By Roland Kelts, published on November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on December 28, 2011
On one of my first nights as an adult living in Japan in 2000 (I'm a half-Japanese American), I was walking home along a narrow side street in Osaka when I encountered a scuffle. An older man in a rumpled dress shirt hovered over a skinny boy with blue jeans and magenta-dyed hair. The kid's bicycle was on the pavement nearby. The older guy, his face crimson, reared back and kicked the boy hard, shouting out the word baka—"idiot" or worse, depending on the context.
I would later learn that acts of cross-generational conflict were fast becoming commonplace in Japan. So much so that certain terms, such as oyaji-gari, or "old man hunting," had entered the language in the late 1990s, when gangs of young boys were found to be attacking middle-age businessmen just for the thrill of it. In this case, the middle-age man was fighting back.
Japan has developed strict codes of etiquette to enforce social harmony, but recently the nation has developed a massive and widening generation gap. Japanese media have been highlighting the chasm between hip and fashionable youngsters and their parents, who seem willfully humorless and clueless about how to handle them.
Most young Japanese are turned inward, focused upon themselves, their technological toys, and their clothes. While their parents broke their backs to pull the country out of its post-war devastation, these kids don't have much external motivation to better themselves. "We're the risk-averse generation," says a twenty-something university student. "We grew up too comfortable to take risks."
At the same time, they rebel against the burden of conformity. The effects of the younger generation's anger and apathy on Japan's social codes are obvious to even the casual visitor. On crowded subways, Japanese over 30 sit upright with their knees together, taking up as little space as possible and staring straight ahead. Younger passengers sprawl on the floor, devouring fast food snacks and gabbing on their cell phones.
Social critic Mariko Fujiwara blames the breakdown of the family system, among other factors. Baby-boomer parents achieved a level of middle-class comfort. They had fewer children so they could sustain that comfort—and gave their children everything, except the strength and guidance to navigate the myriad choices and uncertainties of the 21st century.
The latest set of youthful pathologies can be seen in recent additions to the language. Freeter, borrowed from freelance and the German arbeiter, refers to those who hop from one part-time job to another; NEET (from the British "Not in Employment, Education, or Training") indicates a state of pure aimlessness. And perhaps most revealing, Hikikomori, or "socially withdrawn," identifies those who retreat to their bedrooms, cell phones, and computers, still living off the largesse of mom and dad, rebelling without actually leaving home.
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, a childless boomer in his late 50s who nonetheless commands a large audience of young Japanese readers, sums up their dilemma succinctly. "They want to be individuals, and in some ways that's good. But it's also very difficult—especially in this society. It's very lonely."