Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Work (paato 2)

In my last entry I tackled the mammoth topic of the work situation in modern Japan, a subject that some people devote their entire careers to studying, which I pithily tried to summarize in a blog post knocked off in around an hour. Clearly two blog posts should be sufficient to cover the primary obsession of a country of 120 million people. (I also revised yesterday's post adding a paragraph about women in the workforce and better conclusion for all of you who just can't get enough of this subject.)

Somebody (who failed to disclose their name) asked how "ganguro" kids fit into the work situation here. While I gave two educated guesses (convience stores and fashion boutiques), the question opens up the larger issue of the current state of youth and employment in Japan. The phrase parasaito shinguru (parasite single) refers to the increasing number of young folks who don't move away from home or get married, enjoying the free room and board and (according to the mass media stereotype) spend their work money on clothes, shopping and partying. Outside of the parasaito shinguru there are three major terms that have been bandied around a lot in the Japanese media that refer the irresponsibility of my generation.

The first, friita, coming from the English word "free", refers to young people who don't pursue a specific career path, instead flitting from part time job to part time job, and pursuing personal interests more than work. This may sound pretty unremarkable, but it is a brand new concept for Japan, where, since the rigid social structuring of the Tokugawa era (1603-1867), your job defines your identity. Japan's "economic miracle" was the product of a society that was soaked with memories of postwar devastation and put work ahead of all else in the hope of a better future. You sold your life to the company in long hours and total commitment, but the company would take care of you and your family through old age. The friita style of putting oneself before one's job smacks straight in the face of this system, and Japan has been tying itself in knots trying to figure out what's going on, with innumerable articles, panel discussions and economists weighing in on the economic and social damage friita are causing. Services hooking up applicants with short term work have been exploding. But as my pushing 30 cousin put it in a conversation we had about friita "Dude, sounds like me and most of my friends..."

Another trend that has wasted about as much ink and airtime as the friita issue is the emergence of "NEET" (pronounced neeto). In Japanese academia's love affair with clever English, NEET stands for No Education Employment Training, which basically sums up the NEET phenomenon. NEET sit one rung below friita on the troublesome youth scale, encompassing people who work only when they have to, disdaining higher education or any kind of commitment as a waste of time.

They are dynamoes of energy compared to the truly disturbing hiki-komori, which roughly translates as "the secluded." These are adults who for some reason or another never leave home, never find a job, and live off their parents. I have heard about this not just in the media but have several relatives of friends who are hiki-komori. I think the widespread existence of the problem points to a fundamental philosophical and spiritual malaise at the heart of the country.

The postwar era idea of being taken care of for life has lingered on, but the memories of widespread starvation and poverty during the Great War have faded, leaving no driving incentive to "rebuild Japan." Given Japan's draconian immigration laws, there are no major immigrant populations to shake the system up. With a steadily aging population and dropping birthrates, immigration is currently the only option, but not one that anyone has breached. A multicultural Japan is a subject that no one breaches, and seems almost impossible to imagine.

(Next entry more funny stories and less armchair philosophy. I promise.)


Anonymous said...

I watched a Japanese film on Monday called "Audition," which was interesting all around, but primarily so in that an older professional Japanese male in the movie said "Japan is finished." There was also the insinuation by another character that everyone in Japan is lonely, the way that New Yorkers and other American concrete jungle residents are framed in our art house films as being lonely. Do you think that the growth of neetos, parasites and friitas is a rejection of capitalism? What have you observed of artistic representations of loneliness as a result of the structure of Japanese society, and are they similar to our representations of loneliness in relation to income?
What was most interesting in light of your resume post was that to qualify for the audition, the women had to write a statement about themselves, preferably giving TMI about their background. The woman who won the audition, which was actually a search for a bride, gave waaay too much information. They also had to provide small passport pictures, instead of the big glossy glamour shots our actors provide. I think we're all interested to see the picture you choose for your resume.

Jamie said...

I've heard about that movie. Even just reading a review weirded me out. Always struck me as too easy to make a movie about how messed up stuff is than a movie that shows real people struggling with realistic issues and working through or overcoming them.

>Do you think that the growth of neetos, parasites and >friitas is a rejection of capitalism?

This is a tricky question, but I'd have to say no. Seems to me more of a specific rejection of Japan's corporate system than of capitalism as a system. People aren't running out and joining the Communist Party (third largest political party in Japan), it's members seem to be overwhelmingly over 40. Corporate Japan is seen as repressive to the individual, a limit to personal advancemet. Just this week there was a landmark judicial case where a scientist who had invented an LED that had made billions for his company and was initially rewarded with a $200 bonus sued them, and won an $8 million settlement (down from the initial $600 million he wanted). Hardly revolutionary, but I think a good (if somewhat extreme) example of the issues.

But I think what you're really looking for is the political tenor of my generation in Japan. Hard to say. Like the US I think there is a widespread gut rejection of the corporate system, and also like the US this doesn't necessarily lead people to reject capitalism. So on one hand you have kids classified as friita's or NEET who move from job to job but are primarily consumers, and on the other you have kids who do try to be politically active. I can't make big sweeping statements, and maybe it's just who I hang out with, but the socially active people my age I know are involved at the local level, promoting local businesses, local agriculture and local environmental actions and regulations. But they are still working within a capitalist framework and mindset, albiet one that emphasizes people and community over profit. No talk of taking it further.

(Somewhat related my mother told me yesterday that the total donations for tsunami relief from Japan exceed those of any other country.)

>What have you observed of artistic representations of >loneliness as a result of the structure of Japanese >society, and are they similar to our representations >of loneliness in relation to income?

This question has been bouncing around me head all day, and I just don't know quite how to answer it. How does one compare loneliness?

Anonymous said...

I saw one of your heat fans at a Korean tailor's shop earlier this week and had to go in and ask if I could turn it on high. In return, a tailor asked me to explain some words in her real estate workbook.

"Audition" is actually probably not the movie you're thinking of. It's a "hitchcockian" thing dealing with death and sexual abuse. Maybe the reviewer was a Felicia Feaster; maybe we're talking about different films. I don't know how to rephrase my question on the portrayal of loneliness in Japanese art, so never mind. I'll type "Japanese art" and "loneliness" into Google and see how far I get:)

Jamie said...

No, I'm pretty sure it's the same movie. Does it end in a horrific torture sequence? A friend of mine who saw it told me about it, but just couldn't stomach watching something like that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, torture sequence. I loved it. BTW, what is the Japanese word for "deeper"?

Jamie said...

Ugh. I'm not answering that.

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