今週のFinancial Time magagine UK版 は日本の若い世代からの日本の未来に対するコメント特集-その5-

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Yuri Takeuchi studied law at Tokyo University, the course favoured by the top echelon of Japan’s elite bureaucracy. Instead of going on to the foreign service or to law school as might have been expected, she entered business. She chose to apply for the hardest company possible, Mitsubishi Corporation, the very definition of Shimotsubo’s “promised road”. Last year, Mitsubishi took 165 graduates on to its fast-track programme, just 31 of them women. Takeuchi was one of them.

Yuri Takeuchi

In many ways Takeuchi, who turned 25 last month, does not fit the mould of an elite Japanese student. The daughter of a trading company executive, she has spent half her life in the US where she attended both elementary and high school. She speaks impeccable, colloquial English. She spent four years studying law at Tokyo University, universally known as “Todai”. “I hated law. I hated Todai,” she says decisively. She found the law school inward looking and few of its professors much interested in life outside Japan.

Takeuchi’s international exposure had given her a different perspective. As a teenager, she had been profoundly moved by a newspaper article about a young Chinese student who committed suicide because his family could not afford modest tuition fees. She began to raise money for China and other causes. She travelled to Bihar, India’s poorest state, with Unicef. Back in Japan, she didn’t exactly fit the mould. She continues to look at her own country with the eyes of a social anthropologist.

A few things have struck her about corporate Japan. One is the still-evolving views about what is expected of women. When she joined Mitsubishi, the head of HR warned her that it would be hard for her to find a husband; few men would want to marry such a high-flier. “I said, ‘I didn’t choose my job to get married,’” she sniffs, clearly put out. In her mother’s day, she says, the expectation was that you’d meet a man at work, get married and leave your job to settle down. “In those days, the boss would come up to you and say, ‘Congratulations on your engagement. When are you going to quit?’” Attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly. “In recent years, the word ‘compliance’ has come in. It’s a very vague word. But I think that word itself has changed things a lot. People are very afraid of that word and careful about what they say and do.”

Compliance doesn’t solve everything. Her male colleagues regularly go out drinking at hostess bars. That’s where much of the office bonding and trading of information takes place. Women’s views are not always taken seriously, though it can sometimes work in reverse. Takeuchi is often invited to important dinners with clients because she is hana – a flower to brighten the grey-suited occasion. Some of her female colleagues live up to their reputation of deliberately dumbing down in the pursuit of a traditionalist husband, she says. “I would never become a housewife. That’s just not my personality.” Even if she eventually quit work to have a family, she would volunteer or work for a non-profit. “I just can’t do that traditional housewife thing.”

At least she feels she has a choice. Does that mean, as Furuichi argues, that young Japanese now have more options? After thinking for some time, she says maybe people are happier because they don’t feel the need to be so competitive. “In my father’s day, everything was about competing with the US and trying to become a better country. It wasn’t good enough for them. Now it’s come to a point where people are happy with the status quo – even if it’s not that good.”

Japanese youth, she feels, lacks the sense of urgency she has seen in other countries. They are too comfortable in their affluent, peaceful society. “If you go to China, or Korea or India and you talk to young people, you realise they are in a much more difficult situation. But they are so hungry. Everyone is under constant competition and constant pressure.” If Japanese youth is too complacent, she implies, their more ambitious brethren from other countries will quickly overtake them.

Furuichi says something similar. The “happy generation” may be kidding itself, he says, enjoying its affluence while Japan heads for crisis. That would make youngsters more like passengers on the Ship of Fools than confident navigators of their own destiny. “This is not a sustainable course. Thirty years from now, all these people living with their parents will need to care for those parents. Are they prepared for that, financially or emotionally?”

Japan, he reckons, can probably maintain its present course for several decades, living off the country’s mountainous savings and protected by its relative isolation. “Compared to what’s going on in the outside world, Japan still feels pretty good,” he says, contrasting it with what he perceives as the economic crises and social dislocations raging in Europe and the US. “It’s not obvious to anyone that we’ve gone off the rails. If the old system had completely fallen apart, we might have renewed it,” he says, half regretfully. “It’s an open question as to whether this is a form of warped happiness. But the fact is, if Japanese youth are in dire straits, they’re not aware of it.”

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor. His book on Japan will be published by Penguin next year。
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