By 2055, an estimated two out of every five Japanese will be aged 65 or older. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks of wanting to reverse the trend of the aging society and improving conditions for young adults. Yet the government remains lukewarm to the needs of high school and college graduates who would like to go out on their own but finding they are unable to do so.
“Japan is not investing in its younger generations, and there is no political party advocating their needs,” says Shun Otokita, 31, who was elected to the Tokyo city council in 2013. Otokita belongs to the Assembly to Energise Japan, an offshoot of the failed Your Party, whose stated objective is to re-engage young people in politics.
Last year, Japan lowered its minimum voting age from 20 to 18. Government officials described the change, the first of its kind since 1945, as directed at inspiring young people to vote. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the change has “great significance … [and] will allow for more young people’s voices to be reflected in politics.”
However, many observers believe the change will have little impact on the fortunes of young people who still represent a small fraction of the electorate.
Consider the government’s apathy to the recent growth of politically activist youth movements — particularly on the left. According to Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo, the largely symbolic voting-age reduction speaks volumes about the limits of what groups like Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALD) and other left-wing groups are able to accomplish. Their time in the political limelight may be short-lived due to the offsetting strength of right-wing Internet activists (net "uyoku"). In Nakano’s mind, the popular appeal of net "uyoku" has emboldened political conservatives and a fair share of establishment lawmakers to become more relaxed about disclosing their own extreme beliefs.
“Some members of the right wing have even come to think that — by utilising the fact that the newly enfranchised youths will be of school age — they can apply further pressure on school teachers and university professors to be ‘neutral’ in the classroom: meaning, they shouldn’t be openly critical of the government,” Nakano says.
Classroom political bias is not all that should worry students, however. According to anthropologist David Slater, at Tokyo’s Sophia University, the Japanese education system contributes to a wealth-based segregation, from middle school through adult life. Though students are almost universally stellar in basic language and numeracy skills, Slater argues this equality is insignificant in the long run because of the critical role played by juku (cram schools) in ensuring success on the life-determining entrance exams for high school and university. It costs a fortune to send children to juku over the many years needed for it to have the desired impact, and they are more prevalent in the cities where real estate is higher-priced. These factors combine to ensure that students from privileged backgrounds tend to have better access to the institutions most instrumental in deciding which university and what job opportunities are presented.
While Japan’s economic future is not looking bright — with faltering educational standards, and diminishing liquidity and individual earning potential — there are some grounds for reassurance.
“Generally speaking, Japan is not abandoning or tearing down any of the social welfare benefits that safeguard hardworking people,” says Jakob Edberg, managing director of GR Japan, a leading government–relations firm.
Although Japanese workers tend to lack boldness, they remain highly efficient and productive, according to Edberg. He feels that even a problem like increased labour mobility can benefit companies and employees. Companies, especially international ones that guarantee job training and competitive employment benefits, can tap into Japan’s abundance of blue-collar workers. He believes that this helps them meet the needs of the country’s highly demanding consumers.
A 2010 McKinsey study suggests that, unlike in past decades when Japanese buyers tended to value quality and convenience, the “new” Japanese consumer is an Internet-savvy bargain-hunter who — when persuaded to shop in the real world — would rather frequent malls and standalone specialty shops than the more high-end department store outlets.
“Another promising change is the government’s focus on promoting women in the work place,” adds Edberg. Half of GR Japan’s professional staff are female, he says. If others followed its lead, the effect on Japan’s economy would be significant. In 2014, Goldman Sachs estimated that if Abe’s Womenomics campaign were to raise Japan’s female employment rate in 2013 (62.5%) to the male employment rate that same year (80.6%), Japan’s GDP could grow by nearly 13%.
Whether Japanese women can overcome gender pay gaps and unequal career opportunities to “lean in” to the workplace, as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says they must, remains uncertain. But as Goldman Sachs’ analysis indicates, even a little improvement can go a long way to growing Japan’s economy and transforming consumer-spending patterns beyond the significant alterations they have already undergone.
Besides the more Internet-focused companies taking advantage of e-commerce’s surging popularity, “some successful industries in Japan are old or mature industries that are renewing themselves and still generating new growth,” says Trond Varlid, programme director of the Japan Market Expansion Competition (JMEC). For the past 22 years, JMEC has provided practical business training to experienced mid-career professionals in Japan, as well as business plans for market entry or business expansion to companies here.
Accordingly, Varlid is encouraged by Abe’s support for structural reforms intended to generate business growth in the country’s vast economy.
“Over the last 10 years, many more Japanese start-ups have been going to the Tokyo Stock Exchange MOTHERS Index for high-growth and emerging stocks,” says Varlid. “In time, high-flying entrepreneurs like Rakuten’s Hiroshi Mikitani, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, and Joi Ito at MIT Media Lab are sure to be a great inspiration to the new generation of young people.”
Steve Burson, president of H&R Consultants, offers some caution about how long it will take start-ups to succeed here. “Japan still has many challenges in the face of globalisation. The time it can take to build the necessary trust for business to bloom is unlikely to be one or two years in Japan, but more like three or five, or even 10.
“Japan’s culture of slower and more methodical decision-making creates challenges when the world is moving so fast,” Burson adds.
And what about the outlook for the rank-and-file staff in Japan?
“For Japanese workers who cannot keep pace with the global community by studying abroad and working for a multinational company, the future is not all bleak,” says Seiichiro Iwasawa, a Harvard-educated behavioural economist and professor at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business. “If young people can become productive members of society, Japan will provide a market for them.”© Japan Today