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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September 2004, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
Japan's free spirits
It is nearly 15 years since Japan's economy ground to a halt, triggering a period of introspection about the country's values and its place in the world. In the second of a special series, BBC News Online's Sarah Buckley reports on how young people's expectations about work are changing.

Shinichi Yoshimoto
Shinichi Yoshimoto says he had had enough of corporate life

Hidden in central Tokyo is an area known as Golden Gai - a strip of anonymous counter-bars which attract those in search of a counter culture.

Bartender Shinichi Yoshimoto used to do a 16-hour day at a loan-sharking company. "I took the first train to the company, and I took the final train home," he said.

But he gave it all up to become a "furita" - a term used to describe those who do part-time or short-term work.

Economic changes, partly stemming from a decade of slow or no growth, have altered Japanese attitudes to work.

Previous generations could expect to spend their working lives at the same company and never face the sack. Now such lifetime employment is dying out. And jobs are more scarce as companies struggle to regain productivity.

Many Japanese still choose to follow in their parents' footsteps. But this changing environment has brought more freedom for the young. For some, this is exciting; for others, it is terrifying.

I think everyone wants to be like us, but they can't do it so they're envious. They don't have the confidence
Hiroko Abe

Shinichi, who has travelled to nearly 40 countries, said his time abroad opened his eyes.

"I realised that life is very short, so I don't have any time. Life is only for joy... I like losers like me."

But not everyone is keen on Japan's "losers", who over the last decade have become an increasingly visible section of the population.

A guide to Tokyo youth tribes

Hideaki Omura, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said 4 million furita out of a working population of 65 million was "very serious".

"We should enforce a policy to make young people get a proper job," he said.

He stressed that furita do not pay income tax or make pension contributions.

"They work only when they want to, so... they are not the regular workforce that the country can rely on.

"They are young people, very lively with good skills and potential, but they don't contribute their skills."

Shinichi, however, is not just having fun. He has a plan for the future. Using his experience of working in publishing, he is setting up his own publishing company.

Hideaki Omura, LDP lawmaker
Politician Hideaki Omura says furita are not contributing enough

"Instead of saving, I'm making a company and making friends. That's my investment for the future," he said.

Other furita interviewed also had plans.

Harumi Sato, 24, who works for a temping agency, wants a variety of experience before post-graduate study in ancient literature. Twenty-eight-year-old Hiroko Abe, who works for two bars, an internet café and a medical check-up car, dreams of setting up a salon where people can meet and exchange ideas.

She is studying law in her spare time and hopes a legal qualification will back up her future.

"I think everyone wants to be like us, but they can't do it so they're envious. They don't have the confidence," she said.

Freedom's dark side

One of those who certainly lacks confidence is Gen Kubata, who lives with his mother, and has not worked since being bullied during a brief spell working at a printing company.

"I was bullied in junior high school and then I got the same experience (at work) so I thought 'that's enough'", said 23-year-old Gen, his shoulders hunched.

He also stopped socialising, and even spent some time as a hikikomori - a complete recluse who never goes out.

While the furita phenomenon has affected Japan for some years, Gen belongs to a group only recently identified. These people are known as Neet - those Not in Education, Employment or Training and under 25 years old.

While there were only 80,000 Neet in Japan in 1997, there were at least 400,000 in 2000, according to estimates.

Yuji Genda's book on Neet
Sociologist and author Yuji Genda says Neet are lost

Kei Kudo works at Sodateage Net, a centre in Tachikawa city outside Tokyo, which helps Neet people reintegrate into society.

He said he believed there were several reasons for the rise in Neet. Parents are allowing their children to live at home; as people live longer there is less hurry to start a family and career; and more people are entering higher education without a clear purpose.

The last reason is in part due to one of the most significant shifts - there are fewer job opportunities.

Kei said some of Japan's unskilled work was being outsourced to countries like China or Vietnam, and that corporate Japan was hiring fewer new recruits instead of cutting established staff.

"They (Neet) cannot step into society again because they're afraid of people and lack confidence. They don't need to get into society again because of their parents," Kei said.

What exacerbates their problem, says Yuji Genda, the author of a book on Neet, is their dislocation from a broad social spectrum.

"I have never met a Neet who doesn't want to work. My impression is that they want to work too much. They think about what is the goal or concept of work too much. They are very serious."

He said Neet had no real understanding of the world, for which he blamed shrinking social networks.

"There are lots of kids who have never talked to adults, apart from parents and teachers."

As Japan emerges from its decade of economic upheaval, young people lack support at a time when they need it most.

Society is becoming more polarised as economic changes force it to be more competitive. Those with confidence and skills may be able to forge their own way, but others who are not so fortunate have a tough time ahead.

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