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Japan's economy has been stalled for almost a decade now, which has contributed to five different prime ministers in four years and a growing number of unsettled young people. ((Reuters))


It's a drizzly Friday night in Shibuya, central Tokyo's bustling, neon-splashed shopping district and Ikuya Ueda is doing his best to stand out in the crowd.

With a smile and a nod of his bleach-blond head, he tries to tempt the crowd that streams past him into a nearby restaurant. But as he chain-smokes in the rain, it is easy to see his heart's not in his work.

Craig Dale is a CBC producer currently on a job exchange with NHK, Japan's national public broadcaster.

"The food's not that great," he confides with a smile.

It's hard to fault Ueda for his lack of enthusiasm. This was supposed to be the year he followed Japan's decades-long, springtime tradition that sees hundreds of thousands of students bloom into full-time workers.

"I couldn't find a job, so I'm staying on in school for another year," he admits with a shrug.

That makes him one of the more than 100,000 new university graduates — 20 per cent of the total — who hadn't secured full-time employment as of May 1, according to a survey by the Japanese Education Ministry. Their ranks have been growing each year.

"If you talk to college students, they are scared if they don't get a job after school," says Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "They feel like they've lost their career track."

That word again

The word "lost" keeps cropping up these days in reference to young people in Japan.

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"Fresh graduates' from Japanese universities embark on some cubicle counselling at a government labour centre in Tokyo in April 2010. A still fragile recovery and cautious corporate hiring is putting a second generation of Japanese young people at risk, economists say. ((Yuriko Nakao/Reuters))

Media reports refer ominously to the emergence of a second "lost generation," the successor to the 1990s graduates who were shouldered with unstable, low-paying jobs following the long, drawn-out Asian financial crisis.

Not much has changed in the years since. In fact, one can argue that things have become worse.

Japan is no longer the world's second largest economy, its debt is approaching 200 per cent of its annual gross domestic product, its population is aged and shrinking, and, for a nation of legendary savers, it isn't socking away as much as it used to.

All this is a far cry from the post-War boom when jobs were plentiful, thanks in part to a government-established system whereby companies hired students straight out of high school or university and moulded them to suit their purposes.

Over the years, legions of so-called "fresh graduates" obtained permanent working class positions or became "salarymen," the name used to describe Japan's devoted white-collar labour force.

However, the system started to unravel even before it was buffeted by the economic troubles of the 1990s. Fewer young people won employment straight out of school and, because Japanese companies favoured hiring fresh graduates, they were left hopping from job to job.

These people were called "freeters," a label that evolved in the 1980s to describe Japanese who rejected the salaryman's endless workweeks and corporate dedication in favour of freedom and creative pursuits.

In recent years, however, some have come to consider the moniker a stigma.

Back to school

"They are not choosing to become freeters" says Kyoto University sociologist Emiko Ochiai, "They just can't find stable jobs."

Ochiai paid for her daughter to stay in school for two extra years so she could keep her fresh graduate status while job hunting, which is not a problem that's exclusive to Japan.

To put it bluntly, it sucks to be young the world over. The UN's Labor Agency reported in August that global youth unemployment hit an all-time high at the end of 2009, with 80.7 million workers, aged 15-24, unemployed worldwide, up 7.8 million from 2007.

The reason this issue has special resonance here in Japan, however, is because young people are putting off getting married and having kids for a variety of reasons, including unemployment uncertainty, and the older generation is worried the country's pension and social security system will collapse under the weight of its growing seniors population.

That's why talk of this second lost generation here sometimes takes on a "what's wrong with the kids?" tone.

In extreme cases, the term hikikomori is applied, used to describe young people, especially males, who all but cut themselves off from the rest of society, often living in a virtual world of online chat groups and social networking sites, and refusing to leave their homes.

"There are different names for the same group of people, just different degrees of social withdrawal," says Michael Dziesinski, who is in Japan working on his PhD. "Hikikomori is just the most extreme example."

Pressure cooker

Dziesinski, who taught English in rural Japan, spent time studying a hikikomori rehabilitation centre for his graduate work and his current research is focused on the transition between education and employment in this country.

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College students from vocational schools in Tokyo punch the air with their fists during a pep rally in February 2010 to launch their spring job-hunting, a tradition that has become more challenging of late. ((Koji Sasahara/Reuters))

He believes the disconnection and disenchantment among Japanese youth can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them, an affluent middle class that can afford to let kids to live at home almost indefinitely and an abundance of technology and entertainment.

But he also points a finger at the country's rigid school-to-work system.

"So many kids are in the pressure cooker from elementary school to college," he says. "A lot of students are saying, 'What's the point of all of this? I pass my exams, get into college, and I don't get a job?'"

It's the kind of question Yosuke Ebisu was asking himself earlier this year. After doing 24 interviews with eight different companies, the science major couldn't secure employment to coincide with his graduation from the prestigious University of Tokyo.

So instead of heading to work next spring, he is planning to head to grad school.

Ebisu is particularly upset at corporations that only look to hire "fresh graduates," a critique he shares with Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of Japan's top science advisers, at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

"Many establishments want to have fresh graduates so they are obedient," says Kurokawa in a tone of exasperation. "It's crazy in my view."

Kurokawa believes Japan's unbending, hierarchical system, which worked so well before the age of the internet and globalization, needs an overhaul and that CEOs need to be more creative.

"I asked one of them, 'Why are you so concerned about fresh graduates? How about somebody who took a leave of one year?' He told me he'd never thought about it."

A new normal

The Japanese government is certainly thinking about it, though. It is now actively encouraging companies, with financial incentives, to treat all job applicants who graduated from high school or university within the last three years as "fresh graduates."

That is the kind of change many in this country will welcome. But it may not fully take into account the changing attitudes that a prolonged downturn has brought about.

As Kyoto University sociologist Emiko Ochiai points out, today's young Japanese are adapting to their country's new normal.

"Economic success is not the only value for these young people," says Ochiai. "What I am observing is they are changing their attitude about life, and they're not necessarily feeling unhappy.

"Many are adjusting themselves to the economic conditions, trying to find new ways to enjoy life."

Yosuke Ebisu, the science undergrad who is now preparing for grad school, is part of this new wave. So is Ikuya Ueda, the back-at-school, part-time restaurant promoter.

"Last year, I wanted to be a salaryman, but I didn't get a job," says Ueda. "I started thinking about my future. I thought that being a salaryman would be boring." So now he is thinking about saving his money and opening a small shop.

In a way, Japan could be viewed as a type-A workaholic who, more than a little burnt out, decided to slow down and figure out a new work-life-balance.

This approach might not be sustainable given all of the economic and demographic challenges the country is facing. But it might also just help bring about some of the changes so many in this nation feel are necessary.