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A New Twist on Japanese Twixters E-mail
(3 - user rating)
Written by Brian Grover   
Wednesday, 01 August 2007 08:19

When a Japanese youth looks in the mirror who do they see looking back? Is it some cocksure cosmopolite brimming with promise and vitality? That might be the bravado but chances are it's a false front, a mask for uncertainty and trepidation and indecision.


The Good Old Days
Superficially at least, conditions facing Japanese youth today resemble those that challenged Canadian youth back in the 70s and 80s --- without the disco backbeat of course. You remember the good old days of oil shocks and unemployment rates in the double digits.

Long on Ambition; Short on Models to Follow

Freeters Come in Many Flavours - The Dreamers among them hardly lack ambition. Instead, Dreamers aim high; some would say unrealistically so. Many harbour notions of becoming rock legends, master animators and scribbling scribes. For music programs, film and photography schools, media arts, fashion design and fine arts institutes the writing on the wall is more than just graffiti. Illustration by Manami Kimura.

Sign Me Up
Unlike Canadians in that bygone era, Japanese young people were reasonably assured of a career position upon graduation from high school, college or university. Since the piece of paper was seen as more important than any actual education many liberal arts programs back then seemed more like summer camps than post-secondary institutions. Very little actual book learning took place. In its place students concentrated on tennis, dating, drinking and part-time jobs. That tradition, though changing, is very much alive today.

Late Expectations
What really has changed, however, are expectations of employment. In 1991, 81.3% of grads still shuffled off the podium and into careers. By 2004 that figure was down to 55.8%. Tennis and golf skills have remained constant while employability has evaporated.

Real Education
Japanese parents were once willing to overlook the high cost of tuition -- education not included -- because, in a name-brand diploma, they knew they were purchasing the assurance that their offspring would be financially and emotionally secure for life. Though Japan is a society where social patterns are slow to change, many parents have to be asking themselves what is the point of forking over roughly $12,000 each year for a four year holiday camp. What they don't know is that a real education can be had in Canada for as little as half the tuition with the bonus that their kids will come home functional in a language that is highly revered, sought after in both corporate and government worlds.

Pitching to Parents
As the value of home-grown diplomas withers, a number of novel approaches to marketing Canadian secondary and post-secondary products should suggest themselves. Though kids are usually the first to suggest it, the decision to study abroad is typically a cooperative one requiring at least the blessing if not financial support of parents. Appeals to parents directly could find fertile ground among those worried about the future prospects of their offspring.

Goofing Off
Some of those offspring have completely different agendas. Fully 20% of university grads are choosing neither employment nor continuing education according to a 2005 report by the Japanese Ministry of Labour [Koseirodosho]. The desire to continue goofing off under the guise of education forms an often-overlooked element of the Canadian study abroad industry. For every educational tourist from Japan on their way up the scholastic ladder there is at least another one, more than happy to cling to the bottom rung. English isn't for everybody but it sure makes a great excuse when pitching the study abroad to mom and pop back home. The Canadian working holiday visa makes an ideal choice for those intent on continuing the profligate lifestyle out of sight. To be sure some grow up while resident in Canada. Many, many more are just as content to sling noodles for pocket change, drink beer and snowboard. And who's to say they are wrong? From their point of view the opportunities that they are missing, a worthless education back home or a robotic life as a salaryman, don't really represent opportunities at all. Why not at least postpone the inevitable?

Looking For Answers Online

Confucian or Confusion - The quest for answers often leads to cyberspace. Japanese twixters spend an inordinate amount of time online. While the Japanese average of 37 minutes logged on each day is up there by global standards, underemployed freeters, the unemployed, NEETs, hikikomori, and parasite singles devote 2.7 hours daily to the online quest. One eighth of those actually spend more than five hours a day in cyberspace. Dominating the keywords, Hima Ari Online Portal is ideally positioned to reach these young Japanese outcasts when the time is ripe. Illustration by Manami Kimura.

Back on Track
More to the point however for the readers of this newsletter outside of the snow and brewing industries is that these underachievers represent lost opportunities. Finding ways to put these outcast makegumi back on track opens up a whole new segment to the purveyors of Canadian educational products. Traditional appeals to scholastic achievement are likely to have little impact with this demographic yet the Confucian value of education is never very far below the surface among Japanese of all ages. Repackaging old themes could ignite other, more arcane interests.

Labour Undervalued
Back when KC & The Sunshine Band were sparking up the disco ball Japanese university grads fully expected… uh-huh uh-huh …to get one job for life. Indeed, changing jobs was the sign of a loser. Disco wasn't? Nowadays Japanese labour is seen as just one more widget to be added, subtracted or outsourced according to the dictates of the immutable economic equation.

Divestiture at Japan Inc
Yet out the door with Japan's lifetime employment also went company loyalty. No longer is pulling for the team at Japan Inc. seen as a lifelong, nation-unifying mission. According to the Koseirodosho report, 33.3% of young Japanese workers in 2004 quit their primary jobs within three years of finishing school. That figure is up from just 10.6% ten years earlier. Those completing only high school are even more likely to throw in the towel with fully 25% calling it quits within a year of starting their careers.

Another way to spell dissatisfaction is O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y. Transition is a synonym for transaction. Satisfied consumers make very poor customers. Fortunately for the Canadian educational travel industry there is a deep undercurrent of both dissatisfaction and transition tugging at the Japanese twixter of today.

As Japan's entire economy continues to deflate so too has the value of unquestioning dedication. To be sure the newfound portability of labour has created new opportunities for upward mobility among the working population. Among the reasons for packing it in cited in the Koseirodosho report are the quests for more stability, shorter hours and less physical labour. Entry-level workers are no longer satisfied to be company drones like their absentee fathers who infamously devoted body and soul and sometimes more to the kaisha. No other nation on earth has a noun, karoshi, for death by overwork.

Living for the Weekend
No longer content to be toiling worker bees, younger Japanese workers now define work as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In 2004, 37% saw employment as simply a way to enjoy a balanced life. Living for the weekend? How very Canadian! That figure is up from 25.5% at the cusp of the new millennium pointing to a rapid rethinking of individual goals.

Job Dissatisfaction
Perhaps more alarming to government analysts is a drop in the number of those who seek financial stability through the workplace. The need for financial independence reached an all-time low of 23% in 2004 down from 27% just four years previously. Moreover by 2004 only 22% of young workers reportedly derived any satisfaction from putting their job-related skills to the test. That figure has plummeted from an already dismal 30% just four years previously.

Whether they undervalue socially useful skills or their skills are rudimentary in the first place is a question that career-focused diploma mills in Canada would be wise to answer.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble. These guys here just missed the bubble.

Generation HEX - It will take more than witchcraft to make these freeloading deviants deviate. Inclined to postpone that final step into adulthood, Japanese twixters represent a rich market for excuses and alternatives to the way of the kaisha. Proper packaging and some magical advertising incantations could be just the charm. Illustration by Manami Kimura.

The Dark Side
So Japanese young people are no longer driven by a fear of postwar poverty as their fathers and grandfathers were. Nor do they get their kicks through the workplace. This all sounds very much like the malaise of the affluent middle-class. With low birth rates and high incomes Japanese families have tended to coddle their 1.71 children. Far from protecting them however, overindulgence has a dark side.

Surplus Jobs
Though by all accounts Japan has plenty of jobs, and is even considering the importation of foreign workers to fill the need, a growing segment of young adults are simply dropping out. While unemployment was running at 4.4% in May of 2005 for the full employment nation as a whole, age-adjusted rates look suspiciously like the rates that disco-era Canadians grew up with.

Eager to Work
Unemployment is running at a record 10.7% among 15 to 24-year-old Japanese males with females in the same demographic not far behind at 7.8% according to wire stories carried by Though unemployment is high against a backdrop of surplus of jobs, 75% of the unemployed are still eager to work according to a 2004 study undertaken by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. For the first time perhaps the demographic is in a position to be excessively choosy with a minimum of static at home.

NEETs not so Neat
Far more disconcerting to the island nation however, is the emergence of NEETs as a news topic over the summer of 2004. NEET, a statistical category comprised of those Not currently engaged in Employment, Education or Training, is a handy measure of those who have simply dropped out and can no longer even be counted as unemployed. Though numbering just over 800 thousand individuals, taken together with another 2 million underemployed freeters and uncounted parasite singles and socially withdrawn hikikomori, they represent a massive segment that eschews traditional notions of a Japanese work ethic.

Fresh Market
For those clever enough to meet their needs, or at least the needs of their parents, they also represent a massive market for educational, counselling and other services hundreds of times larger than the current market for Canadian educational travel products.

Regretful Widgets
The Mitsubishi UFJ study even points to an opening for reaching the disenfranchised. Many of the unemployed surveyed voiced surprise that Japanese companies are no longer willing to invest heavily in training and grooming their workforce. Rather companies are now looking for their labour widgets to be fully formed. Among those surveyed, 58.8% voiced regrets at not having learned specific job skills prior to reaching the job market. A surprising 43.5% noted that they should have picked up workplace manners along the way as well. Presumably that includes mastering keigo and teineigo, the demanding formal argot of the Japanese corporate world. Fully 33.6% of the unemployed yearned for a roadmap and the decision-making skills to choose industry and occupation to go along with it. Most pointed the finger at a familiar scapegoat, the public school system, for failing to prepare students for life beyond school.

Abysmal Decision-Makers
It should come as no surprise then to those familiar with the Japanese school system or Japanese young people in general that far too many are abysmal decision-makers. Far from preparing students for the future, the system robs them of the facility to analyze, express opinions and make even the most fundamental choices. Even among those who manage to board a plane intact, many will spend their time in Canada sitting on a variety of fences. Far more important than English mastery, the ability to act decisively is a marketable skill in both senses of the word: it can be taught and it can be sold.

Stop Serving Cheese
As the voice of conservative Japanese society, the news media tend to lump the unemployed, the underemployed and the dysfunctional together, characterizing freeters and their ilk as bottom feeders. Japan, however, is not the only society experiencing what the French call Tanguy Syndrome. Whether Canadian boomerang kids, English kippers, German nesthockers or Italian mammone what twixters the world over have in common is an unwillingness to follow in their parents' footsteps while lacking the analytical skills to make enough sense of their collective dilemma to act upon it. No amount of withholding cheese is likely to address the issue.

Dream Shapers
What is certain is that this is not the first generation of emerging adults to be wracked by doubts and indecision. Nor will it be the last. In spite of a declining youth population some estimates project more than 10 million freeters by 2015. One in four post-secondary grads will end up freeters. The impact on Japanese society is expected to be far-reaching and long term. For a nation which values mechanistic thinking, the input of a new cadre of dreamers can't help but have a positive impact. That however will depend very much on what they do with their dreams. Opportunities to shape those dreams thus far are not being fulfilled in the island nation.

Heavy Industry
For all the dark clouds hanging over the Japanese economy, language learning in Japan remains a heavy industry. A breakdown by Yano Research Institute reveals that citizens spent ¥360 billion at English language schools in 2005. Three quarters of that was for adult education. For all that is being spent few would argue that the industry over there is doing a knock up job. If they were, there wouldn't be a need for an industry over here.

Do the Hustle
Hear that? Opportunity is knocking. Now more than ever may be the time for savvy Canadian business types to dust off the leisure suit, get out there on the dance floor and do the hustle.


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