"Next week? Sure, I'll be there."
It was mid-September, and I was interviewing young people studying Japanese in Hong Kong. Many of them gave me this response. They were not only students who seemed particularly diligent, but included those who liked Japanese anime and manga who referred to themselves as otaku, and those clad in cute Sanrio characters. The fact that these completely average-looking young people unanimously responded as if their participation were obvious left a lasting impression on me.
What was planned for the following week was Occupy Central. A group made up mostly of university and high school students intended to start a protest movement against the Chinese government’s decision to change the process by which the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was elected. As you know, the movement that started as an occupation of the central business district of Hong Kong attracted the attention of the global audience, and continues as I write this in early December.
From this year, I am now working with a research team on a three-year Chuo University joint research project titled “An International Comparative Study on Self Actualization among Youth in the Era of Globalization.” The purpose of the project is to empirically identify the essential conditions, problem areas, and other factors affecting the ability of young Japanese to play an active role in the global community. Even in the face of advancing globalization, we are seeing falling numbers of overseas exchange students making headlines, with the “introverted tendencies” of Japanese young people being cited as a contributing factor. Still, there are a certain number of young Japanese getting involved overseas, and more than a few students in my study group are taking up internships over long breaks or going abroad for short-term study programs. Surely we need to identify exactly what this so-called “introversion” is, and if it does exist, find its root causes. Is introversion really something that is unique to the youth of Japan?
In my field of communications and media, the typical commentary on “today’s youth” goes something like this. “They only interact with their friends through their mobile phones or the internet, and don’t attempt to get involved with a broader circle of people.” “They are absorbed in anime or video games, and have minimal interest in the wider world.” Though there may be some truth to these statements, can we really trace the introversion of Japan’s young people to media or hobbies?
With this question in mind, in order to assess Japan’s younger generation from a variety of perspectives—among them self-awareness, relationships with others, and social awareness—our team is planned to travel to three places in Asia (Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore) where a close relationship with Japan exists and many Japanese are active in the community. There, we will conduct interviews with these young, globally minded Japanese as well as local young people with an interest in Japanese culture. We also plan to have a questionnaire survey of young people living in Japan. The anecdote I opened with happened during my Hong Kong interviews for this project in September of this year.
As I mentioned before, though many Japanese young people are interested in their own hobbies—whether it’s media-based culture like anime, manga, video games or fashion and music—they don’t seem to be actively participating in society or politics. It is considered that absorbing yourself in your own hobbies, your immediate relationships, and other personal interests is incompatible with getting publically involved in the community, and that the former often interferes with the latter.
The young people of Hong Kong, however, enjoy the same personal interests as young Japanese do; and yet, they consider their social participation to be a given. They talk to their friends about society and politics on a regular basis. This proves that absorption in personal hobbies does not necessarily preclude an interest in the wider community. It should be noted that young people in Hong Kong are likewise constantly connecting with their friends through their mobile phones and the internet; this leads us to wonder just what accounts for the differences between Hong Kong and Japanese youth when they both seem to approach their hobbies and friends in the same way. The question we must answer has now become even larger.
To be fair, this is no more than just one example of a discovery we have made through our research. For me, the current project represents a challenging foray into new areas, and therefore it still does not go beyond an insufficient discovery. Future research must further build upon what we have started. That said, the research has created an opportunity for us to cast doubts on common assumptions about factors said to lead to introversion among Japanese youth. Finally, while the opening story is about the young people of Hong Kong, what I heard from Japanese young people taking an active role in Hong Kong—among whom I met some promising Chuo graduates—was extremely thought-provoking as well.
I’d like to close by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the members of Chuo University’s Hong Kong alumni association for their assistance with our Hong Kong surveys. We hope to continue pressing forward with our research in order to paint a clear picture of the young people in our globalized society from a wide variety of perspectives.