On the second Monday of 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 neighborhood and take endless commemorative photos, knowing that a party invariably involving the legal consumption of alcohol would be the just reward for sitting through dreary speeches by local dignitaries.
However, for the latest cohort of Japanese men and women who have turned 20 in the past eight months — or will do so by April 1 — this year’s festivities were tinged with anxiety, as they contemplated a future filled with uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Japan’s skewed demographics.
Mao Kato, who celebrated her 20th birthday last month, was among those marking the occasion the traditional way, in a colorful furisode kimono she wore at the Tokyo metropolitan government’s official seijin shiki, or coming-of-age ceremony.
Like many of her contemporaries, Kato, a social studies major at a university in Tokyo, has spent nearly two years at school living in the shadow of COVID-19.
“It has definitely disrupted my studies,” Kato said. “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, is set to enter a job market much different from the one experienced by her parents’ and grandparents’ generations. 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.
Instead, they can expect to work well into “retirement” — paying into a pension pot that is likely to be of little benefit by the time they reach their twilight years — as part of a shrinking workforce expected to fund older members of a declining, aging population.
“I am definitely more worried than excited about the future,” Kato said. “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.”
Shota Nagao, a sociology and anthropology student, spent yesterday catching up with high school friends, but has decided not to attend his Tokyo ward’s coming-of-age ceremony.
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,” said 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 contracting domestic market.
“We feel like we have more freedom to choose and switch jobs, and maybe even start our own companies,” he said.
As he and Kato prepared for yesterday’s milestone, complete with independent bank accounts and state pension books, Nagao said he would put his faith in Japan for now.
“I don’t feel like politicians are listening to my generation at all,” he said. “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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