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10 September 2001

Japan’s youth runs out of control

In a recession-hit country, despairing young people refuse to leave their rooms for weeks, months, e

By Victoria James

Japan’s economic hard times may have salarymen fearful for their jobs, losing sleep over home repossession or committing suicide in ever-increasing numbers – but there’s one sector of society that has it even worse: Japanese youth.

Forget their parents’ problems. With the percentage of high-school graduates finding employment at an all-time low, and home-loan organisations ceasing to lend to young people on low incomes, Japanese youths are unlikely to have a job or home to fret over in the first place. And they are not choosing the quietly despairing way out taken by their elders.

Feelings of disenfranchisement, social as well as economic, run high among the younger generation. Frustration is increasingly vented in antisocial behaviour which ranges from truancy to violence, both petty and outright psychotic – provoking every adult to ask: “What’s the trouble with today’s youth?”

They may not like the answers provided by a new publication, Bokutachi no Munenouchi (“what’s on our minds”), which cites about 40 teenagers whose complaints sound like an eastern chorus of the Larkin sentiment: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The book details routine physical abuse, suicide attempts and alienation induced by what one 18-year-old respondent described as “public prejudice against my generation”.

Response has been split, ranging from “heartbreaking” to the predictable calls for increased corporal punishment and discipline for such wilful, self-pitying kids.

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“All generations have experienced the feelings described,” I was told by Tetsuya Shibui, one of the book’s four authors. “So why are we in Japan saying lately that teenagers are a problem? One reason is that kids nowadays watch society as observers. From what they see, they conclude there’s no room for their dreams.”

That’s when the problems begin. “They start looking for an alternative way to express themselves. For most, it’s something conventional, like music, dance or travel. But some cannot find this ‘other way’, and just isolate themselves from society altogether.”

The phenomenon of total self-isolation, which may last for months, years, or even decades, is so prevalent that it has a name, hikikomori, and has recently caught the interest of the international media. One weekly spoke of an “epidemic” and estimated the number of sufferers – typically men in their twenties who choose never to leave the confines of their room – at 1.2 million, roughly 1 per cent of the population. Japanese sources quote figures between 500,000 and a million.

For Shibui, the problem with Japan’s youth only begins with individuals – whether they be reclusive hikikomori or full-blown psychotics such as Seito Sakakibara, who decapitated an 11-year-old classmate and set the head on his school gates in May 1997. This was the crime that precipitated the ongoing “trouble with teenagers” debate.

These individuals may make the headlines but, Shibui believes, it’s the group behaviour that is both new and disturbing in modern Japan.

“Teenagers need to be given their morals and rules by society, or they’ll look to a particular group to provide them,” he says. “If the group is OK, say, internet or e-mail friends, or the fashionable kids who hang out in Shibuya, then there’s no problem. But if they get into the wrong crowd – bosozoku (motorcycle gangs) or tough gangs – then violence becomes a possibility.”

Or a reality. In June, when newspapers reported how a man had been beaten into a coma on a station platform by four youths whom he had asked to move aside so that he could get off the train, there was hardly any national outrage left. Such crimes, one journalist noted, were becoming “commonplace”.

If you think this sounds like intergenerational war, you’d be right. Last year’s teen-flick hit was a bloodbath called Battle Royale, in which a high-school class is transported to a remote island, equipped at random with weapons or non-lethal tools, and given three days to hunt one another down to a final survivor – or else all die anyway. Teenagers turned the film into a cult success.

Luckily, real life hasn’t got quite as bad as that yet. But the figures are alarming. The number of offences committed by minors in the first half of 2000 was almost double that of the previous year. In 1999, the crime rate for minors was nine times greater than for adults, leading the Yomiuri Shimbun to estimate that there is “one offender in 36 minors . . . At least one student in each middle- or high-school class in the nation has been detained by the police.” The paper’s editorial sniffily denounced “the alarming decline in the ability of many young people to tell right from wrong”.

Japan’s communities once acted as a check on children, Shibui observes, with parents, family and society setting down clear-cut concepts of right and wrong. “There were many people children could talk to. As a society, we need to recover that, and talk more among ourselves.” A lack of community equals a lack of “moral consensus, which is especially a problem in urban areas”.

Shibui remains sceptical about the quality of current welfare provisions: “One of my interviewees was seeing a counsellor, who would tell him not to commit suicide before their next appointment.” But the sheer scale of media attention has also cast light on government initiatives that address the troubles of Japan’s youth.

In December, the Kawasaki municipal assembly passed an ordinance setting out the statutory rights of minors. Children were consulted during the process, which was reflected in the inclusion of such entitlements as the right to live without anxiety, the right to participate in society and the right of children “to be themselves”. The ruling was a welcome move, but long overdue – the first of its kind in a country that has traditionally viewed children as miniature adults and has seen little reason to define their status legally.

The Kawasaki ordinance took effect on 1 April and, while a spokesman declined to comment on its success thus far, its sentiments have been carried over into action. The assembly has just announced a funding boost of ten million yen aimed at turning public health centres into a “gateway for mental-health help” for truanting or troubled youngsters.

“An emergency” is how the health division spokesman described psychiatric care for young people. The number of school pupils playing truant is at a record high countrywide, “but the institutional apparatus isn’t there to support them. In extreme cases, the outcome can be tragic. It’s a cruel problem facing society at the moment,” he said.

Public attitudes towards both child misconduct and the psychiatric profession have come a certain distance. In the early 1980s, thousands of truants were institutionalised or tranquillised at the instigation of the controversial psychiatrist Hiroshi Inamura. By contrast, and in another progressive first, Nagoya University Hospital launched, in May this year, a department of child psychiatry, the only such facility in Japan’s 42 state-run university hospitals.

Shuji Honjo, a professor of child psychiatry at Nagoya’s Centre for Developmental Psychology and Psychiatry, told me that one reason for the shortfall in services is that there are simply not enough specialists. The Japanese Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has approved only around a hundred doctors, and not one of Japan’s state universities offers a course in child and adolescent psychiatry. One explanation may be that, in Japan, mental health practitioners are traditionally accorded less prestige than physicians.

Honjo’s own patients range from children as young as two or three years old to teenagers who fail to attend school. “Cases of truancy have been increasing lately,” he commented, “and many of these children have communication problems.” He stresses the importance of assessing each patient’s needs on an individual basis, so that appropriate treatment – counselling, psychiatric therapy or medication – can be administered. He believes that the public’s understanding of the trouble with teenagers is oversimplified: “It tends to decide on a single reason for a youth’s criminal activity.”

The reason most often given, Shibui suggests, is that the violent individual is “abnormal” or “mad”. He fears that such logic reduces any public sense of urgency over society’s need to reform itself.

There is little doubt that something has to be done urgently. Last year, during which the Kyodo News Agency rated youth crime as the year’s top story, the talk was all of stricter punishment and reform of the Juvenile Law, a toughened-up version of which, allowing 16-year-olds to be tried as adults, duly came into force on 1 April this year.

Of late, however, other voices have been raised: those of mental health experts, enlightened lawmakers such as those in Kawasaki and, not least, those of the so-called problem youth themselves. “I never hit back at my [abusive] mother,” recalled a 21-year-old girl in an interview in Bokutachi no Munenouchi, “because I thought everything in Japan was screwed up – the law and society, as well as my parents.”

The question now is: who is listening to these voices, and who will act?

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