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.
A dark view of Shibuya during the winter
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.