In Japan, youths trade neckties for tie-dyes

A counter-culture wave is sweeping Japan as outdoor rock festivals gain popularity.

A decade ago, Japanese youths were in a straitjacket of rigorous exams, arranged dates and marriages, and the prospect of a lifetime of office employment.

But with job opportunities limited by nearly a decade of economic stagnation, and exposure to the outside world growing via travel and an influx of foreigners, young Japanese are dropping their traditional clean-cut image for a more radical lifestyle.

Recently, Japan's youth culture has blossomed like the nation's sakura, or cherry tree. Instead of the gray suits of businessmen and the uniforms of office ladies, young people wear tie-dye, dreadlocks, exotic jewelry, tattoos, beards, and sandals.

"I think there's a social change in Japanese youth culture," says Kyoko Nakajima, arts and entertainment editor at Japan's largest newspaper, Yomiuri. "We have no promises about the future, so people are just enjoying themselves. There's a very strong trend to start a new culture that's not traditional."

A greater international influence on the archipelago's culture is partly responsible. Cheaper airfares have led more and more Japanese youths to travel. At the same time, many foreigners who came to Japan during the boom of the late 1980s and '90s have settled here. Official data from 2000 says one in 20 marriages in Tokyo involves a foreigner.

The result is a Japanese version of North America's summer of 1968, with more Japanese discovering camping, nature, and alternative lifestyles than ever before.

At least one Japanese rock musician is welcoming the change at home.

"I am no longer interested in living in foreign countries," says Japanese rock hero Asai Kenichi, after his concert in the mountain in Niigata. "I love my own Japan. I love our nature and our culture."

The arrival of the World Cup soccer tournament in June brought massive crowds of young people to the stadiums and then onto the streets for a kind of spontaneous rallying rarely seen here.

As well, the three-day Summer Solstice party brought thousands of "ravers" – hard-core partygoers who often use illegal drugs – to sleep in tents, consume hallucinogenic mushrooms, and dance all night in the mud, conducting a kind of shaman aerobics on the foggy slope of Mt. Fuji. Some 100,000 camped out last week at the Mount Naeba ski resort in Niigata, four hours drive north of Tokyo, for the Fuji Rock Fest.

This month will feature a rock festival near Tokyo, another in the mountains of Hokkaido, and various outdoor festivals specializing in jazz, worldbeat, and even reggae. According to observers, all this rocking and rolling was unheard of just a decade ago.

Fans give Japanese musicians and risk-taking bands much of the credit for the new artistic culture. But foreign rock stars and DJs have also taken the role of emissaries of Western counter-culture, harking back to the hippie days of yesteryear. One Canadian rave organizer recalls when US hippie guru Timothy Leary came to his club, Geoid, a decade ago and taught a circle of ravers, who would become Japan's top DJs and artists, how they did things in Haight-Ashbury.

However, some observers say Japan's fling with modern youth culture might just be another passing fad.

"Unlike what some of the youths seem to be saying, I don't think this indicates a significant change in Japanese sociocultural life," says Mikiso Hane, a professor of Japanese history at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. "One can think of the l920s during the mo-bo, mo-ga [modern boys, modern girls] rage when the young were going wild dancing the Charleston. That fad passed soon."

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