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Sour Economy and Multiple New Crises Test Japan’s Young

Ken Belson
Friday, 1 Apr 2011 | 5:48 AM ET

As hundreds of thousands of young people begin their working lives on Friday, they face a transformed Japan that will test a generation reared in affluence yet dismissed by its elders as selfish materialists.

Young businessman who walks with superior
Michael Hitoshi | Photodisc | Getty Images
Young businessman who walks with superior

April 1 is the traditional entrance day for incoming classes of new employees, who assume adult responsibilities and values along with the new suits and crisp white shirts that are the uniforms of corporate Japan. But they face a landscape as uncertain as any in their lives, with Japan’s economy hobbled and its national pride bruised by the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Yo Miura had expected to enter a bank in the Sendai area, counting on a steady income and a modest amount of prestige. But his start date at the bank has been put off while northeastern Japan struggles to rebuild. “My life has completely changed,” he said while sitting in the job office at Sendai University, his alma mater. “Before, my life was peaceful and predictable. Now, I’m not sure what the future holds.”

While he awaits word from his employer, Mr. Miura plans to follow his friends’ example and volunteer to help people rebuild their homes. Mr. Miura hopes that by fixing broken walls and retiling roofs, he can repair people’s lives and bring deeper meaning to his own.

“So many houses are shattered, I will feel good helping out,” he said.

While many of their elders wrote them off as too coddled to live up to traditional Japanese values of self-sacrifice and hard work, many young people are finding meaning in the crisis. Even before the earthquake, this generation was struggling with a sense of thwarted opportunities in a stagnant economy. With the erosion of the postwar compact that traded a slavish devotion to work for stable wages and benefits, many young people felt alienated. Legions of college graduates, unable to land full-time jobs and eager to express their individuality, have drifted in and out of part-time work, a limbo-like existence that older generations find unfathomable.

Now some graduates, destined for corporate life, have found purpose volunteering to work at nonprofit groups shuttling aid to the newly destitute in the prefectures north of here. Students have taken to the streets to collect donations for those in need. Blogs and social networking sites are flooded with comments from young people asking what they can do to help.

“Before the earthquake, I thought about myself and what I can do for my new company,” said Miki Kamiyama, who just graduated from Meiji University and will start working at a small cable company in Yokohama on Friday. “But now I think what I can do for all of society.”

Among the hardest-hit are the new hires at Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the disabled nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Once one of Japan’s most prestigious companies, Tokyo Electric has become the target of anger and contempt, and some observers question whether it will need government aid.

Tokyo Electric is so consumed with shutting down its reactors in Fukushima that it is unlikely to have many free workers to train the 1,100 or so new hires that start work this week, and many new construction projects have been put off. Still, some new hires sense an opportunity to fix a broken company. “In a way, I feel fortunate that I will be on the front line to help the people and Japan’s society,” said one new entrant who asked that his name not be used so as not to alienate his employer. “I feel that people who work for companies like Tepco want to help in some way.”

The personal transformations are more subtle outside Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the three prefectures that have suffered the most. Without obvious damage to fix, young people are instead grappling with a silent threat from radioactive particles, as well as rolling blackouts that have forced Japanese to do without many of the electronic gadgets that were their constant companions.

The larger question is whether these young adults will remain as committed and concerned as they appear to be now. Life in many Japanese companies, especially for new hires, can be all-consuming, leaving little time for sleep, let alone volunteer activities. Partners, spouses and children will have their own gravitational pull. And because people’s identities are so closely tied to the groups they are part of, social pressure may naturally lead them to narrow their circles to family, associates from work and friends from school.

“It’s premature to say what the impact of the earthquake and tsunami will be,” said Hiroshi Sakurai, who teaches sociology at the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University. “Japanese have gotten used to these things.” But a minority of young adults may continue to find meaning not just in the suffering they are seeing daily, but the outpouring of support for Japan from countries around the globe. That sense of interconnectedness has motivated Keiko Eda, a volunteer at Peace Winds Japan, a humanitarian relief organization in Tokyo.

“Because of the earthquake, I think a lot of young people are clearly changing, including me,” she said. “We don’t recognize this as our normal lives anymore.”

For now, companies in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan are adapting to the less-than-normal start of the fiscal year. Many of them have canceled the yearly ceremonies where executives greet new workers on their first day on the job. Moments of silence are now the norm. Late-night drinking sessions with superiors that mix bonding and hazing are being shunned.

For now, people are continuing to search for ways they can help, large and small. Shota Kitanishi, a student at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, near Kobe, was 4 years old when the earthquake of 1995 destroyed parts of the city. He grew up watching the city being rebuilt.

In solidarity, he is asking other students to pledge about $12 a month for 12 months and send the money to aid groups helping victims in northeastern Japan.

“You just can’t think of the disaster as someone else’s disaster,” he said. “We’re all Japanese. When you get together, you feel like you can do anything.”

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