Japan’s millennial men must be such a disappointment to their fathers’ generation.
First, they stopped buying wristwatches – the must-have symbol of being a grown-up for the Japanese men who rebuilt the nation after the devastation of the war years – because they all had mobile phones instead. And then they stopped purchasing cars.
Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, expressed his frustration about this turn of events in 2013 when he said in a speech that modern Japanese men puzzled him. He wondered where they got the nerve to ask women out because, in his generation, a chap didn’t get a date if he didn’t have a car.
The nation’s necktie industry is in crisis as young men shun what some see as a corporate noose. More recently, young employees of some of the biggest corporations in the country are refusing – yes, refusing – transfers to regional offices.
The very act of defying a company’s decision used to be unthinkable, but a new study by Chuo University, the Work-Life Balance and Diversity Promotion Research Project, has revealed that an eyebrow-raising 42.7 per cent of male employees would do everything possible to resist a transfer, perhaps even resign.
Wine website WineBazaar interviewed 6,638 Japanese men and women, aged 20 to 70, about their drinking habits.
Horrifyingly, 39.8 per cent of men in their 20s turned out to be “non-drinkers”, meaning they either never imbibed or “almost never” had a night on the tiles. That significantly outstripped the 25 per cent of men over 60 who were teetotal – many of whom probably abstained based solely on doctor’s advice.
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“I drink,” said 29-year-old Sho Hosomura, slightly defensively. “I don’t want to go drinking with my boss or the other people that I work with, but I drink when I go out with my friends.”
So how often and how much?
“I go out once or maybe twice a month,” he said, admitting a preference for “chu-hai”, a fizzy combination of rice-based shochu and fruit flavourings. “I’ll usually have two or three ‘chu-hai’. Perhaps three. But only sometimes.”
Back then, salarymen partied until dawn – largely because it was an unofficial part of their job – the hostesses at gaudily decorated clubs grew extremely wealthy and drinks companies toasted their good fortune. Today, the consumption of alcohol is down to 89 per cent of its peak in 1996.
“I don’t think that anyone I know drinks as much as people did back then,” Hosomura told This Week in Asia.
“I think young people resent being put under pressure from their superiors and it has got to the point where bosses are no longer even bothering to ask the young guys to go drinking with them. They know what the answer is going to be.”
Corporate Japan is a very different place for Hosomura than it is for his father who, ironically, works for a company that imports wine from South America.
“I don’t think that fanatical workers who put the company ahead of everything in their lives exist any more in Japan,” Hosomura said. “After the war, Japan had to rebuild quickly and people worked very hard. Those were the people of my grandfather’s generation. That continued into my father’s era. But that way of thinking doesn’t exist any more.
“We consider anyone who puts in crazy hours for the company to be working for a ‘black company’ that works its staff to the point of karoshi,” he said, referring to the strangely Japanese phenomenon of death through overwork.
And the outlook for drinks companies banking on a new generation of youngsters coming through was equally bleak, said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.
“I don’t see the sort of drinking culture here today that I saw when I was at university,” he said. “And there has been a huge shift in Japanese society when it comes to drinking.
“It has simply become more acceptable to go home after work, for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “Young men are more engaged in helping to raise their children than their fathers were, in part because they never saw their own fathers because they were always at work and that is not the sort of family that they want.”
On top of the search for a better work-life balance, young people’s wages have stagnated in the past two decades, meaning that carousing is falling down the list of priorities when they consider the family budget. So they go home instead.
Another consideration, Nagy points out, is increasing equality between the sexes. Women are demanding their husbands go home at the end of the working day to spend time with their families.
“There is a widespread rejection of the acceptance that fathers spent decades working in the office well into the evening and then went drinking with their colleagues,” Nagy said. “And I see no signs that will come back any time soon.” ■