Mad in Japan

'Violent running groups', teenage knifings and murders and consumerist nihilism are Western cliches. But in Japan, a new generation of disaffected youth is horrifying the nation.

YUKI STANDS just under five foot in her stockinged feet and is hardly more formidable when raised another three inches off the ground by her platform heels. She has a taste for lager, Western labels and the forgettable tunes of bands like Yellow Monkey and Mister Children and, though she hardly sees herself as such, is one of Japan's new breed of adolescent delinquents. "I want to enjoy my life," she explains. "I don't want to be like my parents, who never enjoyed theirs." Evenings spent learning to pluck the traditional koto (an ancient three-stringed instrument) or arrange cut flowers hold little appeal for her. She'd rather spend time with her impressively nasty boyfriend Akira (of whom she's very proud) who's recently joined a bosozoku motorcycle gang.

In Japan they've never seen anything quite like it before and commentators and pundits are already talking in apocalyptic terms. Ryoichi Mikame, a senior correspondent with Mainichi Shimbun Newspapers, believes Japan's educational system, with its relentless focus on teaching the state curriculum, has failed to instill the right values. "Many young people," he says, "now think they can do as they like." Of course, teenage rebellion in itself is nothing new. The student militancy of the Sixties convulsed Japan no less than Western Europe. But the highly politicised protests of that era concerned sophisticated issues like the US-Japanese Mutual Security Treaty, quite different to what animates Yuki, Akira and their peers. Not only are the protagonists younger, but their rebellion is private, apolitical, informed by a kind of sneering nihilism and contempt for the dogged conformity of their parents' generation.

Kyoko, a twentysomething Japanese photographer based in London, grew up in Osaka, Japan's second city, during the booming "bubble" decade of the Eighties. The main problem then in the classroom was the age-old one of bullying. But that bubble of prosperity and optimism has long since burst and in the prevailing economic gloom, things have turned a whole lot sourer. And scarier. "It's even difficult for my generation to understand," says Kyoko, "so you can imagine how our parents and even more our grandparents feel about what's happening now." A spate of vicious attacks on teachers has been accompanied by a vogue for carrying butterfly knives, an accessory popularised by a recent TV drama. Kyoko remembers watching it. "Then suddenly we started reading about boys who'd begun imitating one of the characters and carrying these knives. It started from that. If you carry a knife, sooner or later you're going to use it. Now we wonder whether, for these children, there will soon be no taboos left." In January of this year a thirteen-year-old schoolboy murdered his teacher with a butterfly knife. The provocation? He'd been told off for coming late to class.

Shortly before leaving for London, Kyoko, driving late at night through central Osaka, suddenly found herself surrounded by a pack of bosozoku motorcyclists. Though she wasn't attacked, it was a frightening experience. Gang members have an average age of just sixteen and like to mask their faces Lone Ranger-style before setting off to cruise threateningly the night-time streets of urban Japan, revving up at every opportunity to remind everyone they're there. Their name, with charming Japanese literalness, means "violent running group". Anyone seen as in their way is liable to get a blow from a baseball bat to the head.

Official statistics show an increase by over half in the number of violent crimes attributed to Japanese juveniles in the last year and teenagers are now responsible for nearly fifty per cent of all crimes committed in Japan. Recent outrages which have shocked the public include the decapitation of a ten-year-old boy in Kobe by a fourteen year old from the same school, the victim's head left like a dreadful warning outside the playground gates. The murderer appears to have seen his crime as an act of revenge against the educational system. In March of this year a schoolboy aged thirteen was stabbed to death by a classmate in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo, allegedly as a reprisal for persistent bullying. Haruki, eighteen, who has striking yellow-dyed hair and now likes to spend his time hanging around London's Camden Market, fell in with what he describes as the "wrong type" in his final two years at high school. "I don't like violence," he explains, "but it became hard to avoid because of the sort of people I was mixing with. I think a lot of guys of my generation have lost confidence in society, in what our parents believe in. If you're not a good student, you feel you're worthless, that you've got no chance. So they turn to drugs, crime, gangs. I suppose they also want to belong to something. It's their way of belonging."

The roots of all this may lie as far back as the cataclysmic events of 1945 and in particular the fateful announcement of 15 August when the Japanese (the war, in the Emperor's words, having "developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage") surrendered. Hirohito's voice was heard for the very first time on radio. Viewed as a living god, he was now discovered by his bewildered, weeping subjects to be the voice of someone merely human. Kenzaburo Oe, the leading post-war Japanese writer and winner of the 1994 Nobel prize for literature, locates Japan's ongoing malaise in those few moments of revelation. Under American pressure, the Emperor renounced his divinity and an entire value system, at a single stroke, was removed, leaving in its wake what Oe's translator, John Nathan, has likened to a "gaping crater". For Oe, Japan's cultural history since then has been about attempts to fill that crater, to find new ways of living to occupy its perplexing space. His protagonists, in a long sequence of novels, have reacted to this void with a strange and often incomprehensible hysteria, seeking meaning in both sexual and political extremism. For them, Tokyo is a "city of ten million strangers".

Yuki and Akira have probably never heard of Kenzaburo Oe (and are rather more likely to flick through comic books than settle down with Oe's latest opus, a trilogy which runs to 2,400 pages) but in a sense they are also children of that void - and, like Oe's anti-heroes of the Sixties, they have also sought consolation in lives of personal extremism. The pressures of an educational system which requires the absorption of vast amounts of information and little creative thought, effective compulsory attendance at evening crammers, the long, joyless hours which their parents work, the never-ending hurdles of exams and an all-pervasive media tantalising them with glimpses of lifestyles and commodities they can't afford all contribute. Indeed, some schoolgirls have even taken to commodifying their own selves, engaging in what is coyly called "subsidized dating" with older men so they too can enjoy the luxury goods the TV touts every day. As the gap grows between media-driven expectations and what many young people can hope for, and as hard work and conformity continue to lose their appeal or meaning in a worsening economic climate, it may be that matters are going to deteriorate even further before they begin to improve.

Gavin Kramer's first novel, 'Shopping', (pounds 9.99) is published by Fourth Estate on 18th June

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