The Untapped Potential of Japan and Its Young People

Politics Economy

For Japan, 2011 was a year of disasters. What lessons can be gained from that turbulent year, which saw the outbreak of a global crisis of sovereign risk, fears of the second economic downturn since the 2008 financial crisis, and growing unemployment; and what are its challenges for 2012?

The Entrepreneurial Spirit of Volunteers

Despite the unprecedented disaster arising from the March 11 earthquake and nuclear accident, the public sector has been frittering away its time when it comes to addressing the recovery effort. Amidst that sluggish response, nonprofit organizations have been engaged in assistance activities that hint at a future posture for Japan. There are also many instances of unorganized individuals joining together in activities, and becoming organized through that process. The volunteer activities that students have gotten involved will also have an impact on their future lives. The important lesson we can draw from this is that, while the public sector has faltered, the nonprofit sector has been hard at work, accurately assessing the needs of disaster victims.

For example, fishermen have donated used fishing boats to assist fishing in disaster-stricken areas. Individuals have also set up a system to sell freshly caught seafood on the Internet to attract fishing boats to affected ports. And, in a creative twist, clothes donated to people in disaster areas were displayed on hangers, instead of cardboard boxes, to make choosing the clothes seem more like a shopping experience for people in the disaster areas.

These sorts of activities are not profitable initially. But as the activities take root, they have the potential of growing into enterprises that can cover the personnel costs of those involved. This is the entrepreneurial process at work. The phenomenon also merits attention in the context of leveraging the positive aspects of a graying society.

Young Japanese Need to Shed Their Complacency

At the same time, however, there are young people in Japan who are satisfied with the status quo and have no interest in change. That attitude flies in the face of global trends, however, as touched on in the Economist article “The Great Mismatch” (September 10, 2011).The article noted some surprising worldwide developments, including the following:

  • Job opportunities for unskilled labor are becoming scarce in developed economies
  • A shift is underway, particularly among English-speaking countries, toward emerging and developing countries for routine, mid-level jobs in the white-collar sector

Even as a sea change in employment is happening elsewhere in the world, Japan faces a different situation. The “Public Opinion Survey on the Life of the People,” conducted by the Cabinet Office, offers a surprising insight into the attitudes of twenty-year-olds. In the 1970s, just over 50% of those in this age bracket were content with their current lives. By 2010, however, that figure exceeded 65%. One factor may be that today’s young people are able to live off their baby-boomer parents. These complacent young Japanese remain cut off from the rest of the world by a language barrier, while Japanese companies are moving into the future. It is not surprising that Panasonic has decided to mainly hire non-Japanese employees.

My message to young people in Japan is that there are many different paths to take in life. These options might include spending your life clinging to a job with an established company or government agency, or acquiring skills at a nonprofit to be of service to your local community. Even if young people do not feel up to the challenge of working somewhere on the global stage, I hope they will at least take up some challenge in Japan that allows them to fulfill their potential. (January 16, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

youth sovereign risk earthquake economy Nariai Osamu Lehman unemployment volunteer nonprofit