The Rise of Cynicism in Japan: Evidence From a 10-year study – Part I 1

By Kazuteru Tasaki and Apolline Coat

If it is possible to attribute a dominant mood to an era, ‘cynical’ might be the most suitable adjective to describe Japan in the 21st century. This is the conclusion drawn after ten years of social values tracking by RISKYBRAND Inc, in Tokyo. This conclusion has been reached by measuring the pulse of 4’000 Japanese consumers yearly since 2008.

In part 1 of this series, we looked at seven remarkable attitudinal shifts which support that cynicism is growing in Japanese society. In part 2 we look at the origins of the of cynicism’s rise in Japan.

To start, let’s reflect on the major socio-historical changes that have shaped the past decade:

  • In 2008, the world plunged into a deep economic crisis. Meanwhile Japan reached its demographic peak and officially entered a new era of population decline (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2012)
  • The internet, social media and e-commerce revolutionized the way people consume and socialize
  • Against the backdrop of these deep-seated socio-economic trends, random but affecting events such as the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the Kumamoto disaster in 2016, left a distinctive mark in the public’ s mentality

We identified four social phenomena that set the foundation for the growth of cynicism in Japan:

Collective disenchantment about the institutions of the society

Cynicism often develops from feelings of being let down or trust being broken. The economy may have recovered from the Lehman shock, but the authorities’ inability to solve serious social issues such as population ageing and devastating natural disasters, has undermined the public’s faith in institutions. This has fueled anxiety towards the future. In Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer study, the government was decried as the most ‘broken’ institution of Japan.

Revelations of dishonest practice among top corporations (e.g. Toshiba’s accounting fraud in 2015), combined with strong signs of Japan Inc.’s declining competitiveness (e.g. the contentious acquisition of tech giant Sharp by Foxconn in 2016) further undermined the public’s faith in Japanese corporations.

Precarity and the dissolution of ‘Japan Inc.’

The ‘Japan Inc ’model promised lifetime-employment and seniority-based pay for all. However, with low-paid irregular workers accounting now for nearly 40% of the labor force (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2017), this system is a thing of the past.

A key psychological consequence of the casualisation of labor is the erosion of the belief in a `common good’. Personal and collective interests used to overlap in the post-war booming economy. However, when the economy is not growing, return of one’s effort become less certain. Furthermore, only a happy few can prosper while the majority must share the remaining slices. In this context, the traditional Japanese work ethic, that puts the needs of the group before the individual, is losing appeal.

A culture of complacency and instant gratification in an affluent society

Payoff uncertainty is not the only factor behind the decline of Japan’s hard work culture. Higher standards of living and the instant gratification afforded by technology reduce the need for ‘deep’ thinking and work. Many things that used to take hours of work are now accessible in one click. We no longer need to read books to get information, we can have new friends just by browsing social media and enjoy unlimited content streaming at low cost. The luxury brands that used to be unaffordable are now available on flea-market apps at incredibly low prices. Within five years, these market places have grown into a 500-billion-yen market in Japan (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, 2017).

A ‘cynical generation’ emerges

Generations born after the post-war boom account for the largest segment of the Japanese population in 2018, representing more than half of it.

The eldest of this segment are the children of the baby boomers (born between 1971 and 1974) and the firstborns of the so-called ‘lost generation’. While they grew up in an affluence that was unimaginable a few decades before, their coming of age was severely hit by the economic turmoil that followed the Japanese asset price bubble’s collapse. Resultantly, cynical values – disinterest in material possession, stay-at-home and insularity – were born in this cohort of post-Bubble consumers (MINDVOICE® 2018). The mentality of the post-bubble generation, materially well-off but with nothing better to look forward for in a rich but fading economy, seems to contain the perfect ingredients for the development of cynicism.

In the final part of our series – published on Friday 15th December – we look at the implication of the rise of cynicism for brands.

By Kazuteru Tasaki and Apolline Coat, RISKYBRAND Inc

Click here to read the full report of Cynicism on the Rise in Japan.