今週のFinancial Time magagine UK版 -続き その3-

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Yoshi Ishikawa certainly has different priorities from his parents. Although he managed to secure a high-flying job at a foreign company, he gave it up a couple of years ago to pursue something more satisfying. After an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and post-graduate studies at Nagoya University, he landed a job at Accenture as a management consultant. He worked in Texas, Barcelona and Tokyo, but felt unfulfilled. What was the point, he thought, of advising one Japanese beer company how to grab market share from another? That was the sort of thing that might have motivated his parents’ generation, but surely there was more to life than that?

Ishikawa, now 28, was brought up in Kira, a town of rice paddies and scattered auto-parts factories about an hour from the industrial city of Nagoya, where Toyota has its headquarters. His father worked at a trading company that employed about 30 people. His mother is a housewife. His family wasn’t particularly well-off. Of three sons, he alone went on to higher studies. One of his best friends from home never really got a job, but has become what the Japanese call a hikikomori – a “shut-in person” rarely venturing out. “It’s not a psychological problem. He’s just a bit scared, or he doesn’t feel the need to work because he can live with his parents,” Ishikawa says. Nor is it an economic phenomenon. “Hikikomori come from both rich and poor families. And if you are really poor, you cannot afford to lie around in bed all day.”

Some members of his generation may suffer from a certain ennui, but the clear goals of an earlier era don’t look so appealing either. “Our fathers’ generation didn’t look so happy to us. They worked such long hours. They earned money, but families in those days led separated lives. Maybe we are asking ourselves, ‘What are we working for?’ That’s something we are trying to figure out.”

Ishikawa’s personal answer to that question was to join an organisation called ETIC, the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation. A government-supported body, ETIC helps struggling businesses stay on their feet and teaches would-be entrepreneurs how to make it. “I’m pretty sure Japan needs more entrepreneurs who can help us innovate. I’m fairly sure I don’t want to work for a large company.”

His new place of work is an open-plan office in Shibuya, a Mecca for Tokyo’s fashionable youth. His office has an airy feel, with the staff sat at long, rough-hewn benches made by one of the small businesses ETIC supports. Most of Ishikawa’s colleagues are in their twenties or thirties. They are casually dressed. They work on laptops. The office smells of freshly brewed coffee. There is at least a hint of the California start-up.

Since last March, Ishikawa has spent some of his time in north-east Japan among the fishing communities whose boats – and even whole families – were swept away by the tsunami. In Kesennuma, large sections of which were destroyed, ETIC has sent entrepreneurs to teach fishermen how to raise their profit through branding and selling directly to consumers rather than through wholesalers. “What we regard as a new frontier is to do something good for society or for our community, not just selling more beer,” Ishikawa says with youthful piety. “Even if we earn less money, so long as we can work with satisfaction that is OK. I think that’s how young people think these days.”

Ishikawa sees a sharp divide between the attitudes of pre- and post-bubble Japan. His father’s generation had huge loyalty to their companies, more even than to their families, he says. “We are more interested in quality of life.” He thinks it’s wrong to say the younger generation has lost the drive that made Japan so successful. For him, younger Japanese are simply working out new priorities and a new, smarter, idea of work-life balance. “They think of us as the anything-goes generation with our iPhones and our video games and not much else,” he says. “But there are so many young people trying to make something new.”
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