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Japan’s "'76ers" Gain Global Attention: New Liberal Elite Can Change Japan

Jul 22, 2014

This translation of a July 17 Nikkei Business interview, conducted by Makiko Iizuka, was published with the kind permission of Nikkei Business. You can find the original version here.

Carnegie Council researches the dynamics of changing social values throughout the world. I interviewed Devin Stewart, senior fellow at Carnegie Council based in New York, who researches young change makers at this think tank that focuses on international peace, social justice, and ethics. In 2000-03, Mr. Stewart worked at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry in Japan and has published in U.S. media such as Newsweek and The New York Times. Currently, he is focusing on global change movements by Generation X, including Japan's "'76ers," and has been interviewing young change makers around the world for his research. In Japan, he has interviewed around 40 young change makers and has published the results in Foreign Affairs. So how is Japan changing?

NIKKEI BUSINESS: Why did you pick "76ers" as your research topic?

DEVIN STEWART: Each society and each generation has its own values, and these are always changing over time. But what's important is that a kind of change that can alter the status quo is also happening in some parts of society. So, which generation is making that change? I have been visiting countries around the world to take a deeper look at it. This kind of social change is not necessarily initiated by political leaders. In my research, I have been particularly focusing on people who are making changes from the bottom-up.

I visited Japan in this context. Over the last 20 years, many Japanese citizens have been disappointed that there have not been the changes they wanted to see from their political or business leaders. Japan-watchers overseas have also been scrutinizing how Japan can possibly change. But for Japan, like everywhere else, change is inevitable. Baby boomers will turn 70 years old in 2017, and the Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020. The current administration is targeting to have women in 30 percent of managerial jobs nationwide by 2020. In other words, heading toward 2020, values in Japan can change significantly. Many organizations throughout the world have begun paying attention to this potential change in Japan.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: What kind of people did you interview in Japan?

DEVIN STEWART: I interviewed non-political elites, such as activists, researchers, students, journalists, and CEOs of corporations. They are called "baby boomer juniors" or "76ers" (because they were born around 1976) and are increasing their influence in society. They are rich in creativity and inspiration. At the same time, they are supporting each other, have solidarity, and many of them are attending Davos meetings and the G1 Summit in Japan.

What may be surprising is they all love Japan, but the way they love Japan is neither in a right-wing nationalistic way or a left-wing liberal way. In contrast to the media's focus on rising militarism or nationalism in Japan, these people love Japan in a more open way. They question Japan's traditional values and respect individualism—that is, classical liberalism. Perhaps we should call them a "new liberal elite" because they embrace classical liberal values of freedom and individualism but they are not ideologically tied to a particular political party. They are also among the country's elite but are not in politics—yet.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: Why do you think such a new liberal elite has emerged in Japan?

DEVIN STEWART: One reason is that it is a counterargument against rising nationalism. While both the new liberal elite and right-wingers love Japan, the baseline is different. The new liberal elite is confident and is not afraid of challenging themselves to try new things in order to succeed. On the other hand, the right-wingers feel neglected and treated unfairly, and they have fears about the future. Looking at history, however, the confident vision tends to win the day. Perhaps it's only natural for people to support positive, forward-looking movements.

A comment by Hiroki Komazaki, the founder of Florence, which provides nursery services for young children, struck me. He said, "I am sick of pessimism." This comment was very profound. I have been traveling around the world and I have noticed pessimism is an underlying tone of nationalistic thinking.

Another reason is 3/11. After the earthquake in Japan on March, 11, 2011, Japanese citizens have lost faith in their government due to the response to the disaster. Many citizens started thinking, "We can't depend on the government anymore. We need to start making our future on our own because we never know what will happen tomorrow." Increasingly more citizens are becoming autonomous and taking action.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: Are there other people who left an impression on you?

DEVIN STEWART: Lin Kobayashi who launched Japan's first international boarding school, International School of Asia, Karuizawa—she said, "For the first time, corporations, schools, and the Ministry of Education are working together in order to reconstruct Japan's education system."

I think it is a reasonable idea to improve Japan's competitiveness by globalizing its education system. Since the future feels more uncertain after the earthquake, Japanese people have started searching for more flexible ways of living. One option is to live abroad and work with people who are not from Japan. In order to increase an individual's life options, it is important to reform the education system.

I also sympathized with Shinichi Takemura, who runs the Earth Literacy Program, which works on environmental issues by utilizing technology.

How '76ers try to contribute to the society represents a change in Japan's value system. Seventy-sixers are questioning the values held by baby boomers, who enjoyed a bubble economy and materialism. They are searching for a way of life that can contribute to the society by doing volunteering work, starting new ventures, etc.

Another manifestation of changing values is that younger generations in Japan are becoming less interested in owning cars. What is interesting is that we see a similar phenomenon in the United States with the rise of businesses that allow members of communities to more effectively share with one another. Young people in the United States are also increasingly using public transportation, and car-sharing services and Uber are trendy. While carmakers in both Japan and the United States are afraid of such new values, the phenomenon of young people being less interested in owning cars is not unique to Japan. It's just that Japan may be ahead of other countries.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: Are you saying similar change, like that of Japan's '76ers, is happening throughout the world?

Yes, exactly. I think a broad distrust in government is behind this movement. I visited Brazil in 2013 when the anti-government movement was at its peak. Citizens were dissatisfied with the government, which was just seen as maintaining the status quo. Similarly, citizens in Japan and the United States are also dissatisfied with their governments.

I have also visited other countries, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Denmark, and I felt people are also increasingly dissatisfied by their government in these countries and they are taking action. I think globalization has triggered such action.

Thanks to globalization, the global economy grew and poverty diminished. At the same time, people gained an equal voice via the Internet. As such, people have gained new perspectives through their connectedness. But governments have not adopted these changes, opting to protect vested interests and incumbents instead—and even using technology to do so. Sometimes, governments even try to veer away people's focus from the real issues. In Scotland, where I visited last year, I heard many opinions that were against the independence movement. The real issues for society became obscured as a result of too much attention being paid to the independence movement. In Myanmar, the government is turning Muslims into scapegoats for citizens' frustration. Similar things are also happening in other countries.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: What kind of impact can the new liberal elite make in the world?

DEVIN STEWART: Going forward, traditional values and new liberalism may come into conflict but continue to be in dialogue and can find some kind of resolution. What Japan is good at, in this context, is that it does not leap forward to a completely new system. Japanese people told me they prefer to move toward new values little-by-little, while respecting their own traditions. "Many small changes yield a big change," is the expression I heard often in Japan.

Many of the new liberate elite that I met in Japan explained it this way: "It is difficult to drastically adopt a progressive way of doing things. We want to create a new world by cultivating our own identity and tradition at the same time." The Japanese way of moving toward new values by coexisting with tradition and high technology is appreciated by the rest of the world.

NIKKEI BUSINESS: Some say that the speed of change in Japan is too slow. Isn't Japan going to lag behind China and Korea?

That's possible, but people who have visited Asia recently are pointing out that Asian countries might be losing their identities on the back of globalization and modernization.

China is achieving significant economic development. But bureaucrats and researchers at think tanks in China are worried about Chinese society losing its traditional virtues as a result of rapid modernization. Virtues should be evolving, not destroyed. But important virtues may be fading. In this sense, Japan's way of progressing along with nurturing traditional virtue is instructive.

The New Liberal Elite Are Changing Politics

What kind of impact can the new liberal elite make in Japan?

If Japan as a country accepts their emergence, Japan can enjoy more new ideas and businesses.

After World War II, Japan achieved a "miraculous" economic recovery and created many innovations during that time. Popular inventions attributed to Japan include: the CD player, the pocket calculator, the VCR, the quartz watch, and ,of course, the Walkman. Similarly, the new liberal elite can introduce new innovations in Japan. The emergence of this new group can stimulate existing businesses and can lead to a bolder move.

For example, just as Japan Airlines reviewed their long-time exclusive relationship with Boeing, businesses may start reviewing questionable partnerships or cutting unprofitable business units. Japan Inc. will become more liberated from conventional ways of thinking and recreate their business strategy.

They can have an impact on politics, too. I think the current administration is doing a good job, but there is not necessarily anything profoundly new among those in power. In the United States, the Bush and Clinton families are trying to come back to power in the next presidential election as well. Democracies are not immune from the issue of political dynasties in modern politics.

In Japan, however, newcomers such as Kazuma Ieiri have started to join the political scene. He created his own political party, the Internet Party, and ranked fifth in the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election. This success is notable. He can be a role model for the new generation to change Japanese politics from the outside.

I also found it intriguing to learn that new liberal elites are actually well-connected with politicians. They are frequently in touch with the government by meeting with bureaucrats and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And politicians are increasingly listening to the new liberal elite's ideas and are trying to work together. A good example includes the government's support for Lin Kobayashi's international school.

What are the obstacles for this new liberal elite movement?

The mindsets of Japanese people, especially of men, have to change.

Japan significantly lacks gender equality. Last year, Japan fell to number 105 out of 136 countries in a gender equality ranking by the World Economic Forum. According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs, fixing the problem—particularly by getting more women into the workforce—could increase Japan's GDP by 15 percent.

In order to tackle this problem, Prime Minister Abe is supporting women's participation in the workforce with targets. Corporations can support this initiative by increasing training programs, access to daycare, and more reasonable working hours.

Older executives in Japan may understand that women should have more important roles in the society and companies, in theory. But, they might not necessarily understand what they should do to nurture female leaders. Perhaps that's why they are asking outside organizations for advice. In order to change the current situation, tax policy should go toward supporting working women, as well.

The government should support changes in the education system, and it should make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses. I hear it is difficult to even launch a non-profit in Japan. What's important is to create an environment that stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship. Even if the new start-up companies end up competing with existing large corporations, that change is healthy.

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