Apathy rules Japan youth

April 26, 1996

At the beginning of Japan's academic year in April new students at the country's 500 or so universities have to endure a week-long campaign to persuade them to join campus clubs and societies.

Most students sign up for at least one club as part of their preparation for a higher education which is generally treated as a four-year vacation between the hard grind of school and work.

But while sports, games and social clubs receive numerous members, fewer students are joining political societies. Once popular leftwing clubs and societies in particular are experiencing a rapid decline in members and a critical shortage of funds.

During the 1960s and 1970s campuses were hotbeds of student radicalism. Indeed the University of Tokyo, Japan's most prestigious seat of higher learning, virtually closed for six months after some of the worst riots seen on campuses.

At the height of the disturbances nearly 10,000 riot police had to use water canon and tear gas to remove the hundreds of students who had occupied Tokyo University's Hongo campus.

Students demonstrated against many issues ranging from the poor state of university facilities to policy regarding the United States and the Vietnam War.

There were also disturbances on other campuses including strikes at prestigious private universities, including Keio and Waseda, after increases in tuition fees made it more difficult for students from poorer families to enrol.

"What happened in the 1960s represented the peak of campus militarism in Japan," says Shigeru lkegami who took part in the demonstrations at Tokyo University. "The passage of the University Control Act provided university authorities with the means to suppress campus demonstrations."

"Today's students show little interest in politics," adds student Kosaku Shimazaki. "Most undergraduates have part-time jobs and are more interested in earning money and socialising than taking part in political activities."

Disillusionment with Japan's scandal-ridden political system has also contributed to the drift. During the past year, when Japan commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, students had only a limited involvement in anti-war and anti-nuclear weapon demonstrations. Even the recent demonstrations in Tokyo against France's nuclear test programme in the Pacific involved only a small number.

"Today's students are apathetic," says Shigeru lkegami. "They are more interested in having a good time than bothering about important political and environmental issues."

"Japanese students can afford a comfortable lifestyle," explains Kosaku Shimazaki. "Most have part-time jobs to finance a carefree lifestyle including overseas holidays."

At the same time rising unemployment and fewer job opportunities for graduates means that students have to work harder to attract the attention of the major recruiting companies.

Indeed the only student demonstration of note in recent years was a march of women students through Tokyo's business district to complain about the lack of career opportunities for female graduates. "We want to work too," they shouted as they passed the offices of the country's top companies.

"Japanese students are very much into 'me-ism'," one campus newspaper declared. "They are only interested in their own futures."

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