Between the ongoing tension with China, the loss of Japanese hostages in Algeria and the grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the impact that will have on Japan’s airlines and the numerous Japanese manufacturers who make components for the troubled aeroplane, these are trying times for Japan. So it’s good to know that some things remain the same year in year out. There are two constant features of mid-January in Japan: one is the New Year sumo tournament in Tokyo, which this year is turning into one of the most riveting in recent memory. The other is Coming of Age Day, a public holiday to celebrate all those who turn 20 in the coming year; the legal transition to adulthood when they can do everything from vote to buy cigarettes and marry without their parents’ permission.
All over Japan, ceremonies are held to mark the day and the streets are filled with girls in kimonos and boys in a mix of suits and more traditional garb. The usual reports of rowdy behaviour were replaced this year by news of the unexpectedly heavy snowfall that coincided with the holiday. It was a photographer’s dream as crowds of girls with umbrellas and kimonos picked their way through the snowy streets, looking like woodblock prints come to life.
So what do 20-year-olds in Japan think of their future? A survey conducted by the Japanese market research company Macromill reveals the new adults of 2013 to be a cautious bunch, with little faith in the government and less than dazzling expectations for their careers.
Citing recession and national debt among other things, 77 per cent say they are "gloomy" or "somewhat gloomy" about Japan’s future. Three quarters have little or no expectations of the government, with many saying that politicians don’t stick to campaign pledges. While just over half say they see a bright future for themselves, 78 per cent say they’re worried about finding a job, blaming low self-esteem and unemployment, and over 90 per cent are anxious about Japan’s national pension system. No surprise then that ambition is taking a back seat to security, with a quarter saying their preferred job is in the public sector. Youth unemployment, tax increases and Japan’s territorial disputes with its neighbours are the top three social issues they’re thinking about.
More than half say they are interested in learning a foreign language and a third in working abroad. The US is the most popular choice for study abroad, while France is the country most would like to visit. On the personal front, parents are still cited as the most important role models, 83 per cent use social networking services (with over half using Twitter) and a lonely 12 per cent say they have no friends at all.
It’s probably unwise to extract too many broad conclusions on the basis of one report but it does suggest the pressure young people feel in the face of pessimistic news about the state of politics and the economy. In spite of curiously middle-aged worries about pensions and geopolitics, one answer was reassuringly youthful. When asked what the best thing about turning 20 was, nearly half said it was being able to drink alcohol.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief