Japan’s Lost Generation Is Still Jobless and Living With Their Parents

 The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security.

The divide was solidifying when I finished college in 2000. It had been a decade since Japan’s bubble economy had collapsed, and employers drastically scaled back new hires to protect older workers. The labor market had entered an “ice age,” according to media reports.

Having watched my older brother struggle to establish himself in a career, I chose to emigrate to the U.S. to pursue my interest in journalism. Over the years, I read stories about the travails of the so-called lost generation. Faced with limited job prospects, many ended up single and childless. Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.

It was a brutal knife attack in May 2019, in which the perpetrator was a man in his 50s who had been out of work for many years and living with relatives, that got me thinking about profiling people whose lives had been disrupted by the employment ice age. From a news perspective, the timing was propitious: A month after the attack, the government unveiled plans to help those who were shut out of the labor market in their 20s land full-time positions, with a goal of assisting 300,000 over three years.

There was no shortage of potential subjects for my project. Japan has an estimated 613,000 middle-aged hikikomori, a term usually used to describe socially withdrawn adolescents who hole up in their bedrooms, according to the results of a government survey released in March of last year. Among those in their early 40s, as many as one in three said they had become shut-ins because they had trouble finding or settling into a job after finishing school.

Locating interview subjects didn’t prove as difficult as getting them to open up to a journalist. It helped that we were of the same generation. Still, many were so deeply ashamed about their failure to become successful adults in the mold of their parents that our conversations were awkward and painful. I was heartened when a social worker put me in touch with a client who was undergoing rehabilitation to reenter the work world and also when I met hikikomori who had overcome their own isolation and were helping others do the same. Those encounters left me hopeful that for a few, the doors might open once again. 

It took a gruesome crime to get Michinao Kono to take control of his life. In May 2019 a knife-wielding man attacked a group of people waiting at a bus stop in Kawasaki, killing two and wounding 18 others, including more than a dozen schoolchildren, before stabbing himself to death. News coverage alluded to the “8050 problems,” a reference to reclusive, middle-aged Japanese who live with their elderly parents.

The label applied to Kono, an out-of-work 45-year-old who never left his parents’ home in Nara. He was rattled by the thought that Japanese society viewed people like him as ticking time bombs. “There’s no chance I would commit a crime like this, but I thought, I have to stop being a shut-in because my economic situation is heading for a dead-end,” he says.

Kono seemed destined from birth to have a promising future. His father was employed by one of Japan’s legendary trading houses, the industry-spanning conglomerates that were the backbone of the postwar economy. He earned enough to afford a car and a home with a front yard, which marked the family as well-to-do in a country that embraced the phrase “100 million, all in the middle class.”

Kono himself got into Kyoto University, Japan’s second-oldest university and one of its most selective, but his lack of social skills made him a loner. He says that as a result of being bullied in middle school.

During his third and fourth years in college, Kono’s mailbox started overflowing with recruitment brochures, the same as the rest of his classmates. (Even during the economic malaise of the 1990s, Kyoto University students were in demand.) Still, he didn’t take part in the highly choreographed ritual called shushoku katsudo (“job-hunting activity”) in which university students don black or navy suits to attend packed recruiting events and submit to marathon group interviews.

Kono frequently skipped classes, so that after eight years at university he still hadn’t accumulated enough credits to graduate, which made him ineligible to stay on. By that time, the stream of pamphlets had dried up, and he made no attempt to look for work. “It was in the employment ice age,” he explains. “I thought even if I tried, it would be in vain.

He holed up in his parents’ house. Days became weeks became months became years. When he felt up to it, he’d attend concerts by the all-girl pop group Morning Musume. He booked himself on cheap flights to East and Southeast Asia. “In my mind, I knew I was going nowhere and I’d better quit,” he recalls. His parents gave him money for incidentals, and he paid for more expensive items with credit cards, racking up about 3 million yen ($28,400) in charges before defaulting. Now he and his parents live off Kono’s father’s pension. “I dug my own hole. I avoided reality. My life derailed quite a bit,” he says.

Amid the coverage of the knife rampage, Kono came across Takaaki Yamada, who runs a nonprofit in Kyoto, an hour’s drive from Kono’s home. The group reaches out to middle-aged shut-ins and their aging parents and hosts meetings where they get together and share their stories. “Many parents are truly devastated with their children being withdrawn for a long time,” Yamada explains. “We have to connect with them” before the parents die and their children are left behind. (It was Yamada who put me in touch with Kono.)

In the summer of 2019, Kono applied for three clerical jobs that the city of Takarazuka created to help people frozen out of the job market during the employment ice age. He had no idea he’d be competing with 1,815 other applicants from all over Japan.

Takarazuka’s mayor, Tomoko Nakagawa, who is 73, says she regrets not having done more to address the diminishing career prospects for this generation when she was a national lawmaker from 1996 to 2003, even after watching her own son and daughter, now in their 40s, struggle to find jobs. “I didn’t see the essence of this problem,” she says. “This is the generation that was forced to swim in the murky water.”

Kono didn’t land one of the spots, which would have required him to rent an apartment for himself for the first time to avoid a 90-minute commute each way. In November he took a job as a dishwasher at a ramen restaurant, thinking that if he learned the ropes, he might be able to run his own eatery one day. He spent long hours on his feet, often working past midnight, and earned roughly 150,000 yen per month, just slightly over minimum wage. He quit in early January. “It wiped me out physically,” he says.

At Kono’s invitation, I travel to Nara in mid-January to attend a session of the self-help group he’s been leading since July 2019. The gig is unpaid, but it motivated him to get business cards printed, and it adds a line to his bare résumé as he looks for regular work.

When I arrive at the address he'd given me, I climb the stairs and see a sign that reads “Meeting Room 3: A Citizens’ Group to Consider the 8050 Problem.” Besides Kono, the room holds 10 other people. He kicks off the session by recounting his own personal story. A 33-year-old man then says he’s been homebound for several years since dropping out of graduate school. A 46-year-old woman living with her mother says she’s too weak to work after being a shut-in for years. A 44-year-old man with a college degree wonders how long he can stand doing menial work, such as distributing flyers.

A man in his late 70s talks about his son, who since failing a college entrance exam two decades ago spends his days in his room, most likely watching TV and surfing the internet, he says. “Do you talk with him about what he wants to do in the future?” Kono asks, sitting at the table with his arms crossed. The father says they had once, but not any longer. When Kono asks if the young man has any friends, the older man answers, “None.”

As I listen, I remember a conversation in which Kono told me his father used to hassle him about getting a job, but the two of them no longer talk about the future. He told me he’s more conscious that his parents are nearing the end of their lives: His father no longer drives, and his mother’s spine is bent with age. “I’d like to get back on my feet and assure them while they are alive,” he said.

When I check in with Kono in September, he tells me the monthly gatherings he organizes were canceled from March through May because of the pandemic but resumed in June. He’s applied for several government clerical jobs earmarked for members of the lost generation. He was turned down for three and is waiting to hear back on others. He says that with private companies cutting back hiring during the Covid-19 recession, programs like these are probably his only option: “This is my last chance to reenter the society.”

Inside the packed restaurant, about 40 people chatted and laughed, drinks in hand. It was November 2019—months before the world would learn that a lethal virus had been silently stalking humans—and this was Shibuya, a Tokyo district famed for its lively nightlife. Nobody would have guessed this was a gathering for shut-ins, or hikikomori, as they’re known in Japan.

“Listen up. Rice bowls with roast beef are coming,” called out the evening’s host, Wataru Kubo, commanding the crowd to chow down.

This is no 12-step meeting. There are no uncomfortable chairs, no stale coffee, no embarrassing public confessions. It’s OK if you don’t want to share your personal story—or even your name. A sheet posted near the entrance spells out some basic rules of engagement. No. 2 reads: “Nod a lot as you listen. Don’t deny others even if you disagree with them.”

Kubo, who started organizing the monthly gatherings in August 2018, wants the ambiance to be as relaxed as possible. He’s succeeded: When I showed up wearing a suit and tie, a few people in the casually dressed crowd ribbed me for being so formal. “This is a place where people feel safe,” he says. “This is also a place where they can network.”

When I introduced myself as a reporter, some at the gathering fell into an awkward silence. But a few agreed to tell me about the unexpected turns that led them to this room. One 47-year-old man confided that he’d spent 17 years holed up in his room at his parents’ place after graduating from college. Another, 39, told me he spent years moving from job to job and now lives in a homeless shelter.

“It takes a lot of energy to come here,” says Kubo, 59, a business consultant. He recalls that as an adolescent he bridled at the idea that he’d one day be expected to take over his father’s carpentry business, but at the same time, he felt no pull to go into another profession. After graduating from high school, he became a recluse. Sometimes he would venture into downtown Shibuya at night to people-watch. “There was power in Shibuya with so many young people,” he says. “That gave me comfort.”

The monthly gatherings have been on hiatus since February because of the pandemic. “I was devastated in March and April,” Kubo says when we meet again in July. “I thought, What could we possibly do in a world where people can’t get in contact with each other?” He organized an online event in May, he tells me, but it didn’t feel intimate. He hoped to resume the monthly meetups this summer at the same restaurant, even if he had to limit the guest list to five. When he messaged me in mid-August, I learned that a resurgence of the virus had derailed his plans.

Shibuya, which was deserted during the seven-week-long state of emergency that ended May 25, doesn’t have the same energy it did before the outbreak. It’s not just concerned about becoming infected that are keeping the revelers at bay. Japan’s economy contracted at an annualized rate of 28% in the April-to-June quarter, the most in the postwar period.

Some major employers, including Japan Airlines Co. and H.I.S. Co., have stopped recruiting college students, while almost 78% of respondents in a midsummer survey of small and midsize businesses by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the pandemic is affecting their hiring of upcoming graduates. Recruit Works Institute polls university students and companies each year to gauge the number of entry-level openings per impending graduate. For the class of 2021, the ratio is set to dip to 1.53 jobs per graduate, from 1.83 this year. “It’s like the employment ice age,” Kubo says. “It’s happening again.”

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