Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge - Of all the calamities that have befallen Kouhei Nagatsuka, age 18, in the past month — the March 11 earthquake that devastated his home in Futaba town, the radiation seeping from the quake-and-tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant next door, the fleeing from shelter to shelter with nothing more than the clothes on his back — it is the smallest of privations that elicits emotion. In March, Nagatsuka graduated from high school in Futaba. But there was no commencement ceremony.

Describing his family's plight, Nagatsuka answers questions in a brave monotone, assuming the mantle of the eldest of five siblings, the man in the house now that his father is in the hospital. It is only the lack of a proper graduation in this ritual-based nation that finally makes him crack. "Graduation ceremonies are for sending us out into the world as adults," he says, blinking hard as he waits in line for free clothing at an evacuation center in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. "But for me, I cannot start my future yet. I don't know what I will do."

As Japan has floundered for two decades since its economic bubble burst — a postindustrial, high-tech society that had resigned itself to a slow, inexorable decline after the boom years of the 1980s — its young people have languished. The over-indulged and underemployed cohort has given rise to a dictionary's worth of sociological neologisms: freeters, young Japanese who choose part-time, dead-end, low-paid work instead of striving for more fulfilling careers; hikikomori, anxious youth who have completely withdrawn from society, even locking themselves in their bedrooms for years at a time; herbivores, grazing, passive young men who care more about their looks than their careers; and parasite singles, young adults who, even if they have good jobs, live at home to avoid paying rent and rely on their parents for food and laundry so they can use their disposable income for frivolous purchases.

Any way they can
In Tokyo, young people have sent donations and cut electricity consumption to help the victims up north

But as their nation tries to cope with the costliest natural disaster the world has ever seen, one that has left tens of thousands dead or missing and some 360,000 homeless, the country's coddled youth are rising to meet a new era's challenges. In unprecedented numbers, young Japanese have volunteered to help earthquake victims, bringing time, money and in some cases social-networking expertise that can reunite missing family members and coordinate aid efforts.

At the Saitama Super Arena, where recent graduate Nagatsuka is sheltering, crowds of local teens who usually come for rock concerts are here today for another reason. By 9:30 a.m., the emergency center has reached its maximum of 500 volunteers, most of whom are young. An additional 1,500 waiting for a chance to help will have to come back tomorrow. Masayuki Ishii, 18, is one of the lucky ones who scored a volunteer spot. He wears a big grin and is holding a sign that says 60s. His friend is holding another that says WOMEN. Together they form a duo that is organizing evacuee women in the 60-to-69 age bracket to go for their daily baths. "Some people say that young Japanese don't have a good spirit," says Ishii, stamping his feet in the frigid weather. "But when it comes down to it, we want to help, not just with money but with real work."

Other young people are battling a bureaucracy so swaddled in red tape that it has strangled attempts to provide speedy aid to quake survivors. "We've always thought that, even with our problems, Japan is No. 1," says Tomoko Yamashita, a 29-year-old employee of Peace Winds, a Japanese NGO that was one of the few local groups to immediately assess the needs up north. "But we have staff who've worked in places like Haiti or Sudan, and we've discovered that Japan's plans for emergencies are not adequate and need to be changed."

Still others are contributing just by changing their personal priorities. Many older Japanese — like 78-year-old Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who initially called the earthquake "divine retribution" for the country's consumerist excesses — fulminate against the material addictions of the young. But there's not much sign of that where you would most expect to see it. In Shibuya, the nerve center of Tokyo youth, a self-described freeter named Hikaru Tanaka giggles with her girlfriends in a usually neon-dazzled square now dark because of power cuts. With her designer handbag and geisha-style slathering of makeup, the 20-year-old looks like the ultimate material girl. But Tanaka bats her false eyelashes and says she has happily reduced the heat at home to save electricity and has sent a donation up north. "I know it's a small thing, but I want to do all that I can," says Tanaka. "Japan may be dark right now, but if we all come together, it will be bright again."

Looking for a Catalyst

It's standard history that the unexpected can turn social attitudes upside down. "Often it takes a huge crisis to make a society change," says Toshihiko Hayashi, an economics professor at Doshisha University in Tokyo, who has studied the legacies of natural disasters. "For Japan, even two lost decades after the bubble burst were not enough to fundamentally change the country's economic and political systems. But this crisis is different. It could be the catalyst that finally changes Japan."

There are precedents. Twice last century, Japan rose from the ashes, first from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000 people, and then from World War II, which left about 3 million dead and many cities in ashes from U.S. firebombings. But these days, few would have predicted that Japan's way to renewal would be blazed by its young people, who were supposed to have other things on their minds: nearly 1 in 10 young Japanese is unemployed, and almost one-third of university graduates get no job offers. Many more can find only part-time work.

Yet even if the new mood of sleeves-rolled-up volunteerism persists among young Japanese, they may still need leadership: someone to organize where the supplies and relief efforts should go. But in today's Japan — a nation of lackluster politicians, bureaucrats and salarymen — that seems to be lacking. "The sad fact about many young people today is that if there's one person who leads the way, they will follow and work hard," says Ayumi Yamamoto, a Tokyo graduate student who has volunteered to help earthquake survivors as part of a newly formed group called Tohoku Rising. (Tohoku is the northeastern region that bore the brunt of the disaster.) "But right now I don't see that one person stepping forward on the political stage."

The country has cycled through five Prime Ministers in the past four years. The current one, Naoto Kan, was supposed to be different. For one thing, he is from the Democratic Party of Japan, not the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the epitome of the Establishment, which ruled Japan almost without break from 1955 to 2009. Second, as Health Minister in the mid-1990s, Kan won popular support for daring to take on a Japanese bureaucracy that had hidden the fact that hemophiliacs were given HIV-tainted blood. But now, at a time when the country is craving leadership, Kan has not provided it. He labeled the March 11 disaster Japan's worst crisis since World War II — then abruptly receded from public view. As the recovery phase has gathered steam, he has largely left day-to-day management of the quake's aftermath to a snail-paced bureaucracy. One of his only public moves has been to call for a national-unity government, but the LDP — with grim predictability — snubbed his offer. Given the uninspired state of Japan's politics, it's no surprise that one-third of young Japanese are what are called election virgins — people who have never bothered to vote.

It's not just that Japan's politicians and bureaucrats are dull. They also form an Establishment phalanx with Japanese industry. In a phenomenon known as amakudari, which literally means "descent from the heavens," retiring government officials often take on top jobs at companies, some of which they were once charged with regulating. The cozy ties between government and Big Business are exemplified by Tokyo Power Electric Co., the operator of the damaged Daiichi nuclear plant, whose executives are beneficiaries of amakudari. The power company has been criticized not only for being less than forthcoming with information about the ongoing nuclear crisis but also for securing a license for an aging reactor earlier this year without making adequate safety checks of equipment that ended up failing during the March 11 disasters.

Outside the Establishment, though, the ice may be cracking. In Tokyo, one unlikely change agent could be 38-year-old Yujiro Taniyama, who has used Facebook to organize earthquake donations. Brash and flashy, the sometime TV entertainer is running against Ishihara, whom he refers to as "a dinosaur," in the race to be Tokyo's next governor. Taniyama, who grew up outside Japan and wants the country to embrace internationalism, won't win. For one thing, election regulations prohibit the use of the Internet for campaigning. The Web didn't exist back when the laws were enacted, and Taniyama's support base is the wired generation. But at least he is articulating the frustrations of a younger cohort that has tended to isolate itself from politics rather than do something about it. "We're floating adrift in the ocean, and there's no dynamic leadership in Japan," Taniyama says. "The young people have to say, Enough is enough. I want to shake up this outdated system."

Can the new generation actually change Japan? If they're to do so, the first step will be simply recognizing the magnitude of the problems facing the country. "After this earthquake, a lot of us feel energized for the first time," says Kentaro Adachi, a student at Waseda University in Tokyo, who admits he has never voted. "My friends who were never interested in politics, even if they majored in politics, are saying, What can we do?"

Whether that momentum will carry through in the months and years needed to rebuild Tohoku is far from clear. Nevertheless, encouraging signs are emerging even from the most ruined places. Keita Kanazawa just graduated from the middle school in Kesennuma, a town largely torn up by the tsunami. After the 15-year-old's apartment building was damaged by the tidal wave and later consumed by flames, he and his family evacuated to the middle school, which was turned into an emergency shelter. To fill his free time, Kanazawa has volunteered at the school, helping to clean floors made dirty by evacuees who, eschewing custom, are wearing their shoes inside. "When we do something, we forget," says the rosy-cheeked, broad-shouldered boy.

And if you're young, even in Kesennuma, there are things to look forward to. On this sunny day, as puffy clouds drifted through a brilliant blue sky, Kanazawa and two friends took off for another school, where the results of the high school examination they had taken before the earthquake were posted. All three, it turned out, had made the grade for their high school of choice. Head butts, high fives and much whooping ensued. For a moment, life on Tohoku's wounded coast was bright with hopes and dreams for the future. ( time.com )

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