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Crisis Youth Get Creative: ‘Young Generations in Japan and Europe: Crisis, Mobility and Creativity’ workshop

Yoi Kawakubo, Masakatsu Kondo, Alyssa Ueno and Shino Yanai (left to right) discussed their creative practices and experiences of working across traditional national boundaries
Yoi Kawakubo, Masakatsu Kondo, Alyssa Ueno and Shino Yanai (left to right) discussed their creative practices and experiences of working across
traditional national boundaries

Report of a One Day workshop ‘Young Generations in Japan and Europe: Crisis, Mobility and Creativity’ by organiser and chair of the event, Professor Adrian Favell, University of Leeds and Professorial Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute.

Professor Yamada Masahiro, famous for coining terms such as ‘parasite singles’ delivered the keynote lecture
Professor Yamada Masahiro, famous for coining terms such as ‘parasite singles’ delivered the
keynote lecture

On 4th November 2016, the Sainsbury Institute welcomed the distinguished Japanese sociologist Masahiro Yamada to Norwich. Built around a keynote by Professor Yamada, the one day event was the third workshop in an annual series co-sponsored by his home institution, Chuo University in Tokyo with the Sainsbury Institute. For the day, we were delighted to be able to host the event at the ancient Dragon Hall, home of the Norwich Writers’ Center.

Yamada’s widely discussed sociological work in Japan has focused on the disfunctions of a post-industrial society as it has moved further into economic stagnation in the post-80s (Heisei) era. The sociological and journalistic lexicon associated with these changes has become famous, in some cases internationally. To quote the opening line of Mary Brinton’s Lost in Transition: Youth, Work and Instability in Post-Industrial Japan (2011, p.1):

Kakusa. NEET. Furītā. Parasaito shinguru. Hikikomori. Wākingu puā. Net-café refugees. Shōshika. Japanese newspapers, magazines, and books are filled with terms such as these, emblematic of a society undergoing transformation and grappling with new and bewildering social problems.

Much of the sociological emphasis has accordingly been on pathologies and deviations from the established norms of post-war Japanese society.

Yamada’s work has observed the tendency for young people to live longer at home with their parents, coining the term “parasaito shinguru” (parasite singles). In Norwich, he presented research developing on from some of his best known work, such as Meisou suru kazoku: Sengo kazoku moderu no keisei to kaitai (Runaway Family: Decline in the Post-War Family Model, 2005). In his speech, Yamada joked that some people heard his famous phrase as “paradise singles”, because of the affluent and free lifestyle it sometimes provided. More broadly, he has focused on the evolution of the “kakusa shakai” (gap or expectation widening society) in which increasing numbers of young people find themselves unable to hope for a stable adult career and married life because of economic shrinkage. As he stressed in Norwich, many of these young people, as well as foregoing the chance of marriage and having children, take refuge in “virtual” online lives in which they rarely have interaction with real people. In one very interesting section of his talk, Yamada compared the social and demographic “stagnation” of the Heisei era with late-Edo era Japan, in which escapist popular culture – including urban entertainment zones based around sex and entertainment – flourished.

(Left to right) Mami Mizutori, Masahiro Yamada, Kristin Surak, and Adrian Favell
(Left to right) Mami Mizutori, Masahiro Yamada, Kristin Surak, and Adrian Favell

In her commentary, Kristin Surak of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, explored the comparative relevance of the Japanese case. She noted how it would be important to see how much the particularities of Japan on youth inequalities and gender were related to the absence of a more egalitarian style welfare state, for example, if compared with Scandinavian countries. However, one point which came up in discussion was that we should take care to not “exoticise” the Japanese case, when linking some aspects of “virtual” sub-cultural consumption (such as maid cafes, or cosplay) to the marriage crisis.

The first part of the afternoon session picked up these themes, with presentations by the University of Hokkaido anthropologist, Susanne Klien, and the University of Essex sociologist, Yasemin Soysal. The tone of their presentations differed from Yamada’s, in that they were more willing to find positive stories of youth creativity and resilience in response to the post-Bubble crisis.

Discussing her fieldwork in both north and south of Japan, Klien explored the meaning of the ongoing mobility of Japanese creators internationally, but also to remote regions inside Japan, seeing it as way of of coping with the precarious nature of the labor market, and finding a more satisfactory “work and life” balance. Some of these stories are inspiring accounts of individuals turning away from unfulfilling corporate careers, to get involved in local communities and hybrid urban-rural lifestyles. Her account complemented Soysal’s broader transnational account of the strategies of mobile generations, who effectively combine the global and the local in their pursuit of a transnational individualism. A number of insightful essays developed by various authors from Soysal’s project have been collected in a volume Transnational Trajectories in East Asia: Nation, Citizenship and Region, published by Routledge in 2014. Good examples of East Asian transnationalism include artistic and student mobility, patterns of food consumption, and the diffusion of civic education norms

Glen Robinson and Nigel Aono-Bilson, Norwich University of the Arts
Glen Robinson and Nigel Aono-Bilson, Norwich University of the Arts

Besides these academic debates, one distinctive feature of the day was how the sociological discussion was interspersed with sessions which featured practitioners in arts and design. Their hands-on approach to social and career challenges gave an alternate view of how young people are facing up to the difficulties of the post-industrial world.

This was an interesting dimension of the presentation by Norwich University of the Arts lecturers, Glen Robinson and Nigel Aono-Billson, which started with a video showing how their teaching in the design course leads young students to become fully confident, articulate and creative.

Keshiki chapbooks is a collaborative literary series that brings works by contemporary Japanese authors to an English language audience
Keshiki chapbooks is a collaborative literary series that brings works by contemporary Japanese authors to an English language audience

The two designers were involved in the Keshiki chapbooks, which they also discussed. This collection is published by Strangers Press in partnership with the Writers’ Centre Norwich, the University of East Anglia and the Norwich University of the Arts, and presented here for the first time (Sainsbury Institute will help host an official launch of this project at the Norwich Cathedral Hostry on 27 Feb, 2017 as part of ‘ Japan Now’). The series is a collection of translated short stories by emerging Japanese writers which has inspired innovative and diverse design work presenting the texts. The collection as a whole was presented by Kate Griffin, Associate Programme Director at the Writers’ Centre Norwich, and Dr Philip Langeskov, a lecturer in UEA’s famous creative writing programme.

The day was rounded off by a gripping auto-biographical discussion by four practicing Japanese artists/creatives all based in London. They were introduced by the independent curator, Eiko Honda, now researching a PhD in History at the University of Oxford. Having worked with all of the group, and also having shared a house with Alyssa Ueno, an architectural designer completing her studies at the Royal College of Art, Honda stressed how their inter-relations and the consequent merging of everyday social life and creative work was very much a feature of the recent generation of young artists and creatives, who are primed for “survival” in an economically ever more difficult time. Their interconnections provided a kind of support network and extended family, for people living and working far from what might be assumed to be their “home”. These modes of action point to how artists and practitioners negotiate their place in (London) society, and how they might be imaging together a future history of their making of transnational culture.

The presentations started with Masakatsu Kondo, a landscape painter who has also founded, Allotment, an international travel award and foundation for young Japanese artists, in memory of his former partner, the photographer Naoko Yogo, who died in 2005, and who had cultivated a garden allotment in South London for struggling young artists. Next up, the artist Yoi Kawakubo, a Pola Foundation Fellow currently, presented his own biography in the context of a humorous longer history of the universe. His multi-national, multi-lingual background plays into installations which explore questions of history, identity and place. Alyssa Ueno, an architect in training, discussed the different perspective of her generation, working transnationally, compared to older generations established in Japan. She focused on her involvement in architecture movements, such as the design of share houses back in Tokyo, while pursuing her studies in London. The quartet was then completed by Shino Yanai, a video and performance artist also studying at the RCA, who has been seen recently at the White Conduit Gallery space in London. Yanai in fact was born Korean in Nara, Japan, but went through a difficult socialisation process to become a Japanese national when she was 20, often hiding her true national origins from her Japanese classmates. For Yanai, the experience of living and working in the UK has sharpened her political awareness of her own shifting identities, citizenship and nationhood.

Yoi Kawakubo is an artist born in Spain and works internationally
Yoi Kawakubo is an artist born in Spain and works internationally

In discussion, Yoi Kawakubo joked that the classic gendered paradigm of Japan was not his case. After the birth of their child with his wife, who is a medical researcher, he became a house husband, much to the shock of her doctor colleagues who could not believe she would be attracted to such an “unmanly” man. His father was also angry about his non-mainstream lifestyle choices, so much so that they didn’t speak for a year.

The cover image of the program featured the collective house art project, Shibuhouse, led by the curator and artist, Keita Saito. Shibuhouse is an ever-changing group of around 30 Japanese boys and girls, mostly in their early 20s, who have committed to living together communally in a single townhouse in Shibuya. Founded in 2008 by the ex-hikikomori Saito, the house is a platform for the creative activities of its members – many are artists, musicians, cartoonists or DJs – as well as – in its totality – a kind of experimental ‘social art’ project ‘managed’ by the articulate Saito.

As another Japanese sociologist, Noritoshi Furuichi, has pointed out in his writings, the gloomy vision of young people as the ‘lost generation’ turning their backs on regular work and relationship is belied by the example of Shubuhouse and others. In his book Zetsubō no Kuni no Kōfuku na Wakamono-tachi (The Happy Youth of a Desperate Country, 2011), he argues that more recently born youth in Japan are facing their own gloomy economic futures with a greater degree of happiness, optimism and social engagement. In short, young people in Japan have been creative and resourceful despite their situation. In fact, confounding predictions, this latest generation – the equivalent of the much discussed ‘millenials’ in Europe and North America – does not feel ‘lost’, and is said to be relatively happy and not stressed, even when it might seem they have “no future”.

Adrian Favell
University of Leeds
Professorial Academic Associate, Sainsbury Institute

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