Mar 29th, 2011
A few months ago I wrote a blog post that basically gushed about the Swedes and their stores H&M and IKEA. I pointed out that because their society has sought to care for people, it appears that individuals have a better shot of reaching the top tier in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Take care of food, shelter, health care, and ideas will flow, I posited. I wonder if one can go too far? Maybe it’s possible for society to take too much care. Maybe we need to struggle.
I bring this up because the ordeal that Japan is enduring right now has brought to light a side of the Japanese society I knew very little about: the youth. Having a few of them myself, I was intrigued to read that the earthquake/tsunami have ignited an altruistic spirit in the young people in Japan. That’s not an untoward expectation. Disasters have a way of unifying us. In 1995 when we had a rain storm of near biblical proportions in the Portland metro area, the call went out to able-bodied people to help build reinforcements to the seawall at Waterfront Park. The Willamette River was expected to crest the seawall and flood the city. The reinforcements were parking barriers that were erected by hundreds of area residents who left school and jobs in an effort to keep the floodwater out of the city. It turns out we didn’t need the barriers. The river came with inches of them, then backed away. It was a moment that made us all proud; including one 12-year-old boy I knew who got to shake the hand of President Clinton, who flew out to lend his support.
Turns out Japanese youth are no different from my young friend. They just have had so little opportunity, what with all the shopping and hanging out they’ve been doing. The Japanese, who have a word for working oneself to death—karoshi—have spawned a youth culture that seems to want nothing to do with work. Time magazine in its April 4 issue listed four words for the “over-indulged and underemployed” Japanese youth. There are: freeters, those who work part-time jobs instead of striving for careers; herbivores, young men focus more on their looks than work; parasite singles, young people who fail to launch, living rent-free with mom and dad who suppy meals and laundry services; and the disturbed hikikomori, who withdraw completely from society, living in their rooms for sometimes years at a time as youthful shut-ins.
It’s hard to imagine a less self-actualized person than a hikikomori, but I can understand the despair of the freeters. You work hard to get educated and then no job. In Japan, Time says, 30 percent of college graduates have no job offers. Try that here with our enormous student loans.
Japan’s youth have gotten some awful press, so it was gratifying to read that many of them have tossed aside their self-absorption to reach out to hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. More than 2,000 lined up to help at an arena-turned-homeless shelter. Ironically only 500 were needed – here, too, jobs were scarce. But the fact that they were there, lending a hand, was cause to celebrate. Maybe those young people just needed a venue to show they’re higher up Maslow’s pyramid than their elders gave them credit for.