Paying the price for a lack of moral fiber

By Michael Hoffman
The Japan Times / Shukan Post
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Individuals have nervous breakdowns; countries have "moral breakdowns." Japan, Shukan Post fears, is having one now. It sees signs of it everywhere -- at home, at work, in public places, notably trains. Manners are appalling, indifference is total, and crime, expanding to fill the vacuum, ranges from outrageous (buildings built with falsified earthquake resistance data) to grotesque (a 9-year-old boy thrown off a 15th-floor balcony).

Why are Japan's morals collapsing?

"For the Japanese," says Seishin Women's College sociologist Kensuke Sugawara, "the center of moral authority was always the neighborhood. Neighbors got together for the ceremonial occasions of life, supported each other, helped each other out. And people were aware of their neighbors' eyes on them, and of the need to take the judgment of others into consideration.

"But neighborhood society broke down" -- a victim of urbanization and the blind rush to economic superpower status. New moral imperatives arose, mandating impersonal conformity and self-sacrifice to the corporate interest. When the corporate interest itself foundered with the bursting of the economic bubble, the new challenge became to live simultaneously as individuals and as responsible members of society. This challenge, in Shukan Post's view, is not being successfully met.

Is the radical change the magazine records in the sex lives of children a symptom or cause of the larger breakdown?

"The other day," says gynecologist Tsuneo Akaeda, who offers free weekly nighttime health consultations in Tokyo's Roppongi, "a third-year junior high school girl came to me; she wanted an abortion. 'It's my third one,' she said, bold as brass. Then there was another girl, a senior high school girl. She too wanted an abortion. 'I can't do it,' I told her, 'without your boyfriend's consent.' 'Oh!' she said. 'But . . . I have a lot of boyfriends. I don't know which is the father.' 'Well,' I said, 'you know roughly when you became pregnant. Doesn't that narrow it down?' 'Not really -- around then I was making it with two guys at the same time . . . ' "

It's no surprise any more that kids are shedding their virginity younger and younger, though the actual numbers are rather surprising: According to one survey Shukan Post cites, 35.7 percent of third-year senior high school boys, and 44.3 percent of girls, have already crossed that milestone.

Their parents, meanwhile -- roughly half, say the experts -- are increasingly sexless, either stewing in varying blends of exhaustion and frustration, or else -- the numbers here too are rising -- taking their frustration to the streets and discos in search of extra-marital partners.

A survey last month by the Gunma Prefecture Board of Education shows an interesting correlation between the sexual activity of young teenagers and, of all things, breakfast habits. Kids who eat breakfast regularly are less apt to be prematurely preoccupied with sex, the explanation being that regular breakfasts imply a harmonious family.

Family harmony has always been more or less elusive, unlike workplace harmony, which could generally be counted on, though no longer.

There is a generation gap. Older employees find their young colleagues cavalier, insubordinate and undisciplined. New recruits shrug this off rather lightly. They will work, but not submit to a corporate harness. For
80 percent of them, Shukan Post reports, personal life is more important than work; 60 percent say work is nothing but a means to a salary. They think nothing of refusing to work overtime, and as for after-hours corporate barroom bonding, they have better things to do with what they insist on considering their free time. There's not much their bosses can do, it seems, except fret about the passing of the good old days when "free time" was a universally recognized oxymoron.

The good old days were probably not so good, and maybe the present isn't really so bad. But Shukan Post's prognosis is bleak: People "lacking character," it says, are "leading the nation to ruin."

Informant: NHNE


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