How culture, society and economy combined to bring about a demographic tragedy in “The Dark Side of Japan: The Lost Generation”

“The Dark Side of Japan: The Lost Generation” (Explained With Dom, 22 June 2022)

One of the largest economies in the world with a healthy, long-lived and highly educated population living in safe cities with low levels of crime and a distinctive culture – what’s not to like about Japan? After decades of posting high GDP levels since the 1950s, boasting a highly technological society, offering university graduates life-long employment in some of the world’s top corporations, in the 1990s Japan entered a long period of economic stagnation caused by a crash in inflated asset (property, stock market) prices. This inflation in real estate and stock market prices, resulting in insane property prices for tiny plots of land in cities like Tokyo, came about as a result of excessive money printing by the Bank of Japan, a lax lending policy leading to too much credit expansion and asset speculation, and the Bank of Japan’s reluctance to tighten monetary policy, among other things. The result of this long period of stagnation, known as the Lost Decade, is that an entire generation of people who graduated from university in the 1990s missed out on gaining employment with Japan’s major corporations – which did no hiring of graduates during the 1990s – and this generation has struggled since then to find stable work that pays adequately.

The consequences of having a Lost Generation of people, now in their 40s and 50s, must surely be widespread and working steadily through Japan’s society and economy as it is now only another decade before these people become eligible for pensions and face a future of poverty. Some of these people may also face homelessness and alienation as they may have had no families, due in part to the necessity of needing a steady pay cheque to support a marriage, a home and children. Because so many of them – about 15% of Japan’s population is part of the Lost Generation – have given up having families, this phenomenon will accelerate the already rapid ageing of the Japanese population and put a greater burden of funding an increasing number of elderly pensioners on a shrinking taxpayer population.

While the Japanese government is aware of the issue of the Lost Generation and in particular the phenomenon of hikikomori – people who are completely reclusive, live with their parents and shun school, work and socialising with others for years, even decades – it is limited in what it can do to help the Lost Generation and the hikikomori without forcing corporations (keiretsu) and the powerful families who control them to give up their privileges and adopt more meritocratically based work structures and cultures that reward people for the work they do rather than reward and promote people based on their place within rigid work hierarchies and on their loyalty to their employers.

The documentary does a good job of explaining the historical economic context that gave rise to the Lost Decade and the Lost Generation, and of warning of the demographic consequences, and the headaches these will give rise to for future governments. It ends very abruptly, leaving viewers scratching their heads as to where and what it is leading to. Apart from leaving viewers hanging off a psychological cliff with its sudden end, the video is well structured in starting with the historical background to the issue, dealing with the issue and surveying what is likely to happen in Japanese society and economy if the Lost Generation remains … lost.