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Some Reflections on Social Change and Adolescent Drug Abuse in Japan

In every generation the young are demonized by their elders, as if newest generation were independently responsible for its choices and behavior. In the Taisho Era for example, Japanese urban youth were seen as dangerously decadent as they embraced the "three Ss" sports, screen and sex - imported deviations from Confucian familial values. These "flappers" and "lounge lizards" (moga and mobo) were criticized for their participation in a rapidly growing consumer society, for their yearnings for Western commodities. Often, the influence of institutions that separated (or released) them from the control of their families was decried or sometimes ignored, as was the influence of the driving engine of consumer manufacturing and marketing on which Japan's economy increasingly depended.

One example of an institution that created undeniable pressure for young people is education: In the postwar years, the inflation of educational credentials in the gakureki shakai made schools and the burgeoning educational industries such as juku more significant in the reproduction of social status than birth or family enterprise and training. While the emphasis on achievement over ascription in theory provided young people with a meritocratic path to a successful life, it also increasingly provided them with frustration, failure and a feeling that the system's rewards weren't (and aren't) for everyone.

While Japanese youth have been especially exposed to this hypertrophic "degreeocracy" (as Ronald Dore calls it in The Diploma Disease) their situation and reactions to the socioeconomic context are not unique. Comparisons are frequently drawn to the situation in the United States: in fact, Japanese youth are perhaps more similar to European young people in terms of social context and educational experiences. Of course, it should be noted that the premise of homogeneity in Europe and Japan has long since been revealed to be a myth - either in cultural or socioeconomic terms, but the notions of nationhood behind this premise persist in new forms of nationalism (or nihonjinron) surfacing in the face of "globalization".

My research on Japanese adolescents included interviews with and observations of young people aged thirteen to twenty-two in the early 1990s, in which I attempted to portray the socio-economic (and yes, cultural) diversity of young people to show that their lives were more heterogeneous in educational experiences as well as outcomes, and in their social, consumer, and sexual experiences. In this I hoped to show that Japanese teens are defined by contexts other than study, that couldn't all aspire to university, and that they weren't all unthinking, dependent trend followers. In The Material Child, the book that emerged from this study, I tried to avoid essentializing young people either as teenagers, with an age-specific.

As American leaders are finding, it is not as simple as uttering soundbites like "family value", or asking for school uniforms or prayers in the classroom. Social conservatism and religious fundamentalism tend to provide such responses to youth crime. There is no one cause for bullying, violence in schools or drug abuse: simple answers such as proliferating kosoku or school regulations simply provide grist for parody mills and flagrant violations such as the replacement of school uniform jacket linings with scarlet satin -- harmless expressions of youthful search for distinction turned, by virtue of "regulation", into behavior marked as deviant.

We can find clues to young people's alienation in their own voices. One teenager, interviewed by my colleague Hidetada Shimizu, said that adults weren't straightforward themselves and that she was very uncomfortable with what appeared to her to be their definition of growing up, the accommodation to the tatemae. She felt zurui, or slippery, sneaky and two-faced, in learning that you need to behave situationally. Growing up meant constantly negotiating the difference between tatemae and honne. Like American children who say adults are hypocritical, she found that the social and cultural imperative to live on several levels at once drew a sharp line between childhood and adulthood: for her, the rebellion of adolescence simply meant resistance to becoming zurui - but she could only confess this in an anonymous interview.

Drug abuse is only one manifestation of a convergence of issues in contemporary Japanese society. No one explanation works: it is NOT right to demonize foreigners for selling amphetamines, or families for failing to instill traditional values in teens. It is NOT materialism, Western individualism, or teachers' avoidance of responsibility. It is not only the availability of pagers and phone cards, allowing for drug deals to be made in confidence. Before significant progress can be made against drug abuse, the complexity of contemporary problems must be addressed. To do so, there has to be a coalition of concern among all sectors of society that acknowledges some uncomfortable truths: that Japan, like the rest of the world, is not homogeneous; that the meritocracy doesn't work for everyone; that consumerism has revealed socio-economic distinctions that cannot be ignored; that children, like the child in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, can reveal some truths that the rest of us in the interests of expedience deny. They know these things: when will adults learn?

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