 2,708,700 nonworking housewives; now there are nearly 5 million nonworking housewives.

NEET is a reactionary sub culture that now includes subgroups such as net caf' refugees, parasite singles and hikikomori. Sociologists believe that the breakdown of the Japanese industrial society has far reaching effects especially in speeding the disintegration of the social system that had once groomed young people to become adults. Most NEET's are not quite enthusiastic about emulating the old Japanese model of lifetime employment or enrolling in Hello Work governmental system to find jobs. A lot of them come from poor and disadvantaged families. When they find poorly paid work with bad working conditions they are easily discouraged and leave. The effect of early joblessness on marriage and childbirth has not been carefully studied in Japan. But recent studies have come to highlight the inability of jobless youth to find partners and even when they do, they are unwilling to produce children because of the added economic burden. In effect, joblessness contributes in a large measure to theshoshika mondai or the declining birth rate. 

Net-caf' Refugees

The Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry recently conducted a survey of people in urban centers, like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, who spend their nights in Internet and manga cafes. It discovered that there were over 5,400 young people with unstable jobs and no homes living in these brightly-lit cubicles. About 82.6 percent of these people were men who had an average monthly salary of 107,000 yen and 83,000 yen in Tokyo and Osaka respectively. A lot of the cafes are unwilling to report the exact number of such people visiting their cafes out of fear of getting into trouble with the municipal governments. Some analysts assume that the number of net caf' refugees in Japan are about five times larger than reported.

Any Net-caf' in the Ikebukuro or Akihabara districts of Tokyo would give you a fair idea of how the net-caf' refugees live. Somewhere between 9:00 and 11:00 grubby-looking young and middle-aged men come to sleep in the brightly lit cubicles by paying 980 yen for a night. Though they just have a chair to sleep on, they get free coffee and soft drinks. These net-caf' refugees earn enough to make a living, but do not have enough savings to pay a six-month rent in advance, called 'key money,' for accommodation. So, a lot of them lead lonely and uncomfortable lives in Internet cafes without hope of ever improving their lot. 

Parasite Singles

Young people in their twenties and thirties living with their parents, to enjoy an expenditure-free comfortable life, are termed as parasite singles or parasaito shinguru in Japanese. Recently this phenomenon has been growing not only in Japan but also in Italy. Professor Masahiro Yamada used this term for the first time in his book The Age of Parasite Singles published in 1999. Later he introduced the phrase parasite couples to include married children living with the parents of one partner, but this meaning did not become as popular as the first. In 1995 it was estimated that there were over 10 million parasite singles in Japan. Over the years the number has steadily grown and now, in 2007, it is believed that there are over 16 million parasite singles in Japan. Most parasite singles lead a comfortable life, sometimes helping in household chores and sometimes not. A lot of them spend their income on luxury goods and traveling. 

The rise in parasite single has to do in some measure with the rise in the cost of renting accommodation. If these people were to live alone they would have to spend about two-thirds of their income on rent alone and this would undoubtedly lower their living standards. Accepting a comfortable life, and unwilling to make responsible choices, many parasite singles do not live independently and postpone marriage. In the last thirty-five years the average age of marriage has increased from 24 to 28 in the case of women and 27 to 30 in the case of men. Late marriages have also resulted in declining fertility and fewer children. In the 1980s a Japanese woman had 1.8 children on an average, while in 2000s she had just 1.32.


Unwilling to make responsible choices, many young people become a social recluse and are called hikikomori or quite literally 'pulling away and being confined.' The phrase was coined by Tamaki Saito in his autobiographical bookHakushi no kimyo na shishunki. A lot of hikikomori devote their time doing nothing in particular, just surfing on the net especially 2channel, or sleeping at odd hours. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines such people as those who stay in their rooms for over six months without venturing out. In extreme cases some even stay indoors for over two decades. The symptom of a sedentary and reclusive life starts early, when they play truant and refuse to go to school. In Japanese such persons are called tokokyoshi or those refusing to go to school. Japan is not the only country that faces such problems. Many western countries too have similar aberrations, but the rapid increase of hikikomori in Japan has drawn attention to this problem.

Sociologists believe middle class affluence, soft parenting and breakdown of lifetime employment are some of the causes that have recently increased this phenomenon in Japan. At times post-capitalist societies do not provide meaningful rituals of 'coming of age' to young people and this prevents them from developing a private self (honne) and a public self (tatemae). Many young people afflicted by the hikikomorai phenomenon are unable to handle the duality and paradox of Japanese society effectively. In western countries this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as pervasive development disorder or PDD and in some cases is even linked to disorders like autism and Asperger's syndrome. In Japan the hikikomorai phenomenon is seen more of a family problem, something embarrassing and meant to be hidden from society. But recently after such people committed many high profile and violent crimes, the media has begun to focus on the phenomenon. Danyael Sugawara's highly acclaimed film Tamago or Egg, produced in 2004, highlights the predicament of such people through a subtle interplay of light and shade.

Japanese society has been going through a period of social transition for sometime now. The old order has gone, but the new has not emerged. In this typically Arnoldian situation people are wandering between two worlds, the one dead and the other powerless to be born. At this time when a clear national policy should be debated and agreed upon, Japan is still speculating on how to overcome various systemic ills by either tinkering with them or eliding them. The culture of concealment and evasion that characterizes most elites, bureaucrats and industrialists has prevented any viable solution to emerge. Piecemeal solutions, cosmetic surgery, superficial handling of certain fundamental social issues will not create a vibrant and successful Japan. 

This should not be seen as an alarmist vision of a dispossessed Japan losing its preeminence or economic clout in the world but an indication of the growing inadequacy and obsoleteness of social institutions. People by and large believe that their government ought to focus more on economic and social issues and less on ideological and party issues. The recent LDP defeat in the Upper House election in July 2007 exemplifies people's dissatisfaction with the priorities of the government. Obviously the Japanese social system has collapsed in many areas as reflected in the scandal involving the national pension records. Since the population is not only graying but also decreasing, Japan cannot develop any further. China and India are quickly outpacing Japan in business and other areas. But Japan still has financial assets far exceeding those of China and India. Japanese policy makers should not look for a silver bullet that would take care of all the problems at once, but use the accumulated financial savings to invest in the global market. They should use both their financial and intellectual capital to revitalize the economy and society and address systemic social problems head on and bravely.


More by :  Mukesh Williams

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