A lot of people on this site are fans of Japanese culture- the art, the music, the fashion, the language, the comic books and television programs.
But in the neon and electronic world of modern Japan, serious social problems lie hidden beneath the surface, which, as a whole, threaten the dominant society, and, in some cases are exclusive to, or nearly excusive to, Japan.
Many fans of Japanese culture are completely unaware that such problems exist, although a few are mentioned occasionally in anime and manga that is distributed outside of Japan.
In the west, and, in fact, all over deviantART and other fanart and fan writing sites, we see images and hear stories of Japans thriving youth culture, but by the year 2020, one in nine Japanese citizens will be over the age of eighty. The birthrate in Japan has plummeted in recent years, dropping to around seven births for every one thousand citizens in 2010. Thats about 1.2 children per married couple in a lifetime. In order to replace the dying, a birthrate of slightly more than two children per couple is needed in order to compensate for those who cannot or choose not to have children, and beyond this, Japan is home to a lost generation. The same generation responsible for the youth culture is also described as being removed from society as a whole. Meanwhile, other serious social challenges exist which make it perilous for any young person, but especially a religious or ethnic minority, to grow up and become successful in Japan.
AINU - Indigenous Social Outcasts
On Hokkaido, there is a group of indigenous people with a culture separate from that of modern Japan. They were forbidden from speaking their own tongue, hunting, fishing, or practicing cultural rituals. The intent was to assimilate them into Japanese society and to eradicate their culture. They are still there, and they are still oppressed by the Japanese government, though most Japanese do not even realize that the Ainu still exist as a people, except in re-enactment museums, and many Ainu do not identify their cultural heritage on official documents, for fear that doing so will lead to persecution and missed opportunities.
IJIME - The Nail That Sticks Out Is Hammered Down
Ijime, or bullying, is rampant in Japanese schools, just as in schools everywhere else in the developed world. The difference is that in Japan, from kindergarten, there is an enormous pressure on students to succeed and to conform. Parents in Japan see their childrens failure as their own, so the children are often encouraged to deal with it. Complaints of bullying are often ignored by both parents and educators, who do not see it as their issue to deal with. Students in one of Japans most competitive kindergartens are encouraged, or even forced by peer pressure, to go shirtless in freezing weather to prove that they are tough enough.
Academic failure on even one presentation or test can be mortifying for a Japanese student, and children in Japan, just like children elsewhere, are merciless. Just like in the west, Japanese children are bullied for being too fat or not smart enough, but in Japan, such criticisms about straying from the pack can be devastating. If a student doesnt begin in a prestigious kindergarten, they might not get into a good elementary school. If a student doesnt make it into a good middle school, they will not make it into a good high school, and then they will not make it into a good university, which means that they will not get a good job with a prestigious company. Failure and the stigma attached to it begins at an early age.
In the west, children who are not good at a given subject are typically told by parents and teachers that they can be good at something else. This is not the case in Japan. Failure in school is seen as a failure of the family, and someone who fails either academically or at work is seen as worthless, as is someone who does not fit into the group. Character building and creativity are actively discouraged from the first days at school. When you combine the clique mentality common among tweens and teens in industrialized nations with traditional Japanese emphasis of the group, you end up with particularly vicious bullying, which increasingly results in suicide for its victims.
Schools in Japan typically turn a blind eye to bullying, even in reported cases, even when it becomes violent, even when the student expresses an intention for suicide. Even in ordinary schools, there are forty or fifty students to one teacher. The teachers often do not know the childrens names or that bullying is happening. Some extremely competitive schools encourage physical violence and bullying, and very few schools take bullying seriously, even if a student is killed by other students, commits a violent crime, or commits suicide. Often, schools will not tell the other students that a suicide happened, much less punish bullies that lead children to suicide.
GAKYUU HOUKAI - Classroom Collapse
Another problem in Japanese schools is classroom collapse, when students rebel as a group against their teachers and the classroom descends into a state of anarchy. It is thought that this may be the result of overcrowding in schools, where one teacher has to teach more children than they can actually handle, especially because they are supposed to teach both academics and social values. If the social values are neglected in the classroom, rebellion can occur, though always with the group mentality. Another possible contributing factor is the same pressure to succeed. Modern Japanese children get little sympathy from their parents while going to exam Hell, the continual cycle of exams to get into better schools. Many students go to cram schools after school, on the weekends, and during school vacations in hopes of performing better on these exams so that they can get into more competitive schools. This is a very stressful atmosphere, but the parents are often unsympathetic because they went through it themselves, forgetting that their own parents were sympathetic because their parents did not have such an experience, having grown up before middle and high school were seen as a right. The combination of a group mentality, social pressure to succeed, a lack of social values taught by teachers, and overcrowding can lead to anarchy in the classroom.
FUTOKO - School Refusal
Futoko are children who simply refuse to attend school. In Japan, there is a law that every child is required to receive an education up to a certain age. There is a fine for any parent who does not educate their children, but it is rarely brought to court to be imposed. Instead, when a child refuses to attend school, an agreement is often reached with the parents where they must find a way to provide their child with an education. The children are not rebelling against the building or academics in general. They are refusing to be a part of the social activities that exist there. They are typically forced out of the schools social order by other children or feel that they are not performing up to standard, so they begin to skip school. When this becomes chronic, they become labeled as futoko, and their parents and their local school districts must find a way to get them an education in either the short or long term.
FURITA - Japans Drifters
Furita comes from an amalgamation of the English word free and the German word Arbeiter, which means laborer. Furita are a class of people who work temporary full time jobs, often low-level, and part time jobs, jumping from job to job, punctuated by periods of unemployment. Sometimes these periods are brief, and other times, the furita fall into another category- NEET. NEET stands for Not currently engaged in Education, Employment or Training. It is a stigmatized term for the unemployed. Many furita have been denied for positions that they believe they deserve. Sometimes, being in this group is a choice. Someone searching for permanent work might take a temporary job in order to pay the bills or a student might spend the summer working part time jobs, but as a lifestyle, furita is not a sustainable option in the long term. Furita do not have healthcare or retirement options available to them, and, as younger furita emerge, the older ones are pushed to the side.
PARASITO - Parasite Singles
This group does exist outside of Japan. In Italy, they are called bamboccioni. In Germany, the term is Nesthocker. In English, the equivalent is a basement dweller. These are single men and women who are at an age when society says that they should be able to support themselves who remain in their parents home. This is, for many, seen as a safe option, when low starting wages make it difficult to pay rent and bills. Some parasite singles, though not all, are also furita. Some of the individuals in this category could easily support themselves but prefer instead to remain at home and spend the majority of their money on luxury items such as designer clothing. These are the ones for whom the group as a whole was named by the older generation, but many people in Japan temporarily fall under the label parasite singles while they are just starting out or are waiting for marriage.
MAKEINU - Losing Dogs
In Japan, a woman is expected to perform well academically, get into a good middle school, then a good high school, then a good university, then a good company. They are then expected to quit full time employment when they marry in their mid twenties so they can have children and raise them while their husbands work long hours. Only when their children reach middle school and are typically at cram school in the evenings and are old enough to be home alone are the women socially accepted to return to part time work. The idea of a career woman in the west is not a brand new idea anymore. It has been around for a few decades, and it has become acceptable, but it is a much newer idea in Japan, and the country still struggles with justifying this with its traditional values. Many women in modern Japan would rather have a career, even a dead-end career, than a family. In the office, there is a social structure, and it is both predictable and stable. In the community, amongst mothers and neighbors, the structure is different and far less predictable. Some makeinu, are considered parasite singles, while others live on their own and support themselves with their wages, but for traditional Japanese society, their lifestyle is considered improper.
While there is nothing economically or logically improper with not wanting a family, it goes against traditional Japanese thought where a woman marries in her mid twenties, has children, and devotes her life to her family. The phenomenon of makeinu is not so much a problem for the individual or the family as it is for society as a whole. Japanese society is aging rapidly. There is a growing number of elderly citizens and a very low birthrate, in part due to economic problems that make raising more children somewhat of a financial burden, especially when jobs cannot be guaranteed for life as they once were, and in part due to the phenomenon of women not wanting to have children. Without children, there will be a smaller workforce in twenty years time, and that could be disastrous for the nation as a whole. The other economic aspect of the makeinu phenomenon is that these women are not buying goods for the home. They are instead buying goods and services for themselves, so certain industries, such as household electrical appliances manufacturers, do suffer from it.
CRIME - A Hidden Problem
Japan prides itself upon having the lowest crime rate of industrialized nations, but when there are crimes in Japan, they tend to be somewhat fantastical. Japanese youths view the US as a land of outlaws, and American youths tend to view Japan as strangely peaceful, despite its violent media, but Japan does have a dark side. Several extremely horrific murders, often with children as the victims and/or perpetrators in the past two decades have made it clear that the rigidity of Japanese society, although it does lower the crime rate by adding a stigma to it and social pressure against committing crimes, does not stop it completely and actually adds to the severity of the crimes that do happen. A few of these particularly shocking crimes include a social group dedicated to gang raping young women founded at a prestigious university, a girl who slowly poisoned her mother and documented it on her blog, a man who murdered a young girl exactly as a hentai in his collection showed, a man who threw a young boy from the thirteenth story of an apartment building, a student who cut a classmates head off and put it on the schools gate, a recluse who kidnapped a nine-year-old girl and kept her his prisoner for nearly a decade, a couple of cases where children pushed other, younger children off of buildings or out of moving vehicles, and a mother who killed two of her childs classmates with her child in the car on the way to school.
Japan does not have the kind of minority street gang culture that the US has, nor does it have the youth gangs of violent schoolchildren common in the UK. Motorcycle gangs do exist in Japan, but Japans predominant and most historical criminal organization is the Yakuza, who go back centuries and trace their roots to feudal Japan like samurai and geisha traditions do. One of the things for which an individual can be singled out for persecution in Japan is having a tattoo, since tattoos are primarily associated with criminals there, due to the Yakuzas tradition of full body tattoos that only spare the groin, the armpits, the backs of the knees for safety reasons relating to the sweat glands and particularly sensitive areas, and the hands, neck, and face, so that they will not be visible under a suit. The easiest way to relate this stigma of tattoos to the west is to think of it as the old stereotype that was held here half a century ago that only sailors had tattoos.
HIKIKOMORI - Modern Hermits
Hikikomori is a problem that is almost exclusive to Japan. There are a few isolated cases elsewhere in east Asia, but the vast majority of hikikomori live in Japan, much in the same way that eating disorders like anorexia tend to be nearly exclusive to girls in western cultures. Some victims of school bullying in Japan become futoko, which can lead them to become furita, and either of these can lead to an individual becoming himikomori. Most of the people who become hikikomori do not have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other extreme issues that would require long-term hospitalization in the west. A few have agoraphobia, but the rate of agoraphobics in Japan is not higher than it is anywhere else in the world. Most have some level of depression, adjustment disorders, or disassociative disorders, but rarely anything serious enough to require hospitalization. Very few are psychopathic or even at risk to become psychopathic. Most are predominantly apathetic, though there is a self-harm aspect associated with hikikomori. In the same way that girls in the west do self harm by cutting, Japanese hikikomori often punch walls seeking the same feeling of being alive and having control in a monotonous and uncontrollable world.
Most hikikomori were bullied as children. Some left school. Others trace the beginning of their beginning of their withdrawal from society to a particular failure, either academically or early in their working career that caused them to shrink away rather than to face the ridicule. It is estimated that there are about a million hikikomori in Japan and that most Japanese are within one or two degrees of separation of someone who is a hikikomori or has hikikomori-like tendencies. An industry of rental sisters and halfway houses for recluses that offer communal living among similar individuals, meals, and job training has sprung up around the phenomenon. It is estimated that eighty percent of hikikomori are male and were driven to reclusion by failure or bullying.
Female hikikomori are rarer. Sometimes they are the victims of the same conditions as their male counterparts, though being the victim of abuse or rape can also lead to women becoming hikikomori. Most hikikomori are in their late teens or twenties. Some are in their thirties and forties. Some are as young as thirteen. There are varying degrees to which the desire to withdraw can affect people. Some leave the house to go to 24-hour convenience stores late at night, when the streets are typically empty, the children and businessmen are asleep, and the cashiers do not make conversation. Some leave their rooms to eat dinner with their families or to wander empty streets at night. A few welcome people into their homes but will not leave them. Others do not leave their rooms for 23-hours a day, do nothing or very little to pass the time, and bathe rarely, in a self-imposed prison term in solitary confinement of an indefinite length, with some remaining sequestered for fifteen years or more. It is an escape from the rigors of Japanese society, where twenty-three might be too late to start a career and twenty-six is considered too old for many employers.
Many individuals who are hikikomori would probably be inventors, artists, musicians, designers, chefs, and programmers if they lived outside of Japan. They are often highly creative people who do not fit into the Japanese norm of birth-school-work-death where men are expected to have corporate jobs and earn a high salary. These are the people who would be pursuing artistic and innovative fields. They would be the ones designing clean energy technology or video games in the US or the UK, but in Japan, they are social outcasts, their kind not welcome because of a different thought process.
Hikikomori is seen as an option because of Japans history, much in the same way as suicide is. Traditional arts in Japan celebrate solitude, just as the samurai tradition offers a worship of noble deaths, including the social pressure to die if defeated, rather than be captured or live with shame. In the 1500s, Spanish missionaries brought Christianity to Japan. After fifty years, it was outlawed, and the country began to isolate itself so its culture would not be exploited or corrupted by that of other nations. Christians have long been persecuted in Japan, as well, being different than the norm. They, like the Ainu are forced to hide their beliefs if they wish to succeed in Japanese society. When Japan outlawed Christianity, it began to isolate itself and became a nation that was, itself, a hikikomori. It withdrew from the rest of the world, even refusing to let leave lost sailors who stumbled upon its shores headed for China, lest they take information or goods back with them, until the US and Europe forced it to open trade with them. Because of this historical glorification of suicide and solitude, many young Japanese see those two things as a way to escape.
JISATSU - Modern Seppuku
Japan and Russia have the highest suicide rates among industrialized nations. In Japan, the suicide rate is twice that of the US and three times that of the UK. One in five Japanese adults has seriously considered committing suicide. For every ten that consider it in a year, one survives. The elderly, not wishing to be a burden on their relatives or faced with incurable illnesses and suffering, are one group that has a high suicide rate in general, so with an increasing elderly population comes increasing suicide rates, but suicide has increased among schoolchildren and young professionals as well. Among schoolchildren, bullying tends to be the cause. Among adults, failure in the workplace is most common, in an almost samurai-like mentality. The idea is that it is better to die than to have ones family live with the shame that they have a living relative who lost his job or who fell into the class of furita as an adult. They do not want their sons to see their failure or to emulate it.
Around this, too, a business has sprung up. Many real-estate developers cannot sell properties where a suicide has occurred, since many Japanese feel that it makes the house unclean. After an individual dies, the companies will often ask their families for money. Sometimes the individuals had bills or rent that was unpaid, but often, families are forced to pay for purification rituals. Sometimes, they are even forced to pay for an entire building to be torn down and rebuilt just because one suicide happened there. Although the house is unclean and would bring bad luck, the ritual suicide is seen as honorable: a way to save face rather than to be dishonored.
So you thought you knew Japan? You thought it was all schoolgirls in sailor suits and neon lights, lolitas and ganguro and ball-jointed-dolls, anime and jrock? Think again.