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A Sociology of Japanese Youth: From Returnees to NEETs (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 180-185 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0024

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Young people are a mirror reflecting society. Roger Goodman, one of the editors of this volume, explains: “Young people in Japan, as we have said before, are the country’s most important natural resource” (p. 170). Young people, being important stewards of society, are the constant focus of a keen interest from society. Sometimes when the behavior of young people is incomprehensible to the adult generation, it leads to a moral panic. The trigger for this is often a crime or cases of bodily injury perpetrated by, or involving, young people.

This book addresses youth issues—some of which have greatly shaken Japanese society—from the 1980s to the early 2000s. These include bullying (ijime), otaku, returnee children (kikoku shijo), compensated dating (enjō kosai), corporal punishment (taibatsu), child abuse (jidō gyakutai), social withdrawal (hikikomori), and those Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEETs: niito).

These concepts that surround youths have been treated as social “problems.” With its excellent education system, stable family environment, and low youth unemployment, Japanese society was, until the 1970s, regarded as producing the world’s most privileged young people. However, as a result of revisions to the education system, the transformation of the nuclear family which began in the 1980s, and the protracted slump caused by the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s, a generation of severely aberrant young people, seen as oppressed by society, has emerged. Certain buzzwords have been adopted to encapsulate this image of young people buffeted by social change.

Two primary approaches emerge from theories dealing with young people. One is a method that focuses on young people themselves, looking at their consciousness and behavior and compiling statistics on their actions. The other method focuses on the society surrounding youths. The presumption is that society brought on the changes among young people. More specifically, this method looks at changing environments, such as education, family, and the labor market, to consider how they affect changes among young people.

By contrast, the approach adopted in this book is unique. In addition to young people and society, each chapter focuses on the “mirror” that is seen as existing in their relationship. A characteristic of this book that has not been seen in others is that it delves into the public discourse that explains young people. “Mirrors” are not normally recognized as mirrors. The reflection in a mirror is deemed to be reality. However, can we really believe the reflection is an accurate depiction of reality? Mirrors can be contrived to make the reflection appear slimmer to make one look more beautiful. Conversely, a mirror’s surface can be curved to make the object appear ugly. The impression of the image reflected in the mirror can be changed in various ways depending on how light is shined upon it.

This book begins by discussing returnee children. They were initially regarded as pitiful individuals who could not blend into Japanese society. At some point, however, that changed so that instead they were seen as the new privileged individuals in the international community, or “a ‘new elite’ in Japanese society who would lead the country into the twenty-first century” (p. 40). The factor underlying this was a social change in which the previously self-contained Japanese society was forced to face waves of internationalization.

The argument common to the chapters of this book is that there are actors behind the scene who instigate the changing discourse and move their own interests forward. The media are an obvious example of such a claims maker that shapes discourse. However, other interested parties involved in the issues related to young people come and go as claims makers.

In the case of returnee children, the initial claims makers were their parents. They became advocates for their suffering children and criticized Japanese society for being closed and not accepting outsiders. Subsequent changes emerged in the context in which returnees were depicted: Universities wishing to appear international and stay competitive started to give preferential treatment to returnees by enrolling them under a special quota. Japanese corporations sought to employ returnees to raise awareness of global competition. The largest and most rapid change has been public discourse itself, as initiated by the...

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