Audio version read by George Atherton
By now, the images associated with Japan's global pop hipster juggernaut are news to no one. Pokemon, launched in 1996, is a multibillion-dollar media empire, extending into 68 countries worldwide. Its bright yellow, perky-tailed mascot soars above 5th Avenue in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, right next to an old pup named Snoopy. Fashion-fanatic Harajuku girls are now called "the Harajuku Girls," a Japanese dance troupe touring the world and gyrating in sold-out stadiums alongside a blonde singer named Gwen Stefani.
Hello Kitty manufacturer Sanrio's overseas outlets frequently outperform their domestic counterparts, and anime- and manga-devoted clubs and conventions have sprouted and bloomed in foreign soils like Takashi Murakami's psychedelic smiley-faced flowers.
Much of the imagery is redolent of kawaii, either emitting a whiff of the uber-cuteness now considered an essence of Japanese popular culture, or, as in the case of Murakami and other contemporary artists, playfully subverting it. There is also a giddy smorgasbord of styles and designs, mixing high and low and East and West with seemingly endless imaginative abandon – and, of course, plenty of hyperkinetic action: spiky-haired guys and gals à la Naruto and Dragon Ball Z and a heap of video game consoles leaping across screens and bursting through comic book panels.
The combined effect of this assault on the global consciousness is a vision of a contemporary Japan exploding with energy, inventiveness, color and light – qualities we generally ascribe to youthfulness: actually being young, or perpetually feeling that way. Many foreigners see in today's Japan the face of the future.
But inside the country, specters of darker hues shadow the horizon: an aging population and a declining or stagnant birthrate; an expanding class of young, part-time workers (freeters) with checkered resumes and scant skills; and so-called NEETs ("Not in Employment, Education or Training"), with their CVs and skill sets suspended in mid-youth. Stories of pathological young shut-ins (hikikomori), who withdraw into their bedrooms and virtual worlds to avoid the real one, and internet suicide pacts, through which young loners meet one another online in order to kill themselves in the bricks-and-mortar world, have begun haunting headlines at home and abroad.
"There doesn't seem to be much optimism," says literary translator, author and University of Tokyo professor Motoyuki Shibata. Shibata's current classes are made up of what he calls "the first generation in modern Japan to grow up without the sense that things would get better."
"We're the risk-averse generation," a 20-year-old female student at the University of Tokyo explained to me. "We grew up too comfortable to take risks."
While conducting research for my book Japanamerica, I found that the social ills afflicting Japan's younger generations and the pessimism they betray began to form a narrative nexus, tying an increasingly anemic youth culture to the anxieties felt by many in the anime, manga, toy, game and other pop cultural industries.
It's not hard to find pessimism about the young pessimists. Michael Arias, the Japan-based American director of the 2006 anime feature Tekkonkinkreet, illustrates his concern by reciting the names of several professional anime artists and directors in their 40s and older: his industry and craft may be finding audiences abroad just as they are dying in Japan.
"Making Tekkonkinkreet, I was fortunate to enough to work with some of the best talents in the field here in Japan," he says. "And I heard over and over from the veterans on my staff how depleted the ranks have become in the last ten years or so."
hat to make of the apparent disparity between the image of a vibrant "cool Japan," and a much colder Japan – a domestic youth culture that is shrinking in size, hope and ambition, and beginning to grow increasingly violent?
This June, when inveterate loner Tomohiro Kato plowed his truck into three people and stabbed 14 more, killing seven, in Akihabara, Tokyo's mecca of pop culture, the world outside Japan began to see the chill enveloping the nation's younger generations.
The nation was already dealing with a 2008 spike in hydrogen sulphide suicides, in which the young have found a new way to kill themselves with a chemical mixture involving over-the-counter detergents, whose airborne residue can also contaminate and potentially kill other innocents in the vicinity. A government report issued less than a week before Kato's killing spree noted that the birthrate continued to decline even as the suicide rate continued to rise.
A few weeks before Kato committed kireru, or a sudden, violent 'snapping' of lost control, Asuka Sawamoto, a 30-something former J-Pop idol, began showing off her thong underwear to legions in the Japanese media. The police swarmed in, Sawamoto was arrested, and street performances were severely curtailed.
This has been a bad year for Japanese pop culture, even as profits and interest abroad rises. Akihabara, the formerly benign center of Japanese fantasy, is starting to become an ugly repository of Japan's real problems.
Social critic Mariko Fujiwara blames the breakdown on the collapse of the family system, among other factors. The baby-boomer parents achieved a level of middle-class comfort. They had fewer children so they could sustain that comfort – and they gave their children everything, except the strength and guidance to navigate the myriad choices and uncertainties of the twenty-first century.
"Japanese kids today feel that if anything goes wrong for them, it will be disastrous for the entire family," says Fujiwara. "So they don't even want to try. There is a mismatch between their aspirations and their willingness to work to achieve them 'no matter what.' They thought material and digital connections would be enough, but they're discovering that they and their parents were wrong. Today's Japanese kids are incredibly unhappy."
What if Japan, the face of the future, is showing us who we are becoming – as a kind of proverbial 'canary in a coal mine,' a Cassandra of our trans-cultural futures. Consumerist, protectionist Japan is now celebrated worldwide as the Asian arbiter of cool, even chic. But at home, endless consumer choice and cleverness is starting to look hollow.
Evangelion auteur Hideaki Anno, now 47, believes that the problem may not lie exclusively with Japan's younger generation. Instead, he says, there is no adulthood for them to grow into. "We are a country of children," Anno recently told a reporter from The Atlantic Monthly. "We don't have any adult role models in Japan."
I predict that the dilemma facing Japan – how to create a sophisticated adult culture in a capitalist society that has less need or room for one will – become commonplace in the coming years.
But Duke Professor Anne Allison is more buoyant about the freeter and hikikomori generations of slackers and shut-ins. After all, she says, "Where are all these fresh ideas coming from? They're not coming from kids who are going to college or becoming salarymen."
Allison points to the example of Satoshi Tajiri, once an isolated hikikomori boy taking solace in his addiction to Space Invaders, and now best-known for being the original creator of Pokemon.
"We shouldn't blame the kids," she adds. "They're not at fault for neoliberalism or affective culture. They're just in it. Nobody believes in Japan Inc. anymore, because it doesn't exist."
She's right. The Japanese cult of the future is already dated. But if it – Japan Inc. – doesn't exist anymore, where do we go next?