Growing Up in the Post-Growth Era: What Makes Japanese Teenagers Tick? 

Society Family Education

As Japan lowers the age of adulthood to 18, the older generation continues to puzzle over the seeming passivity and apathy of Generation Z. Sociologist Doi Takayoshi sheds light on the attitudes and behavior of Japanese teenagers in an era of low expectations.

Doi Takayoshi

Professor of Sociology, University of Tsukuba. Born in 1960 in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Author of Wakamono no kibun—shōnen hanzai genshō no paradokusu (Young People’s Feelings: The Paradox of Declining Juvenile Crime), Tomodachi jigoku—kūki o yomu setai no sabaibaru (Friendship Hell: Picking Up on the Vibe to Survive), and numerous other works.

The youth of Japan remain an enigma to many of their elders, who grew up in an era of upward mobility and expanding horizons. Sociologist Doi Takayoshi, known for his writings on social and economic issues impacting the young, offers his insights into the challenges facing Japanese teenagers in the age of low expectations and social fragmentation.

Probing the Drop in Juvenile Crime

Being an adolescent in Japan today is no easier than it has ever been, as evidenced by the epidemic of school avoidance, self-harm, and other disturbing behaviors. Yet delinquency has been on the decline. As Doi notes, juvenile crime soared during the decade starting in 1993, as economic conditions worsened following the collapse of the 1980s asset bubble. But it has dropped almost as sharply since 2003, even amid stagnation and growing economic inequality. As a specialist in the sociology of crime, Doi wanted to understand why.

“It certainly wasn’t an improvement in the social environment,” he says. “The poverty rate for children under 18 years of age has continued to rise.”

As Doi sees it, the shift from brisk economic growth to an era of stagnation has had an impact across Japanese society, but it has been most disruptive for people now in their 50s and older. In fact, a growing percentage of all crimes reported in Japan are committed by the elderly.

“Japan’s nominal gross domestic product has been basically flat since the early 1990s. Our society has hit a plateau,” says Doi. “We know from various sociological surveys that a big shift in values occurred between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. For many people now in their fifties and older, the adjustment has been difficult. They came of age at a time when everyone was still single-mindedly striving upward in the firm belief that hard work pays off. Especially among older men, who tend to be poor communicators, pent-up feelings of frustration and isolation can lead to problem behavior.”

As parents, people of that generation were apt to pressure their own children to aim higher and try harder, even as opportunities dwindled. During the 1990s, the values gap between the two generations fueled domestic strife, sometimes leading to rebellion and even violence. But the parents of today’s teenagers passed through adolescence after Japanese society had already plateaued. As a result, says Doi, “the values of young people today are not so different from those of their parents, so they don’t come into conflict.”

If the results of opinion surveys are any indication, Japanese teenagers and young adults are pretty satisfied with what they have. In a survey conducted every five years by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, the percentage of respondents expressing satisfaction with their lives has risen almost continuously since the first survey in 1973, and the increase has been especially pronounced in the 16–29 age bracket. In the most recent survey, conducted in 2018, a full 95% of respondents in that age group characterized their lives as satisfactory overall.

“The reason they’re more satisfied, even amid rising poverty levels, is that they expect less from their own lives,” says Doi. “Since they don’t let their hopes get too high, their dissatisfaction never builds to the point of triggering criminal conduct.”

The Age of Anxiety

However, Doi believes that another factor behind the drop in juvenile offenses is fear. “Kids today are anxious about veering off track because they know how hard it is to turn over a new leaf. In the past, it was possible to imagine building a life even after an infraction here or there, but nowadays kids are convinced that once you’ve gone off the rails, there’s no second chance. I think this is a big reason for the drop in juvenile crime.”

While anxiety may be keeping down crime, it has fueled a rise in other troubling behaviors, including school avoidance and self-harm. Moreover, such anxiety-induced behavior can escalate to serious criminal conduct. This, says Doi, has become the driving force behind juvenile crime, replacing rebellion against parental authority or society as a whole.

Doi cites the case of a high school student who stabbed three people with a knife last January outside of the University of Tokyo, where other students were gathering to take the university entrance examinations. The perpetrator told police that he was frustrated over his own failing academic performance and had decided to wreak havoc before taking his own life. “His anxiety about the future escalated to the point where he took it out on others,” says Doi. “It’s a variation on self-harm.”

Fragmentation and Isolation

Another major source of anxiety among today’s young people is their relationships with friends and peers. Since 2000, a Cabinet Office survey of youth attitudes has recorded a sharp increase in such worries among people aged 18 through 24, reversing the downward trend seen in the 1980s and 1990s. Doi sees this as another consequence of the shift from an era of upward mobility and purposeful striving to our current socioeconomic plateau.

“During the growth years, everyone had some higher goal toward which they were striving, even if they were climbing different mountains,” says Doi. Today, with the goals less clear and the judgment criteria in flux, people look increasingly to their neighbors for guidance on how to behave. “Everyone is watching everyone else for cues and getting more and more anxious.”

Accompanying this anxiety is a pronounced tendency toward social fragmentation. “Since the 2000s, people have attempted to reduce the stress of interpersonal relationships by confining their interaction to a narrow group of peers with very similar values. In this era of growing diversity, people seek stability and reassurance by limiting their interactions to a closed circle of friends who share the same values, income level, and lifestyle,” observes Doi.

But this strategy of restricting one’s social interaction carries risks. “The minute you’re rejected by that closed group of friends, you’re all alone. In order to maintain those relationships, you have to conform, submitting meekly to peer pressure. And when you can’t speak your own mind to your friends, you feel lonely even in a group.”

Doi worries that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the trend toward social fragmentation.

“At school, it’s harder to preserve this sort of compartmentalization. You’re getting some noise from the outside, and that helps enrich kids’ social lives. But since the pandemic, athletics and other extracurricular activities have been sharply curtailed. Plus, there are fewer opportunities for kids to meet and interact outside of school. Social media has become the main vehicle for communication, and with social media, it’s easy to pick and choose the people you want to interact with. You end up closed off from everyone but a select group. In that sense, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the young. And the mentality that takes hold during adolescence can be quite hard to shake.”

The New Fatalism

Growing income inequality and socioeconomic stratification are part of the problem. Children of wealthier families tend to gravitate toward the secondary schools that will give them an advantage in university admissions. As a result, they have little contact with or awareness of teenagers from less privileged backgrounds.

This situation has engendered a kind of socioeconomic determinism, especially among the less fortunate. During the years of growth and upward mobility, educational and career attainments were viewed as the reward for individual effort. Today, when upward mobility is the exception instead of the rule, one’s lot in life seems more inextricably linked to the immutable circumstances of one’s birth. This mind-set is summed up in the buzzword oya-gacha—roughly, “parent lottery”—popularized by young people on social media. Derived from the name of a vending machine that randomly dispenses capsule toys to children, the term expresses the perception that success or failure is determined by one’s family background, over which one has no say.

Such fatalism ends up exacerbating the trend toward fragmentation by socioeconomic status. Increasingly, the “winners” and “losers” of the oya-gacha lottery move in completely different circles and regard one another with indifference.

Japan’s young people are by no means uniform in their behavior or values. Teenage entrepreneurs and social activists exist alongside adolescents who confine themselves to gaming and messaging among small groups of friends. But there is precious little interaction amid this diversity.

Society’s Responsibility

Is there any way of reversing the trend toward social fragmentation?

“We need to deliberately create places where young people of diverse values, income levels, and lifestyles can socialize,” says Doi. He sees potential in Japan’s fast-growing kodomo shokudō, or “children’s cafeterias.” Originally intended as a response to childhood poverty, they have begun opening their doors to young people of all backgrounds. Some are also intergenerational, providing a place where elderly community members can gather and mix with youth. Doi applauds such initiatives and calls for their expansion, with a particular focus on teenagers.

“Unless adolescents have exposure to other worlds and ideas through interaction with different people, their own sense of what’s possible in life remains limited. Society has a responsibility to create an environment in which teenagers can encounter different worlds and feel inspired to try something new themselves.”

Economic assistance for needy families is an important part of the equation, since poverty can be isolating. Need-based academic scholarships are vital, of course, but Doi argues that untied assistance is important as well.

“Some kids lack the pocket money to participate in social outings, so they’re left out,” Doi notes. “Even participation in intramural sports and after-school clubs takes resources that some kids don’t have. Many decide it’s easier just not to make friends. This further restricts their opportunities for exposure and saps their motivation.”

Japan’s Change-Averse Youth

Japan’s voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 2016, but voter turnout among 18- and 19-year-olds has been disappointing. As Doi sees it, the main source of this political apathy is an aversion to change. Having no reason to believe that social change will improve their lives, they regard it with suspicion and anxiety. “If they wanted to change the world, they would vote. They don’t vote because they have no motivation to change things. Those who do go to the polls tend to vote conservative.”

In a 2020–21 survey of high school students in Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States (conducted by the National Institution for Youth Education), a full 45.6% of Japanese respondents agreed with the statement, “It’s better to accept things as they are than to try to change the status quo”—the highest percentage among the countries surveyed. In a 2019 Nippon Foundation survey of 18-year-olds in nine countries, only 10% of Japanese respondents (the fewest among all the countries surveyed) thought that things would improve in their own country, and fewer than 20%—the lowest rate by far—believed that they themselves could contribute to social change.

Doi has a message for Japan’s complacent, change-averse youth.

“I want to warn them that if they get too comfortable with the status quo, they’ll be unable to adapt when the status quo changes. They need to realize that risk avoidance carries its own risks.”

He also urges them to broaden their range of social interaction. “Young people today say they know themselves well, but they’re wrong. We learn about ourselves as human beings through the reactions of the people around us. When our relationships are confined to people who are just like us, all we see is a mirror image. We never come face to face with a self we haven’t encountered yet. By shutting out people who are different from you, you’re narrowing your own horizons and limiting your own possibilities for the future.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Kimie Itakura of Banner photo: © Pixta.)

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