- Japan’s Emerging Youth Policy: Getting Young Adults Back to Work by Tuukka Toivonen
Young people have not fared well in the labor markets of postindustrial economies in recent years. From southern Europe to East Asia, rates of youth unemployment as well as rates of part-time and temporary employment [End Page 532] have increased in the face of slowed economic growth and continued job protection for middle-aged employees. In Japan, more than two decades of sluggish growth coupled with only partial deregulation of the labor market have resulted in swelling ranks of young people unable to move into adulthood through what has traditionally been the standard path: entry into a full-time job. Labor economists and sociologists have devoted considerable attention to the fate of Japan’s “lost generation” of young people. Tuukka Toivonen’s book approaches the subject from a different angle than previous studies, examining the efforts of government policymakers and various civic actors to engage youth who have fallen through the cracks by virtue of being nonemployed. In doing so, Toivonen contributes significantly to our understanding of how social policies to address disenfranchised groups are fashioned and enacted in contemporary Japan.
Japan’s Emerging Youth Policy centers on two key themes. The initial chapters of the book detail how the Japanese discourse surrounding nonworking youth has been shaped by the media, by prominent academics and researchers, and by government bureaucrats. Toivonen then turns to the government policymaking process and to two organizational models that developed to “activate” nonworking youth: the Youth Independence Camp and the Youth Support Station. In narrating the origins and operation of these organizations, Toivonen explores the underlying logic behind their efforts to move young people from a state of joblessness into employment. His analysis reveals the complexity of the practical issues faced by youth support organizations and the particular ways that such organizations draw on cultural and symbolic resources in the Japanese context in order to fashion novel policies, even as they reference past practices and institutions.
Toivonen locates his inquiry in the international discourse and policy climate surrounding employment in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, where governments increasingly converted entitlements into benefits accessible only to individuals actively involved in job training or work. The Japanese government faced particular difficulties in this regard, as the near-absence of existing entitlements for young people with checkered work histories rendered it impossible to utilize the leverage of converting entitlements into benefits that are conditional upon employment. Furthermore, many nonemployed Japanese youth rely on their families for support, which inserts another layer of key actors into the mix. Toivonen argues that these characteristics of the Japanese context led policymakers to develop programs that rely on what he calls “symbolic activation”—policies oriented toward integrating youth into the labor market primarily through normative pressures rather than financial “carrots.” The discourse surrounding various youth labels, and especially the ultimately negative connotation of NEET (not in education, employment, or training), constituted a symbolic trigger for encouraging nonworking young people to seek employment so [End Page 533] as to avoid the stigmatization that the NEET label brought to themselves and their families.
While youths’ purported association with the NEET label has been used as a strategy for galvanizing youth and their parents to seek help, Toivonen also argues that the social category of NEET has ironically both helped and hindered the formation of government policies to address youth nonemployment. On the one hand, official recognition of NEET paved the way for policy design. But on the other hand, Toivonen argues, “deep-rooted themes in Japan’s youth problem pedigree and the media forces that reproduce them ‘hijacked’ the NEET discourse, imbuing it with explanations highly reminiscent of the preceding debates on freeters, the hikikomori and parasite singles” (p. 77). The image of NEET as “undeserving” has made it more difficult for bureaucrats to develop policies and garner the financial support that is required in order to make the policies successful on a large scale.
In two separate...