2012年07月08日

今週のFinancial Time magagine UK版 -続き その4-

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One of the young social entrepreneurs Ishikawa’s organisation supports is 26-year-old Noriaki Imai, who runs a non-profit organisation helping disadvantaged children in Japan’s second city of Osaka. Imai has an unusual story. At 18, he went alone to study the effects of depleted uranium shells on civilian populations in Iraq. It wasn’t the best thought-out of plans. Within hours of his arrival, he was kidnapped by Iraqi militiamen. In a statement accompanied by footage broadcast on Japanese television, gunmen threatened to burn Imai alive, along with two other Japanese hostages, unless Japan withdrew ground troops from the country. There was an agonising nine-day wait, but eventually the three were released. They returned to Japan not to the hero’s welcome one might have expected, but to an intensely hostile reception in which they were blamed for compromising the Japanese government. The first time I saw Imai in person was shortly after his return in 2004. His head was bowed in shame.

Imai’s foray to Iraq, ill-conceived though it might have been, struck me as somehow symbolic of a generation straining to find meaning. Gone were the easy certainties of catch-up Japan. Young people now had to discover life themselves, even if that meant travelling to a hostile foreign country. I saw Imai again this spring in Osaka. We met in a restaurant. Jazz played over the speakers and through the wooden walls came the sound of youthful chatter lubricated by alcohol. Imai told me that, after his return from Iraq, he was depressed for several years. He studied at the international university in Oita, south-west Japan, but kept mainly to himself. “I became psychologically sick,” he says. For a few years he received hate-mail complaining that he had wasted taxpayers’ money. “This is a stressed-out society,” he shrugs. “Many people just wanted to let off steam.”

By his fourth year of university he felt better. He travelled to Zambia with a friend who was helping to build a school and was struck by the optimism. “Compared to Japan I felt they had so much hope for their country,” he says. “A fifth of the population is infected with HIV and the average life expectancy is just 46. But I sensed hope in their eyes. I came back to Japan and got on the train and everyone looked so gloomy.”

Imai felt he needed to “do something” for Japanese kids. Like Ishikawa, he arrived via a detour, in his case selling pork and beef for a small trading company. “Buy cheap, sell expensive,” he smirks. He quit a few months ago to devote himself full-time to mentoring troubled children. At one underprivileged high school he met a boy who had lived with three different fathers and whose mother had a multiple-personality disorder. The family was on income support and the boy sometimes worked at night to earn extra money. Imai says he has been surprised at the level of social deprivation. “These kids don’t have any self-confidence. They don’t feel as though they have a future.”

I tell him about Furuichi’s theory, that what youngsters have lost in income security they have gained in freedom. Imai is not convinced. “Living has become too hard. Younger people only have part-time jobs or contract jobs. The sense of community has become weaker.” He fears for Japan’s economy, worrying that the public debt of 230 per cent of GDP will one day explode. “I don’t know when this bankruptcy will happen. Maybe we’ll be OK for three years or five years. But 10 years?”
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