Four years ago, Hiroki Komazaki came up with a novel way of making up for Japan’s striking lack of child day care centers, which has long been an obstacle to Japanese women pursuing careers. His innovation was to turn vacant space in Tokyo’s apartment buildings into small-scale nurseries. But Komazaki’s plan violated government regulations that protected existing providers from new competition -- a familiar problem in Japan. Instead of giving up, however, he did something uncharacteristically Japanese: he did it anyway. 

In setting up his first “home care” nursery, Komazaki demonstrated that his idea could work, and ultimately found a political ally in Atsuko Muraki, the vice minister of Japan’s health ministry and the second woman to hold the position. With Muraki’s support, Komazaki persuaded the government to pass a revised national child care law that will go into effect in 2015, allowing entrepreneurs to establish nurseries of fewer than 20 children.

Muraki is a prominent advocate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s effort to revitalize the Japanese economy by increasing gender equality, known popularly as Womenomics. Progress is indeed badly needed: last year, Japan fell to an embarrassing 105th 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.

For the past two decades, observers have pointed to such problems in describing Japan as stagnant, glacial, and arthritic. Experts inside and outside the country have called in vain for reforms on par with the country’s Meiji Restoration and its post-World War II recovery. Meanwhile, political leaders have failed to knock Japan out of its stupor, and Abe’s economic reforms have yet to bring about a significant economic recovery or major structural changes. But all that is only part of the story. Outside the government, a new generation of liberal reformers like Komazaki is bringing about real change.


Over the past three months, I have interviewed nearly 40 people in Japan working at the front lines of societal change. For the most part, they are more global, liberal, individualistic, and entrepreneurial than their parents were. Typically in their thirties and forties, they are called nana roku sedai, or ’76ers, referring to tech entrepreneurs who were born around 1976 and are just now becoming influential. This group comes from a generation much less concerned with the historical baggage of World War II and the consumerism of their bubble-era forebears. They tend to know and support one another through Japanese business networks such as Japan Platform and NetAge, as well as through international groups such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Japan Society in New York. And although they enjoy influence with and support from the government, they have yet to seek change through the formal political system. For now, at least, they prefer to tackle societal problems on their own.

The ’76ers are remaking Japanese society in three ways: by launching their own initiatives where government responses are lacking (providing child care and disaster relief, for example), by supporting policies geared toward revitalizing Japan (advocating for study abroad programs and English instruction in schools), and by pushing for a more liberal and open public sphere (emphasizing diversity, women’s empowerment, and individualism).

Together, the ’76ers are capable of counterbalancing the right-wing blustering and xenophobic hate speech that has dominated the news about Japan recently. In fact, they are likely to win out in the long run; as in the United States, surveys reveal a gradually growing liberal bent in Japan, especially among young people. In October 2012, for example, a government survey found that fewer Japanese perceived gender inequality in the workplace than in the past, that more of them believed that equal educational opportunities for males and females existed, and that fewer young women aspired to be full-time homemakers. Another survey from the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Japanese people now accept gays and lesbians, and other polls have indicated a lack of interest in marriage among young people. Most Japanese are cautious about Japan’s rearmament. And these trends show no signs of slowing.


There are a number of factors behind the recent rise of the ’76ers, beginning with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, which shook public confidence and challenged the status quo. Before the earthquake, the mentality was to “hold on to what you’ve got,” Hiromi Matsubara, the CEO of Surfrider Foundation Japan, told me. “But now everyone knows lifetime employment is over, the government sucks, and there is no social security. With no security, you might as well give it a try … People realized you can lose everything.”

The second contributing factor is growing anxiety about the rise of South Korea, which Japanese consider a business rival, and of China, which took Japan’s spot as the world’s second-largest economy in 2011. The aging and shrinking of the Japanese population are troublesome too. At this point, many Japanese have concluded that the country has no choice but to change. “Japan is under pressure from China and Korea, and Japanese people feel that pressure,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor at Keio University who advises the prime minister. “Some youth feel isolated or lost, so they are trying to have a stronger national identity. The weaker people [in society] will cling to a big, national identity, which Abe plays to, while the stronger ones are more global,” he said.

A third catalyst is the changing nature of the Japanese home. A third of all Japanese households are now occupied by a single person, up from about a quarter a decade ago and a fifth in 1980. By 2035, the figure will near 40 percent. According to Yoichi Nishimura, a board member of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, these “so-called family refugees are not tied to conservative values but also … have no families of their own.” A related demographic trend is the decline of marriage. Single people aged 35 to 44 living with their parents now number three million, or 16 percent of the total population, a significant increase from 10 percent in 2000 and just two percent in 1980. These people, now entering middle age, are becoming frustrated with the status quo and their lack of options.

Fourth, a generational shift is fostering a new attitude toward participation in civil society. In some ways, the mood is a result of resentment toward the baby boom generation born in 1947–1949, which enjoyed the opulent bubble years, left behind economic stagnation, and was more trusting of the government. According to a recent study by the public relations firm Edelman, popular trust in government officials plummeted from 63 percent to eight percent after the 2011 earthquake. As Kensuke Onishi, the CEO of the nonprofit Peace Winds Japan, put it, “We feel that the baby boomer generation was selfish … And our generation, the babies of baby boomers, is more active in volunteer work. When I said I wanted to work at an NGO, the boomers were astonished; they said it was a waste and stupid. No one was proud of me in Japan. But now that’s changing.”

Finally, and perhaps most surprising, the Abe administration’s public rhetoric has actually helped open the national conversation up to new ideas. Although Abe’s record is mixed, many of the people I spoke to said Abe’s speeches on the importance of women to economic dynamism have allowed Japanese to speak more freely about diversity and gender in professional settings. “At present, most people think that men naturally hold management positions. But suddenly Abe is changing this perspective by saying that women’s roles should change, sparking a new debate,” said Koichi Kaneda of Takeda Pharmaceuticals, a company that has become a poster child for progressive policies.


Japan’s up-and-coming reformers have made the most headway in three areas: gender equality, education, and civil society.

When it comes to women in the workplace, of course, female workers offer a practical solution to the problems associated with Japan’s aging and shrinking workforce -- one that is far more realistic than letting in massive numbers of immigrants or increasing the country’s birth rate. And over the past ten years, corporate leaders have come to support the advancement of women. Like many executives, Takeshi Niinami, the CEO of the Japanese convenience store chain Lawson, has said publicly that women add unique value to the companies they work for. Echoing the sentiment, Kohey Takashima, the CEO of the online grocery business Oisix, told me, “Women bring unique ideas to the business. First, when thinking of a new product, women are better judges because women are the target consumer; second, in terms of management … having a balance is important.” 

Still, women still face high barriers. After having a baby, Ayako Kono wanted to return to work at a major U.S. technology company in Tokyo. She felt harshly judged by her neighbors and colleagues at a local government ward office in Tokyo. “Why do I have to explain myself?” she asked. “It is hard to make a difference because I felt like a minority because I was excited to go back to work. What needs to happen in Japan is that mindsets need to change. That’s first. It’s not about regulations or quotas. Change must come from the people.”

Japan’s educational system is beginning to open up, too, promising to boost Japan’s economic competitiveness over the long term. Lin Kobayashi, the executive director of Tokyo’s International School of Asia, recently established the country’s first fully residential international school in Japan. Classes are taught in English, but students receive a Japanese high school diploma. And because the school is recognized as part of the Japanese system, it receives financial support from the government to provide scholarships to a diverse range of students. Kobayashi wants to encourage students to embrace risk-taking -- an uncommon approach in Japanese schools -- and assume a more global mindset.

In the recent past, systemic change stalled because the players were not in sync. But that is changing. “The big picture here in Japan is that this is the first time we are seeing changes throughout the education system,” Kobayashi told me. “That involves the three big players: corporations that are recruiting, the schools themselves, and the education ministry. Those three are finally collaborating and moving in the same direction. The big change is that the establishment is supporting us … In Japan, if you want to go mainstream you need support from the establishment.” In March 2014, Abe’s government recently proposed that English language proficiency become a requirement for students to enter into university.

Japan’s civil society is growing stronger as well. Younger people are increasingly seeking work at nonprofits. And they are particularly drawn to social entrepreneurship, “which is bringing in liberal thinking and sustainability,” said Ken Shibusawa, head of the Japan Center for International Exchange. This generation, he argues, gives him cause for optimism about Japan’s future: they are less complacent, more interested in social change, and more entrepreneurial.

Change won’t be easy in a country that remains deeply attached to its cultural traditions and still approaches the modern world with some trepidation. Things in Japan often progress step by step. Meanwhile, the new liberal elites will have to prevail over the country’s right-wing nationalists, who have been particularly effective in using anonymous vitriol on the Internet to advance their cause in Japan’s culture wars. Most interviewees told me they were confident that without attractive ideas the shadowy right wing would consume itself and fizzle out in the coming years. For the new elites to make their way into the political halls of power, however, they will need a far more sophisticated and well-funded political machine behind them.

If the new elites succeed, they could ultimately change the Japanese political arena for good. Many of the ’76ers I spoke with said they would like to see their politicians pay closer attention to the needs of the younger generation -- by supporting working mothers, for example -- even if that comes at the expense of the elderly. Several people mentioned 35-year-old Kazuma Ieiri as a role model. He launched an Internet company in his early twenties and ran for governor of Tokyo in 2014. He finished fifth among 16 candidates; the winner was a ruling party insider. As party leaders age and the ’76ers advance, however, the chances for Ieiri and his friends in future elections will only improve. Japanese politics desperately needs fresh blood and new ideas, and the ’76ers offer an ample supply of both.

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  • DEVIN STEWART is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
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