Young Japanese Adjust to the “New Normal”: Pandemic and Social Change

Society Culture Lifestyle Education Family

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shifts to work or study from home has brought about greater physical distance between people. How will this affect young people’s romantic and other relationships?

Nagata Natsuki

Associate professor at Hyōgo University of Teacher Education, where she specializes in family sociology. Born in Nagasaki Prefecture in 1973. Conducts research into views of marriage and family structure in contemporary Japan. Also greatly interested in online communication and subcultures. Author of Shōgai mikon jidai (The Age of Lifelong Singles) and coauthor of Ongaku ga kikenaku naru hi (The Day We Can No Longer Listen to Music).

Economic and Digital Divides

INTERVIEWER  The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all levels of society, but inequalities are said to be getting worse, particularly for university students.

NAGATA NATSUKI  There are widening economic and digital divides. Financially straitened students have reduced incomes from their part-time jobs, meaning they face difficulties in paying for tuition and living expenses, and many may not have Internet access. While there’s no survey data that reveals the current situation for isolated and needy students, they were unable to hunt for postgraduation jobs during the period when the authorities asked people to stay at home. Even after those requests were lifted, it’s very likely that they got a late start on earning the needed academic credits and lining up jobs. Without making conscious and active efforts, individuals won’t get the information they need. I don’t think we can rely on universities to do much to reach out and help students who have limited friendship groups, or are lacking in initiative.

Universities had been slow to adopt information and communication technology, but having rushed to introduce online classes, they will persevere with them for the moment, with face-to-face meetings only taking place when absolutely necessary. There needs to be a safety net providing support for students falling through the cracks of online learning due to problems with access or mental issues. This should happen across the board, and not just at individual universities.

Less Pressure to Conform

INTERVIEWER  People are spending more time at home, and the trend toward remote work and study is expected to continue. What effect will this have on young people’s relationships?

NAGATA  Individuals are likely to be more selective about who they want to actively communicate with. Before the pandemic, it was typical for students to have lunch and chat with whoever they happened to share classes or free time with. But now, being with others is a risk in itself, and if remote communication is the default, they will have to decide who is worth taking the chance to meet in person. 

Clear disparities in young people’s ability to construct online communities are also emerging. There will be young people who don’t take the initiative themselves, get rejected from different networks, and are ultimately excluded. For those who can establish communities on their own, there’s a danger that they end up with fixed relationships limited only to people they find comfortable. Meeting all kinds of people, including those with different opinions or from different generations, helps maintain flexible thinking, but only associating with people one gets on with from the same generation means there’s very little chance of that happening.

That said, remote connections have their good side too. There’s less pressure to conform. Young people have a great fear of being shunned if they don’t adapt to match those around them. Many have prioritized conforming, accommodating themselves to others’ wishes rather than expressing their own preferences, such as when planning a karaoke night or a trip. Perhaps this unnecessary stress has decreased now. 

Among the female students I know, there’s a sense that it’s easier to state their opinions from a distance. Face to face, they feel intimidated by the physical size or loud voices of others. The Ministry of Education recently established a policy of providing “fair, individually optimized learning” through ICT and other methods. One promising aspect is the support online study provides for students who cannot leave the home due to illness or disability, those with developmental disorders, and others who don’t fit into the existing education system, such as long-term absentees from school. The work-from-home shift holds the potential for changing the position of people with small bodies and quiet voices. But this is based on the major premise of equal online access. There can’t be any divides in terms of ease of connection to the Internet, bandwidth, and necessary equipment. Fundamental action is required to address this situation.

More Active Love Lives?

INTERVIEWER  In your book Shōgai mikon jidai [The Age of Lifelong Singles], you talk about how for many young people, getting married has become just one of several options in life. In the COVID-19 era, however, are there fewer opportunities to find a partner in the first place?

NAGATA  Leaving aside dating sites, more people around me are getting married after making a connection on social media like Twitter and Facebook. The Internet is not much different from gōkon group dating when it comes to meeting someone new, but the relationship won’t develop without meeting in person. Online communication can’t always substitute for real life: Classic examples would be a romantic relationship and raising small children. In these cases, nonverbal communication is essential.

This is just a prediction, but there’s a chance young people’s love lives will actually become more active now. They have to consciously decide to take the risk to meet up, and there’s no longer the pressure of what other people think. If they don’t worry about others’ opinions, they might work harder to build relationships.

Changing Corporate Culture

INTERVIEWER  Will students and companies change how they think about job hunting and hiring?

NAGATA  In my experience, there have been a lot of students in their sophomore and junior years who’ve said, “I always thought getting a job would mean moving to Tokyo, but I’ve realized that there are other options.” And there have been young people who’ve wanted employment in their hometowns. If it’s possible to work remotely from anywhere, it’s only natural that more people will choose the comfortable lifestyles of smaller communities.

More companies are considering expanding remote-work initiatives. One possibility is for them to relocate their offices to smaller cities outside of Japan’s main urban centers. This becomes more appealing if the kind of talented young people who can adapt to the new circumstances of the pandemic are looking for a different way of working. As the labor pool is shrinking, how to secure promising employees is of critical importance for companies. The concentration of offices in Tokyo has required firms to pay out large sums in travel expenses for long commutes, but remote working means they can save that money.

INTERVIEWER  Job hunting might also be conducted remotely, with new hires mainly working from home.

NAGATA  In that case, they’d feel less sense of belonging, in terms of commitment to the employer’s vision and company growth. The entrance ceremony, drinking parties after training sessions, wearing of company badges, and other ways of instilling this sense are directly linked to settling into the real-world workplace.

That said, amid pressure to conform, the fear of misreading a situation and falling out of step with others is a major cause of the current stifling atmosphere in Japan, so a change in corporate culture would be welcome. This means being ready to discard the emphasis on not rocking the boat and adhering to precedent, as when people say, “A hanko stamp is required for internal approval, like we’ve always done it,” or “We follow a standard rulebook, so there’s no need for explanations.” Not sticking to precedent goes hand in hand with taking the responsibility to properly explain. Otherwise, organizations don’t function as they should.

Dragon Quest and Pokémon Lives

INTERVIEWER  Did the “stay home” requests change attitudes to family and households?

NAGATA  Among people I know who couldn’t go back to their hometowns during the state of emergency and spent all that time living alone, some moved to new accommodation after the requests not to go out were lifted. Up until then, they’d spent a lot of time at work and home was just a place to sleep, so somewhere small and near the station would do. But during their enforced stay at home, they realized that they hadn’t paid attention to how they spent their time there. They decided to move to larger accommodation that got a lot of sun, even it was relatively far from the station. Before thinking about getting married and having a family, it seems there’s a growing sense that it’s important to first take care of one’s own lifestyle.

Families will also change greatly. As people have stayed at home, including to work, it’s become important that they feel at ease there. Family members need to manage personal stress, think about others, and build a comfortable environment. If there are a lot of couples that can’t do this, it will lead to an increase in “corona divorces.”

INTERVIEWER  In your book, you compare two different ways of looking at life, which you call the Dragon Quest life and Pokémon life. How has the pandemic affected these?

NAGATA  A Dragon Quest life follows a single story path, as in the game series. For instance, someone advances through standard events like finding a job and getting married, successively achieving each one. Pokémon, on the other hand, is nonlinear, with the main objective being to catch and train the titular creatures. There’s no need to do what everyone else does. So, in a Pokémon life, the main aim is to make choices that lead to individual contentment at various stages. Standard job hunting and marriage are just possible options among many.

Government offices and major corporations with persistent seniority systems are lacking in mobility, so are suited to Dragon Quest lives, as there’s no room for individuals to make decisions freely. After the COVID-19 crisis is over, a divide will likely open up between the kinds of jobs where people can live a Pokémon life and those where they can’t. There will probably also be regional divides between places where people want to live and those where they don’t. Tokyo might become less popular.

The Potential of Animal Crossing

INTERVIEWER  What’s the ideal outlook for a postpandemic society?

NAGATA  The ideal would be a society where everyone can pursue contentment in their own way. A number of divides will become clearer, but this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Changing how individuals work and live is the key to transforming the stifling nature of Japanese society. Even though we don’t know what lies ahead, there are probably many who see the present moment as an opportunity to change the way they live.

The shift to remote lifestyles is advantageous to young people, who are well used to operating online. I’d like to see them not only communicating within communities of similar peers, who they feel comfortable with, but also making the effort to express themselves to older people and others they haven’t met. I’d like this to be a chance for greater crossgenerational discussion.

INTERVIEWER  Finding a fulfilling online community seems like another way of improving the quality of life spent at home.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become a global hit during the pandemic. There’s no fighting in this game, in which players might gather fruit or go fishing, while doing what they want with their islands. Many people of different nationalities and ages are discovering what they enjoy doing while playing it. While it’s impossible to get together in the real world, some are holding graduation ceremonies or weddings in Animal Crossing

People who can take the initiative in making approaches in this new space will build their networks and increase options for communication. The possibilities that open up for people who only want to use the phone are completely different for those happy to use Zoom as well, and who play Animal Crossing. Naturally, remote communication can’t substitute for the benefits of directly meeting in person. But opting for both and knowing when each one is suitable certainly leads to a more enjoyable and richer life.

(Interview and text by Itakura Kimie of Banner photo: Dōshisha University in Kyoto has opted to hold online classes. The student pictured has studied using smartphone apps since he was at high school, and felt no resistance to switching to online classes, but says that some of his friends had to rush to buy computers or lacked Internet access. Picture taken on April 20, 2020. © Jiji.)

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