TOKYO — Though physically healthy, Japan’s children have been suffering from a poor mental state, according to a well-being report released by UNICEF in 2020. The survey, which compared the levels of happiness in children from 38 countries, saw Japan rank first for physical health, but 37th for mental well-being.
In addition to high suicide rates among young people, up to about 40% of those surveyed indicated they are not satisfied with their life by choosing a score of five or below out of a maximum 10 points. The Mainichi Shimbun talked with some individuals to examine what the country’s youth seek to live a fulfilling life.
In Tokyo, near the famous Hachiko dog statue in front of JR Shibuya Station, a 21-year-old university student sat alone in shrubbery away from the bustle of the crowds. He was apparently “killing time before class.” When the reporter asked him to score his life satisfaction out of 10, the student smiled wryly and said, “Maybe 5.” He said that his satisfaction level remains the same as when he was a grade schooler, who prepared for junior high entrance exams.
He said that all his life, he had followed a path paved by his parents. During elementary school, he studied for entrance exams with his mother attending to him, constantly by his side. Even after he managed to enter a school that exempted him from high school entrance exams, he was not allowed to play with friends. Looking back on the time, he remembers only going back and forth between his home and school.
As for college, he was only able to take exams for places his parents approved of. They were also against their son living alone, as his life would supposedly “fall into chaos.” The student thereby commutes to university, spending over two hours one way. Online classes had been continuously held until last year amid COVID-19, and he only has a handful of friends.
The student entered his third year of college, and has become eligible for applying to internships. His parents have told him to get a job near home. “How long do I need to do as they say?” He said he sometimes gets into quarrels with his parents, but eventually gives in. He appeared sad as he laughed and said, “I’m also worried whether I can actually manage to live on my own.”
The reporter also approached other people, including a first-year high school student who complained that her school’s rules were strict, and a female student in her first year of university who said, “You get attacked just by making a small comment on social media, or get criticized for doing something a bit different.” There were also young people who found it difficult to express their individuality.
In the UNICEF study, when 15-year-old children were asked to score their satisfaction with life, 90% of children in the Netherlands gave a score of 6 out of 10, or higher. In contrast to that country, which ranked first, Japan saw 62% of its children with the same scores. In the 2020 academic year, a record 190,000-plus children at elementary and middle schools across Japan stopped attending classes.
In Shibuya, the reporter found another university student, aged 22, who was looking at his smartphone. The student, who stopped attending high school for a while during his third year, said his life satisfaction score at the time was “1.” Though he devoted himself to theatrics, he lost his goals once he quit acting during his final year. As those around him began to study for admission exams seriously, he questioned why he needed to go to university. He stopped going to school, and spent more time in bookshops. He failed his entrance exams for that year.
It was thanks to a YouTuber that he became able to view learning as fun. After watching a video that explained what it means to obtain knowledge, he wanted to give studying another try.
He passed the entrance exam in spring last year, and currently takes acting lessons. His life satisfaction level has gone up to “8.” However, he also sees a good number of friends who are busy with part-time work between classes in order to earn money for their living expenses.
“Even if you get into university, there’s not much room to engage in something besides studying. I think it wouldn’t hurt to have more policies that reduce the burden on young people, such as assisting with tuition.”
(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, Tokyo City News Department)