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Can education change Japan's 'depressed' generation?

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Media captionCan education reforms lift Japan's 'depressed' economy?

Every lesson at Japanese schools starts with a simultaneous bow. "Let's try that again because your posture wasn't good," says a teacher to a room full of six and seven-year-olds.

She then reminds the children to have their pencil boxes, notepads and textbooks on top of each other and placed at the left corner of their desks. The students obey without a single word of objection.

A few hours later, they queue quietly before being served their lunch.

Towards the end of their education this conformist attitude is still evident. Each year, more than half a million university students start looking for work together.

The first step is to perfect a handwritten resume, or CV, because many in Japan believe that students' characteristics and personalities can be judged by the way they write.

All dressed in a black "recruit suit", they then visit hundreds of companies. Bold hues of black, navy or dark grey are the recommended colours for their job-hunting suits.

Stripes are not encouraged. According to the teachers and career counsellors, it is considered risky to be fashionable.

'Withdrawn' generation

The job-hunting season is a huge part of Japanese life and has even influenced the nicknames given to different generations.

Image caption Jobseeker Yoko Sato says she has no desire to work abroad

In Japan, there is no Generation X, Y or Z.

Born in 1981, I belong to the "employment ice age" generation when university graduates struggled to find work because of the state of the economy. It is believed to have resulted in the highest number of "withdrawn" or "hikikomori" who refuse to leave their rooms after feeling rejected by the society.

The generation before us was much luckier and is known as the "bubble" generation, because the Japanese economy was at its peak as they entered workforce.

There are stark differences between those who witnessed Japan's booming economy and today's youth.

There are a number of nicknames for them: the "relaxed" generation is most commonly used because they were educated under a revised system aimed at freeing children from cramming, or intensive learning.

The "enlightened" generation is another, and it implies that they had only known Japan in its economic decline and had learned not to expect anything, including wealth or even sex.

Image caption Government adviser William Saito says parents want their children to get good jobs in stable Japanese companies

Their low self-esteem and unhappiness are obvious in the government's annual survey of the country's youth, aged between 13 and 29. Fewer than half of those surveyed (45.8%) said they were happy with themselves, compared to 86% in the US, 83.1% in the UK, or 71.5% in South Korea.

Depressed youths

Nearly 80% of Japanese youth felt depressed in the week of the survey, which is more than double the figure for Germany. One-third of them don't think they'll be happy when they are 40.

It is also a generation that is known not to take a risk.

For example, the number of youths studying overseas has fallen by nearly 30% between 2004 and 2012 (from 82,945 to 60,138). That's according to data collected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Image caption While traditional Japanese nail salons are expanding successfully abroad, many workers are happy at home

"I studied English at school but I have no desire to study it further to be able to work abroad," says Yoko Sato, whom I met at a recruitment forum in Tokyo. "If I get a job with a Japanese company, that'll be much more stable."

It is an attitude that comes from the parents, says William Saito, who advises the government.

"Parents are mortally afraid of their children falling off what's known in Japan as the escalator, because of what they have gone through.

"So if you don't go lock-step with your peers in finding a job and getting a promotion, they feel that they'll be left behind and that the disparity will increase," he adds.

Even after they get a job, more than half of new recruits at Japanese companies say they don't want to be deployed abroad, according to the Japan Management Association.

Education overhaul

The government wants to change this mindset. It hopes to double the number of Japanese students who study abroad by 2020.

It has also changed the education curriculum so that all primary school children will learn English from the age of 10 when they're in grade 5. Under the previous system, students in public schools did not learn the English language until they were at a junior high school at the age of 13.

But it takes more than just language skills, and the government is trying to overhaul the education and employment systems as part of its economic policy known as Abenomics, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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Image caption Low self-esteem and unhappiness blight Japanese youth, surveys suggest

"In Japan, people try to get into a good college in order to get into a good company, but it becomes a very narrow window of how you evaluate a person," says Mr Saito.

He also describes the current recruiting process, which differentiates between new recruits and mid-career employees, as "discriminatory" because it has failed to make the best use of the country's talent.

For decades, Japan has produced millions of class-A students who would work long hours and devote their lives to their employers. They were the army of salarymen behind Japan's recovery from World War Two.

But to make the future generations more competitive abroad, the old systems need to be reformed.

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