‘I’m more worried than excited about the future’: Japan’s Coming of Age Day tinged with anxiety

On the second Monday in January every year, Japan’s 20-year-olds put on their best kimono and suits, brave the winter chill and congregate at event halls across the country to celebrate their official passage into adulthood.

In happier times, Coming of Age Day is a time to reunite with old school friends from the same neighbourhood and take endless commemorative photos, knowing that a party invariably involving the legal consumption of alcohol will be just reward for sitting through dreary speeches by local dignitaries.

But for the latest cohort of Japanese men and women who have turned 20 in the past eight months – or will do so by 1 April – this year’s festivities will be tinged with anxiety, as they contemplate a future filled with uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Japan’s skewed demographics.

Mao Kato.
Mao Kato.

Mao Kato, who celebrated her 20th birthday last month, will be among those marking the occasion the traditional way, in a colourful furisode kimono she will wear at the Tokyo metropolitan government’s official seijin shiki, or coming-of-age ceremony.

Like many of her contemporaries, Kato has spent almost all of her two years at university living in the shadow of Covid-19. “It has definitely disrupted my studies,” says Kato, a social studies major at a university in Tokyo. “I couldn’t make new friends, as our classes were online, and I had no proper contact with my seniors, which also affects my job prospects.”

Kato, who graduates in two years’ time, will enter a job market very different from the one experienced by her parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Japan’s “lost” two decades of low or no growth and the rise of low-paid, non-regular workers have created a generation that can no longer look forward to the postwar guarantees of lifetime employment, seniority-based pay rises and a comfortable pension.

Twenty-year-old men and women dressed in kimonos and suits leave Todoroki Arena, Japan during Coming of Age Day on 11 January 2021.
Twenty-year-old men and women dressed in kimonos and suits leave Todoroki Arena, Japan during Coming of Age Day on 11 January 2021. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, they can expect to work well into “retirement” – paying into a pension pot that will be of little benefit to them by the time they reach their twilight years – as part of a shrinking workforce expected to fund older members of a shrinking, ageing population.

“I am definitely more worried than excited about the future,” says Kato. “It’s getting harder for graduates to find jobs, and we don’t know if we will be paid enough. We will also have to pay for our parents’ pensions.”

A record low number of 1.2 million people in Japan greeted the Year of the Tiger as new adults, according to the internal affairs ministry, 40,000 fewer than the previous year and an all-time low since the government began keeping records in 1968. Twenty-year-olds now account for just 0.96% of Japan’s 125 million people.

By contrast, the number of people aged 65 and older reached 36.4 million last autumn – almost 30% of the entire population, while life expectancy has risen to a record high of 87.74 for women and 81.64 for men. The birthrate, meanwhile, remains stubbornly low.

Against that backdrop, it is no surprise that Japanese millennials were the most pessimistic about the future compared with their contemporaries in 17 other countries, according to a 2016 survey.

Shota Nagao.
Shota Nagao.

Shota Nagao, who will spend Monday catching up with high school friends but has decided not to attend his Tokyo ward’s coming-of-age ceremony, says the pandemic has brought the challenges he and other new adults face into stark relief.

“It’s taken a toll on my mental and physical health,” Nagao, a sociology and anthropology student, says of 18 months of remote learning at a university in the Japanese capital. “The stress of not being able to socialise really shook me, but the biggest problem was that I wasn’t getting the quality of education that older students had.”

In other ways, the ripping up of the postwar employment contract between state and citizen could prove a blessing in disguise. In return for lifetime employment and financial security, postwar generations were expected to put in punishing hours, often at the expense of family life and their mental health.

“I hear that the work-life balance is better at Japanese companies these days, and that it’s no longer practically impossible for women to have families and careers,” says Kato, who lives with her parents in the same apartment building as her grandparents.

Nagao, too, can see the benefits of the less rigid work culture that is emerging as more Japanese companies look beyond a shrinking domestic market. “I don’t see myself spending my entire working life doing the same job … people my age don’t think that way,” he says. “We feel like we have more freedom to choose and switch jobs, and maybe even start our own companies.”

But as he and Kato prepare for Monday’s milestone, complete with independent bank accounts and state pension books, Nagao – like his contemporary a fluent English speaker – said he would put his faith in Japan … for now.

“I don’t feel like politicians are listening to my generation at all,” he says, despite promises by the new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, to address the growing income gap – which disproportionately affects young people and women – as part of his self-styled “new capitalism”.

“Some of them use social media to give the impression they are engaging with younger people, but their policies don’t benefit us. They are still more interested in what my parents and grandparents think.”


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