KOJI TANAKA enjoys his work for a tech company in Tokyo. In his free time he goes for a workout or to receive a form of massage known as shiatsu that relieves his aching muscles with gentle finger pressure. He likes to eat out with his friends. “I guess I’d like to have a family at some point, but I am not ambitious about my career,” he says. “I am happy with my current life.”
Japan’s youth is perking up. Surveys suggest that the country’s young people are less happy than their peers in other developed countries. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 39. But compared with their elders in Japan when they were young, a higher proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds describe themselves as content. That is good news for a country where the word “youth” tends, with good reason, to conjure up images of gloomy misfits: hikikomori—people who shun society—and otaku—nerds.
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There are several reasons why satisfaction is rising. Partly because of the cost of housing, more young people live with their parents. Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist, calls them “parasite singles”. Not having to pay for accommodation means they have more disposable income. “It’s great not having to cook for myself,” says Kosuke Yamawaki, who works for Japan Agriculture, a farming co-operative, in the rural town of Shimanto-cho on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.
Living with one’s parents well into adulthood may not be ideal. But relationships between family members appear to be improving. “Family is no longer about male figures scolding you,” says Masayuki Fujimura, a (greying) sociologist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Parents are becoming softer, especially this lot who were born during the liberal 1960s.”
On easy street
Life is pleasanter in other ways too. On every street corner is a 7-Eleven or similar convenience store where young people can buy everything from stationery to ready meals (and heat and eat them on the spot), flick through manga comics, and buy tickets to baseball matches. Although rapid economic growth is history, they appreciate that living standards remain high, and that life (apart from housing) is affordable. They shun designer wear, preferring clothes from UNIQLO, a Japanese low-cost brand. Their dream is not to own a BMW or to go skiing but to enjoy a dessert—as long as it is photogenic enough to post on Instagram. Young people often mention their smartphones when they talk about what makes them content. “I can look up anything, whenever, wherever,” says Yuri, an 18-year-old university student.
Japanese youth, like young people the world over, drink less and have less sex than previous cohorts of their age. They are far less likely to be sexually active than their American counterparts. Around 40% of Japanese are still virgins at the age of 34, whereas 90% of men and women in America have had sex before turning 22.
But few young people in Japan appear to be bothered. Japanese men often describe having girlfriends as too much trouble, since women expect them to pay for everything and engage emotionally. Women say men are unambitious. Mayu Kase, a 22-year-old single woman, says having a boyfriend “would be a good thing if it comes along”. But, she adds, “I’m not desperate.” Like preceding cohorts of their age, young Japanese still talk of being lonely. But Noritoshi Furuichi, a sociologist, says that friends appear to make young people more content than partners do.
Japanese society is still bound by elaborate rules and conventions. But these are becoming more relaxed. For some, this is disorientating. “There is no clear track for us, because there are so many options,” says Rie Ihara, a 25-year-old from Shikoku island, who says she aspires to a “stable, ordinary life”. But few envy the strictures of their parents’ generation. “Men had no choice but to be economic animals then,” says Saku Yanagawa, a 25-year-old comedian. Sho Yamazaki, a 28-year-old baker who recently set up his own catering company in Tokyo, sees creeping individualism in Japan as a good thing for the young. “We can realise our dreams,” he says.
Yet this silver lining comes with a dark cloud. Mr Furuichi believes that one reason why young people are becoming more satisfied with their current lives is precisely because they see little to look forward to. They focus on enjoying the here and now. According to a survey in 2013, only two-thirds of Japanese 13- to 29-year-olds thought they would be happy when they are 40, compared with over 80% in six other developed countries.
Japanese youth certainly face greater insecurity than preceding generations. Jobs are still fairly easy to come by, not least because the population is falling. But the once-common system of lifelong employment is becoming rarer. A much greater share of working-age Japanese can expect to toil in part-time or non-permanent jobs.
They are also likely to struggle to get married and have children, despite the vast majority wanting both. (Marriage remains the dominant family structure in Japan and very few children are born outside wedlock.) The proportion of people never married by the age of 50 has risen from 5% in 1970 to 19% in 2015.
Young people are all too conscious of the social and economic burdens they will have to shoulder. Over-65s already account for 28% of the population, almost double the proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds. By 2065 they are projected to rise to nearly 40%. The welfare system is struggling to keep up. A study in 2015 by Dentsu, an advertising company, found that people in their late 20s worried about life after retirement more than about employment.
Mr Yanagawa, the comedian, frets that his contemporaries are settling for less than they should. “People just want an average life here; they conform,” he says. “We need to be more willing to take risks and be messy, especially when we are young.”
Yohei Harada of the Youth Research Centre at Hakuhodo, an advertising firm, has a rosier view. He calls today’s young men and women the satori sedai, or enlightened generation, meaning that Buddha-like, they eschew big aspirations and seek happiness in simple things. That may indeed be the path to nirvana.