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JAPAN: Turning to ‘NEETS’ to Cover Labour Shortages

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Oct 31 2006 (IPS) - For the past four years, Naoko Suzuki and her husband Koiji have been trying various ways to coax their 26-year-old son to leave the tight cocoon of his room and join a training programme that may help him get a job and enter mainstream society.

‘’My husband has given up on changing him but I still have hopes that we will find a way out of this nightmare. At the moment, though, he refuses to leave his room even to have dinner with us,” she told IPS.

The Suzukis belong to a growing pool of anxious parents in Japan who are trying to nudge their adult children to becoming socially responsible by seeking employment, studying at colleges, or simply finding a spouse or even friends.

Unfortunately, for these families and for Japan, these young adults do not share the urgency and are content with living off their anxious and aging parents.

According to the ministry of health and welfare, the number of those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) has now reached 6.4 million adults against a total workforce of 66 million people.

While the term NEET originated in Britain in the 1990s, Japan has lately adopted the label to describe young people who are not actively looking for jobs and prefer to depend on their parents for financial support.

Studies have shown that NEETs are usually between the ages of 18 to 40 years and may be the victims of family breakdown and mental illness, lack of discipline also contributes to the problem.

‘’It is hard to pinpoint one reason for becoming a NEET but a key cause could be the lack of respecting individuality in Japan where the group is the norm,” said Himeko Kudo, who runs the NPO Youth Centre that conducts support programmes.

Kudo says the centre offers a one-year programme for NEETS priced at more than 2,000 US dollars per month.

Parents pay for the programme that provides rooms and a strictly scheduled routine that includes group counselling.

‘’We see a marked improvement in their attitudes. Many NEETS have been able to find jobs after they complete their programmes with us. We motivate them by listening to their problems and helping them to gain self-confidence,” she explained.

As Japanese society ages and the government perceives the importance of boosting its work force, the spotlight has turned on youth that include both NEETS and the large number of ‘freeters’ or people between 15-34 years who number about two million.

Freeters are classified as youth who hop from job to job, a pattern that runs counter to Japan’s famed work ethic and contributes to late marriages and low birth rates – besides causing problems for companies that want to hire reliable workers.

Experts point out that the changing pattern of youth employment has posed not only hardcore challenges for the now improved national economy but also for society and the public social welfare system itself.

‘’NEETS is a social problem posing a heavy economic fallout which is the main concern for the government. But the recent move to recognise the issue as a social problem rather than blaming youth or their parents is a good sign,” said educationist and author Yuki Honda.

The government has set a target of turning 250,000 freeters into regular full-time employees, including in the civil services, by April 2007.

Recently, the government launched a new programme as a ‘model case’ that is focussed on the specific needs of NEETS and also provides support for them even after they gain jobs.

Called Community Youth Programme, this initiative includes counselling for parents of NEETS and is run by local non-governmental organisations rather than bureaucrats. The government has allocated a total annual budget of 1.4 million US dollars for it.

Shinichiro Ogawa, who is in charge of a NEETS career counselling programme at the labour ministry, says that the situation is dire enough to justify a new programme. ”We are seeing some success already. Out of the first batch of 634 NEETS, 359 of them have found jobs,” he said.

Naoshi Kawamata, who runs the ‘Peace House’ in Toyama, northern Japan, a simple residence for NEETS who can work in the farms and receive group counseling, thinks that society must take responsibility for the situation rather than blame young people. ‘’I think the lack of motivation in young Japanese can be traced to the system of forcing them to study and enter prestigious universities. Parents do not allow them to follow their dreams,” he said.

But Kawamata has reservations about the government’s plan to introduce a new education bill that focuses on raising patriotism as a way to change social apathy among the younger generation.

‘’Patriotism is not going to help NEETS but rather a deeper social understanding and provision of job security are the priority,” he said.

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