Shibuya, Youth and the New Japan

Japan is experiencing the first generation gap in its recorded history. It's obvious that change is happening. They even have a special name for those under the age of about thirty: shinjinrui (the new race). This "new race" represents more than just wild clothing and colorful hair. 

They are disobeying at school, violating age-old rules of public behavior, and rejecting the ideal of a lifelong job working six days a week for the company. Many are dropping out of school and taking part time jobs in exchange for time and freedom. What really sets this generation apart is their refusal to follow the paths of their parents or accept their society's vision of a happy future. This signals a change in culture, not just youthful rebellion.

Much of this change is not public or flashy. But in certain places, like Shibuya, you encounter public expressions of a generation trying to find its voice and identity.

For people from Western countries who have never understood Japan's group-centric culture, this apparent surge of individualism may seem natural and welcome. It's certainly a common theme around the world today. But cultures don't easily change.

In fact, there's a darker side to all this. Japan has been shocked in recent years by the increase in violent crimes among youth. These include high profile cases of unspeakable acts at the hands of elementary school kids. Among junior high and high school girls, casual prostitution is becoming common. A high percentage admit to using sex in exchange for money and gifts, and there is a growing market among older businessmen willing to pay young girls for sex, with plenty of takers.

Shibuya is a stage where this drama plays out. Most people in Shibuya at any given time don't live or even work there. This is not the place where change is actually becoming reality. But the public expressions here set trends that ripple out into society and back again.

Shibuya is a convergence of people and activities. Below ground several train lines come together delivering untold numbers of passengers to the heart of Tokyo. When they emerge at Hachiko Crossing, they encounter a vast intersection where thousands pour across the street at each turn of the light. They are businessmen, students, internationals, shoppers, and gawkers of all ages and types. Above the crowd, dominating the sides of buildings, the faces of celebrities and "pop idols" appear on giant video screens in music videos and commercials, though it's hard to draw a line between the two. Hundreds and thousands of young people on the streets below are trying to emulate their latest haircuts and clothing.

Hachiko Crossing with student radicals atop a "Peace-Love Bus"

On an individual level, Shibuya is a full of people wanting to connect with others. There is a statue of a dog at the station entrance that is a favorite meeting point for friends. "The Dog" is constantly surrounded by tens or hundreds of people waiting, talking, smoking and clutching cell phones.

Others are trying to connect with an audience. They come to Shibuya to be noticed and heard. You have the usual assortment of slick guys in sunglasses and women with Luis Vuitton bags, but that's barely the start.

Street performers cluster near the station entrance. On recent visits, there was an odd young man. He had a boom box at his feet playing a series of beats, and he was "singing" in a monotone, lifeless sort of way. Every once in awhile, he lifted his hand in a loose fist (as if that took all of his remaining energy) and weakly shook his fist (his voice even changed pitch a bit). The small crowd that paused around him were thoroughly confused. At one point, he even struck an Elvis pose, in slow motion. I imagine he will be quite famous if he keeps it up. That's the nature of things here. Another group that were better musically and more lively will probably be forgotten.

A street performer shakes his fist weakly, and people wait for friends at "The Dog"
On that day, the student radicals were out. They were in a hand-painted "Peace, Love Bus" parked at the corner. Young men alternated from the roof with a megaphone protesting the war on terrorism. My Japanese is still limited, so I mostly understood, "Boosh...Boosh...Boosh." You have to wonder whether they are genuine believers or just joining the show.

Finally, Shibuya is well know for the girls who show up there in the latest Shibuya style (there is even a magazine devoted to them). Two years ago, Shibuya was owned by ganguro (dark) girls. They were either excessively suntanned or they lathered themselves at night with fake tanning lotion. They were dark. On top of that, they wore pale lipstick and eye shadow and stood atop 12 inch platform boots. (Some were injured falling off their shoes, it's true.) Thankfully, the trend mainly passed, although Shibuya girls are still well-tanned (and showing signs of premature aging).

Shibuya girls craving for attention and a willing photographer

Shibuya girls inevitably attract videographers and photographers. Some are getting footage for pop culture TV shows, others are working on "serious documentaries, and still others probably just want close up pictures of loose women. In any case, the girls do everything but hang up a billboard that says, "Cameras here!"

Shibuya, like other popular gathering points in and out of Japan, represents a generation trying to take control of their own lives--determining their own hair colors and clothing, making loud public statements, and challenging rules of conduct. It looks like a thriving post-modern carnival, edgy and full of vitality (if a bit dark in places). But youth, in their exuberance, are usually less radical and more deluded than they realize. There are other powerful players on the stage.

Despite the rebellious and revolutionary overtones, Shibuya seems mostly like a huge marketing machine, and Japanese young people are perhaps the ultimate consumers (with time, their parent's money, and a sense that individuality and freedom are commodities (perhaps imported from the USA). They provide the energy and the machine offers them choices. What do you DO in Shibuya? You look; you shop; you eat. Then you go home and buy the brands that you saw there. In a land of shrines, Shibuya is a shopping shrine. The "idols" are on the video screens. Music is lifted up. Offerings are taken. They even have temple prostitutes; it's sad to say.

A colorful shopping bizarre and a couple sporting designer hair and bags
By the way, when Starbucks came to Japan they made a smart move. They immediately put a store right in the center of Shibuya looking down over Hachiko Crossing. Today, Starbucks is on the way to becoming as ubiquitous in Japan as it is in the USA. 

Starbucks at the center of Shibuya

But the carnival/shrine/revolution may be a sideshow. Japan is slow to change, and it's hard to expect much in one generation. Outside of Shibuya, young people still face the prospect of company jobs (for the men) and staying at home alone with the kids (for the women). They have yet to witness significant change in the education system. They don't have a voice in government. Many are living off their parents money, or working part time, or selling sexual favors. None of these options has a great future.

The parents and grandparents of today's youth put a nation back together after a devastating war and accomplished an "economic miracle" through incredible work and sacrifice. They lifted Japan to the front of the modern world. That has been the story of Japan for the past fifty years.

What is the story of this generation? They have been the recipients of enormous wealth. They've had everything that previous generations lacked. The future has great potential. But they are growing up in a land that has paid a price.

Japan forfeited both tradition and cultural identity in it's rush to modernity. Though you see plenty of religion and ritual, the majority of Japanese people do not have faith in any god or God. They only believe in themselves (and that is debatable, given what I've written above). For the past fifty years Japan has been a world leader in suicides.

Finally, this has been called a "fatherless generation." It's not because of divorce or single parent families. Japanese company men have long been expected to work six days a week. Although the work week has officially changed to to five days, it's still normal for men to leave home at 7:00 am and return at 10:00pm -- and many work on the weekends. Many children rarely see their fathers.

Children growing up without fathers struggle with issues of identity, destiny and dignity. It's not that mothers can't help in these areas, but the role of the father is important. When there is a lack of character in these areas, youth turn to rebellion (for identity), sexual adventures (for love), cliques and cults (for power and belonging), and fantasy (for a better reality).

As for the future and the "new Japan," many think that change is inevitable. How long can Japanese society continue without basic reforms in education and corporate culture? Many people in society and government see the needs, but the system has resisted change for a long time. Whether this "post modern" generation will escape the machine and shape a "new Japan" remains to be seen.

Postmodern culture (which is probably more real in Japan than in the USA) is like a carnival on the deck of a ship. You have a lot of activity; people are moving in every direction; but the ship itself is drifting. Steering the ship requires that you have to find the horizon, or some other point of reference to steer by.

The horizon may be a common story. Throughout history, transforming stories have been both profoundly positive and negative. Japan is still recovering from the national story it rejected after World War II. Now Japanese youth need to find a story worth believing in; one that is big enough to change their world; and, hopefully, a story that is true. Then they can answer the hard questions of who they are, why they are here and what is worth living for.[source]


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