Transcending labels and panics: the logic of Japanese youth problems

Toivonen, Tuukka GND; Imoto, Yuki

Social scientific research on Japanese youth experienced something of a boom in the 2000s and is attracting further attention following the triple disaster of 11 March 2011. But while advances have been made in understanding young people’s relationship to work, marginalization, and activism, for instance, the premises of this emerging field of research remain shaky. Despite cursory critiques of associated labels and recurring “moral panics,” the dynamics of youth problems have not yet been sufficiently understood. This paper draws on the well-known case of the “nerdy” otaku to illustrate how youth problems arise from the complex interaction of labels, incidents, and prominent actors – that is, their more visible side – with underlying assumptions, strategies, and interests – that is, the less salient dimension of such problems. After highlighting important connections between the otaku phenomenon and the two subsequent phenomena of hikikomori and NEET, four key mechanisms are set out that govern the way youth problem debates emerge and evolve more generally (i.e., the respective roles of “industries,” “translators,” rhetorical strategies, and youth as a “muted group”). The paper concludes by relating the findings to post-tsunami Japan, arguing that the way in which young people are debated in the 2010s may turn out surprisingly similar to the debates in the 2000s, unless the very configuration of the institutions and actors that construct youth debates changes.