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Das Goethe: Edition 2/2017
What do you believe in?

The fourth edition of the ZEIT supplement from the Goethe Institute will appear on November 16. This time, “das goethe” travels to young people in Tokyo, Lagos and Jakarta and asks them the question: “What do you believe in?” This is how the journalist Kyoko Iwaki encounters a devoted generation in the Japanese capital, in which hardly anyone has a permanent job and believe a secure future.

How does humans differ from animals? Keisuke Yamabe laughs and replies: “At work!” Yamabe studies the cultural anthropology of work at the renowned University of Tsukuba. There are researchers who claim that in the near future, particularly dangerous or monotonous activities will increasingly be taken over by robots and intelligent systems. But he doesn't want to believe in it. “There will always be people who work in a factory or want to go fishing at the helm of a small boat.” However, Yamabe fears that this primeval human need for work will become less and less important in the future.

As everywhere, in Japan it is always about increasing productivity and effectiveness. Researchers at the Nomura Research Institute estimate that around half of all professions will die out in the next twenty years. “But people don't just work to maintain an economic system,” remarks Keisuke Yamabe and explains that there are many older people in Japan who go to the factory after their working life - not because they have to work, but because they want to .

The end of the "wonderful decade"

Yamabe was born in 1997 and belongs to a generation that grew up in times of permanent economic downturn. The country's gross domestic product has been falling since the early 1990s. In the 1980s, the “dreamy decade”, real estate in Tokyo was even more valuable than that in the entire United States. Back then, salaries, including those of the lowest-ranking employees, rose automatically.

Today this has become unimaginable for young people. They can no longer expect salary increases, and moreover, they are no longer attached to a job if it does not suit them. The number of those who quit a job within three years of starting is increasing dramatically. Around 60 percent of 18 to 29 year olds have changed jobs at least once. An income that is too low is usually not the reason. Rather, a third stated that the working atmosphere was not right.

"The days when money was the incentive for a job are over," says Yamabe. Instead, constructive cooperation with colleagues and a good relationship with superiors are gaining in importance. For the individual, it is increasingly about a win-win relationship and the "ideal of sharing". This “sharing” has been an integral part of Japanese culture for some time and ranges from house sharing to car sharing to renting clothes and handbags.

The devoted generation

“Today's young people are always aware of the others when they do and consume,” explains Kohei Fujimoto, marketing strategist at the Asatsu-DK advertising agency (ADK). “They also want to share everything that is fun.” They want to make their families and friends happy, which is why Fujimoto calls this young generation, born after 1992, “the devoted generation”. Why? They grew up after the speculative bubble burst, experienced the great earthquake in Tohoku and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. These events and the associated suffering of so many people shaped the boys in such a way that a collective need arose to get involved in the common good .

“These people are not yet thirty and are digital natives,” he says. “They have always come into contact with different cultures on the Internet - and developed an understanding of their own values ​​at an early stage.” Through constant interaction, they recognize how they can make their own strengths available to others. In short: You don't want to be a lone warrior, but rather to build good and friendly relationships with others. "People from this generation feel particularly happy when they have the feeling that they can benefit or help others."

Read the atmosphere

But anyone who thinks the young Japanese are altruistic through and through is wrong. Because for many people the under-thirty-year-olds belong to those who “read the atmosphere” (Kuuki o Yomu). This means that the boys have a keen sense of the invisible interpersonal balance of power and, for reasons of harmony, easily agree to the majority opinion. Her credo: In a quiet little room you understand the world according to your own standards. In the company of others, on the other hand, you prefer to take the point of view that does not hurt anyone.

Cosplay of the characters

Anyone who is in dozens or even hundreds of online communities every day cultivates this constant back and forth. It is natural for him and her to constantly take on a different character. The playwright Shu Matsui, born in 1972, calls this adaptability, based on pop culture terminology, cosplay of the characters. In 2007, “KY”, the abbreviation of the term “Kuuki o Yomenai” - Japanese: not being able to read an atmosphere - was nominated as the buzzword of the year. So when young people say, "He's KY," they're berating someone who can't read the atmosphere. And those who cannot do that are considered incapable of communication and are marginalized. A weak-looking child, for example, is all too easily labeled an outsider and bullied by classmates. The bitter consequence: In 2016, 320 young people committed suicide, two thirds of them were boys.

Going to university at 18, first job in a company at 22, getting married and having children in their thirties: fewer and fewer young Japanese strive for that. It is not particularly comforting, nor is it particularly safe, to lead the same life as the others. This idea is increasingly forming the basis of the life planning of the generation who experienced the Fukushima disaster during their school days. Neither money nor power is of any use in the face of such a tragic event. So if you don't know what the future will bring, you live with all your might in the here and now. The younger generation in Japan does not complain about this situation.

Abridged version, from the Japanese by Yasuo Nozaki


"Das goethe" is the Goethe-Institut's culture magazine. It appears twice a year. The second edition of 2017 will appear on November 16, 2017 and deals with the question: "What do you believe in?" A journey to meet young people in Tokyo, Lagos and Jakarta.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.
November 2017

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