Wed, May 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Slacker society emerges in hardworking Japan

The postwar goal of `100 million, all middle class' has created a generation that does not fear poverty, but has little ambition

AFP , TOKYO

"A salaryman can never have high hopes," Takao Kimijima says on a Tokyo street as he finishes a puff on his cigarette outside his non-smoking building.

The soft-spoken 30-year-old is not among the needy but a dark-suited corporate researcher who earns ? million (US$45,000) a year, slightly above average for full-time Japanese salaried workers.

But Kimijima is a closet sympathizer for Japan's new breed of slackers: young people who feel at ease picking and choosing their lifestyles, a no-no for their workaholic fathers who were derided abroad as corporate animals.

Kimijima says he has "no intention to work at the expense of my private life."

"I don't know if it was good or bad but Japan used to have lifetime employment and a seniority-based pay system on the assumption that its economy would keep expanding," he says.

"We are no longer living in such an era. Only a limited number of people are able to reap fruit while a vast majority can't expect their income to rise or even be stable," Kimijima says.

Nearby, a 34-year-old motorcyclist for a transport courier service sits on the ground in front of a convenience store drinking bottled tea.

"It's all up to you [whether to work hard]," he says. "I'm fine as I am, since I earn enough to make a living," he adds, declining to divulge his salary.

It is a long way from the time Japan was rebuilding from the ashes of war into an economic superpower, when the national motto was for everyone to work their hardest and earn in equal measure -- summed up as "100 million, all middle class."

The emergence of people who do not care about keeping up with the middle class was described in a best-selling book by marketing expert Atsushi Miura entitled Karyu Shakai, or "Low Society."

In the 1960s, television sets were symbols of middle-class living, but now "low society" people own -- and often indulge in -- gadgets such as DVD players and personal computers, Miura says in the book published last September.

"The low society is not absolutely poor in terms of material possession. So what is lacking in them? It is their will," he says.

They are not eager to communicate with others, work, learn or spend money on luxury goods.

"In short, they have low motivation for life," he says.

"You try to climb a mountain because you expect there must be something wonderful at its peak. It is natural that nobody bothers to climb to the top ... if you are already 70 percent high up and find plenty of things there," he says.

Many in the new "low society" are men in their early 30s who grew up after Japan accomplished its post-war miracle. They have not seen poverty or feared slipping from the middle class.

They prefer to "be myself," instead of the group identity which is deeply rooted in East Asia, Miura says.

The low society is a major factor in Japan's trend of marrying late and having fewer children, which has led to a decline in the population that has frightened economic policy makers.

Miura thinks that "slackers" also have cause for worry -- because their lifestyle is self-defeating.

"If the whole society is on an uptrend, you will be carried higher automatically. When the society stops rising, however, only the people who are willing to go higher will rise while others will go down," he says.

The Japanese economy as a whole has snapped out of its lost decade which followed the crash in the early 1990s of the speculative "bubble" boom.

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