This article appeared in issue #113, now available in our Blueprint for a New World Series Box Set.
They don’t want cars or brand name handbags or luxury boots. To many of them, travel beyond the known and local is expensive and potentially dangerous. They work part-time jobs—because that is what they’ve been offered—and live at home long after they graduate. They’re not getting married or having kids. They’re not even sure if they want to be in romantic relationships. Why? Too much hassle. Oh, and too expensive.
In Japan, they’ve come to be known as satori sedai—the “enlightened generation.” In Buddhist terms: free from material desires, focused on self-awareness, finding essential truths. But another translation is grimmer: “generation resignation,” or those without ideals, ambition or hope.
They were born in the late 1980s on up, when their nation’s economic juggernaut, with its promises of lifetime employment and conspicuous celebrations of consumption, was already a spent historical force. They don’t believe the future will get better—so they make do with what they have. In one respect, they’re arch-realists. And they’re freaking their elders out.
“Don’t you want to get a nice German car one day?”—asked one flustered 50-something guest of his 20-something counterpart on a nationally broadcasted talk show. The show aired on the eve of Coming of Age Day, a national holiday in Japan that celebrates the latest crop of youth turning 20, the threshold of adulthood. An animated graphic of a smiling man wearing sunglasses driving a blonde around in a convertible flashed across the screen, the man’s scarf fluttering in the wind. “Don’t you want a pretty young woman to take on a Sunday drive?”
There was some polite giggling from the guests. After a pause, the younger man said, “I’m really not interested, no.”
Critics of the satori youths level the kinds of intergenerational accusations time-honored worldwide: they’re lazy, lacking in willpower, potency and drive.
Having lectured to a number of them at several universities in Tokyo, I was able to query students directly. “We’re risk-averse,” was the most common response. We were raised in relative comfort. We’re just trying to keep it that way.
Is this enlightened, or resigned? Or both?
Novelist Genichiro Takahashi, 63, addressed the matter in an essay 10 years ago. He called the new wave of youth a “generation of loss,” but he defined them as “the world’s most advanced phenomenon”—in his view, a generation whose only desires are those that are actually achievable.
The satori generation are known for keeping things small, preferring an evening at home with a small gathering of friends, for example, to an upscale restaurant. They create ensemble outfits from so-called “fast fashion” discount stores like Uniqlo or H&M, instead of purchasing top-shelf at Louis Vuitton or Prada. They don’t even booze.
“They drink much less alcohol than the kids of my generation, for sure,” says social critic and researcher Mariko Fujiwara of Hakuhodo. “And even when they go to places where they are free to drink, drinking too much was never ‘cool’ for them the way it was for us.”
Fujiwara’s research leads her to define a global trend—youth who have the technological tools to avoid being duped by phony needs. There is a new breed of young people, she says, who have outdone the tricksters of advertising.
“They are prudent and careful about what they buy. They have been informed about the expensive top brands of all sorts of consumer goods but were never so impressed by them like those from the bubble generation. We have identified them as those who are far more levelheaded than the generations preceding them as a result of the new reality they came to face.”
The new reality is affecting a new generation around the world. Young Americans and Europeans are increasingly living at home, saving money, and living prudently. Technology, as it did in Japan, abets their shrinking circles. If you have internet access, you can accomplish a lot in a little room. And revolution in the 21st century, as most young people know, is not about consumption—it’s about sustainability.
Waseda University professor, Norihiro Kato, points to broader global phenomena that have radically transformed younger generations’ sense of possibility, calling it a shift from “the infinite to the finite.” Kato cites the Chernobyl meltdown and the fall of communism in the late 1980s and early 90s; the September 11 terrorist attacks in the early 2000s; and closer to home, the triple earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disasters in Japan. These events reshaped our sense of wisdom and self-worth. The satori generation, he says, marks the emergence of a new “‘qualified power,’ the power to do and the power to undo, and the ability to enjoy doing and not doing equally. Imagine a robot with the sophistication and strength to clutch an egg without crushing it. The key concept is outgrowing growth toward degrowth. That’s the wisdom of this new generation.”
In America and Europe, the new generation is teaching us how to live with less—but also how to live with one another. Mainstream media decry the number of young people living at home—a record 26.1 million in the US, according to recent statistics—yet living at home and caring for one’s elders has long been a mainstay of Japanese culture.
In the context of shrinking resources and global crises, satori “enlightenment” might mean what the young everywhere are telling us: shrink your goals to the realistic, help your family and community and resign yourself to peace.
What Takahashi called “the world’s most advanced phenomenon” may well be coming our way from Japan. But this time it’s not automotive or robotic or electronic. It’s human enlightenment.
Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese writer based in Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the bestselling JAPANAMERICA: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US, and a contributor to enlightened media worldwide.