The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security.
The divide was solidifying when I finished college in 2000. It had been a decade since Japan’s bubble economy had collapsed, and employers drastically scaled back new hires to protect older workers. The labor market had entered an “ice age,” according to media reports.
Having watched my older brother struggle to establish himself in a career, I chose to emigrate to the U.S. to pursue my interest in journalism. Over the years, I read stories about the travails of the so-called lost generation. Faced with limited job prospects, many ended up single and childless. Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.
It was a brutal knife attack in May 2019, in which the perpetrator was a man in his 50s who had been out of work for many years and living with relatives, that got me thinking about profiling people whose lives had been disrupted by the employment ice age. From a news perspective, the timing was propitious: A month after the attack, the government unveiled plans to help those who were shut out of the labor market in their 20s land full-time positions, with a goal of assisting 300,000 over three years.
There was no shortage of potential subjects for my project. Japan has an estimated 613,000 middle-aged hikikomori, a term usually used to describe socially withdrawn adolescents who hole up in their bedrooms, according to the results of a government survey released in March of last year. Among those in their early 40s, as many as one in three said they had become shut-ins because they had trouble finding or settling into a job after finishing school.
Locating interview subjects didn’t prove as difficult as getting them to open up to a journalist. It helped that we were of the same generation. Still, many were so deeply ashamed about their failure to become successful adults in the mold of their parents that our conversations were awkward and painful. I was heartened when a social worker put me in touch with a client who was undergoing rehabilitation to reenter the work world and also when I met hikikomori who had overcome their own isolation and were helping others do the same. Those encounters left me hopeful that for a few, the doors might open once again.
The 8050 Problem
It took a gruesome crime to get Michinao Kono to take control of his life. In May 2019 a knife-wielding man attacked a group of people waiting at a bus stop in Kawasaki, killing two and wounding 18 others, including more than a dozen schoolchildren, before stabbing himself to death. News coverage alluded to the “8050 problem,” a reference to reclusive, middle-aged Japanese who live with their elderly parents.
The label applied to Kono, an out-of-work 45-year-old who never left his parents’ home in Nara. He was rattled by the thought that Japanese society viewed people like him as ticking time bombs. “There’s no chance I would commit a crime like this, but I thought, I have to stop being a shut-in, because my economic situation is heading for a dead-end,” he says.
Kono seemed destined from birth to have a promising future. His father was employed by one of Japan’s legendary trading houses, the industry spanning conglomerates that were the backbone of the postwar economy. He earned enough to afford a car and a home with a front yard, which marked the family as well-to-do in a country that embraced the phrase “100 million, all in the middle class.”
Kono himself got into Kyoto University, Japan’s second-oldest university and one of its most selective, but his lack of social skills made him a loner. He says that was a result of being bullied in middle school.
During his third and fourth years in college, Kono’s mailbox started overflowing with recruitment brochures, same as the rest of his classmates. (Even during the economic malaise of the 1990s, Kyoto University students were in demand.) Still, he didn’t take part in the highly choreographed ritual called shushoku katsudo (“job-hunting activity”) in which university students don black or navy suits to attend packed recruiting events and submit to marathon group interviews.
Kono frequently skipped classes, so that after eight years at university he still hadn’t accumulated enough credits to graduate, which made him ineligible to stay on. By that time, the stream of pamphlets had dried up, and he made no attempt to look for work. “It was in the employment ice age,” he explains. “I thought even if I tried, it would be in vain.”
He holed up in his parents’ house. Days became weeks became months became years. When he felt up to it, he’d attend concerts by the all-girl pop group Morning Musume. He booked himself on cheap flights to East and Southeast Asia. “In my mind, I knew I was going nowhere and I’d better quit,” he recalls. His parents gave him money for incidentals, and he paid for more expensive items with credit cards, racking up about 3 million yen ($28,400) in charges before defaulting. Now he and his parents live off Kono’s father’s pension. “I dug my own hole. I avoided reality. My life derailed quite a bit,” he says.
Amid the coverage of the knife rampage, Kono came across Takaaki Yamada, who runs a nonprofit in Kyoto, an hour’s drive from Kono’s home. The group reaches out to middle-aged shut-ins and their aging parents and hosts meetings where they get together and share their stories. “Many parents are truly devastated with their children being withdrawn for a long time,” Yamada explains. “We have to connect with them” before the parents die and their children are left behind. (It was Yamada who put me in touch with Kono.)
In the summer of 2019, Kono applied for three clerical jobs that the city of Takarazuka created to help people frozen out of the job market during the employment ice age. He had no idea he’d be competing with 1,815 other applicants from all over Japan.
Takarazuka’s mayor, Tomoko Nakagawa, who is 73, says she regrets not having done more to address the diminishing career prospects for this generation when she was a national lawmaker from 1996 to 2003, even after watching her own son and daughter, now in their 40s, struggle to find jobs. “I didn’t see the essence of this problem,” she says. “This is the generation that was forced to swim in the murky water.”
Kono didn’t land one of the spots, which would have required him to rent an apartment for himself for the first time to avoid a 90-minute commute each way. In November he took a job as a dishwasher at a ramen restaurant, thinking that if he learned the ropes, he might be able to run his own eatery one day. He spent long hours on his feet, often working past midnight, and earned roughly 150,000 yen per month, just slightly over minimum wage. He quit in early January. “It wiped me out physically,” he says.
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