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The pressures of youth: Japan and Korea

The phrase ‘reading the air’ – Ba no Kuuki wo Yomu – is common in Japanese, meaning ‘the ability to understand the situation without words’.

Noriko wants to see more young people and women enter politics in Japan.

South Korea is another Asian country with a 'super-aged' society, where birth-rates are among the lowest in the world

The PIE recently met two students from Japan and Korea studying in Brighton, who shared their insights into the often unspoken pressures of coming from an ageing population and what the future holds for them.

“We’re basically living next to each other [in connected buildings],” explained Nariko, “my mum, she’s taking care of all four of my grandparents.”

Nariko is from a suburb near Sapporo. Aged 21, she is currently studying her A-levels in the UK with a view to studying international relations at university.

More than one in 10 people in Japan are over the age of 80, a statistic that has stagnated the national economy and slowed societal change.

“It is said that every person [will be] taking care of one elderly person in the future, so it will be a burden for young people,” said Nariko.

“Even if I take care of [my family], we are not really sure if we will get paid a pension in the future, the retirement age is rising.

“It is getting really tough for families because they haven’t seen pay rise for a really long time. Inflation is still going up and other surrounding Asian countries are growing rapidly.

“I have a really progressive view about social problems”

“Japan is getting behind and personally I don’t want to work [there], I don’t really see a future [for me].”

The stoic values of an older generation have meant the country has resisted the globalisation and liberal movements happening elsewhere in the world.

“In Japan you are pressured not to talk about politics, it’s just not what you do, even within your families. If you have very different opinions, you could really be segregated from the community,” explains Nariko.

“And I have a really progressive view about social problems.

“Some property owners don’t rent their property to foreigners.

“[Being Japanese] you’re pressured to follow certain social values, especially if you’re living as a woman in Japan, you are under pressure to do certain things and not to do certain things.”

This is all “too much” for Noriko. “[There is an] expectation from society when it comes to income, yet social mobility is pretty stagnant in Japan.”

Noriko refers to what her friends call ‘reading the air’ – essentially reading the room about what is expected from young people by Japanese society.

“If you don’t go to a really good university, you will have to live with that for the rest of your life – when you apply for jobs, even in casual conversation with friends.

“That’s the life that I cannot stand. I want to see more young [people] involved in politics in Japan [to affect change].”

South Korea is another Asian country with a ‘super-aged’ society, where birth-rates are among the lowest in the world.

Sangwon Kim, known to his classmates as ‘Harry’ due to his Potter-style glasses, is a 25-year-old graduate now studying English in the UK.

His country is home to the ‘Suneung’ – a high school examination reputed to be one of the hardest in the world, that determines not only university places but future relationships and social status.

“When I was a high school student, I stayed at school from 9 am to 10 pm,” explains Harry.

“I had to study every day and the same thing was repetitive from Monday to Friday and even on the weekend. I didn’t have much free time because the Korean educational system is really competitive and a lot of parents are expecting their children to do more things.

“Now I realise that I miss my country a lot, my family and my pet too”

“I used to have some private education even on the weekend. So actually I would say it’s not really good for children.”

Since moving to the UK to study, he has come to appreciate the European culture of exploring wider interests in addition to academic rigour.

“There is not a lot of chance to find my other interests or experience other things [in South Korea] and actually I don’t like it,” he reflected.

But Harry is determined to return to his home country and help support future development. He is aiming to secure a high IELTS score that will open doors to a career in chemical engineering with an international company.

“I want to get some international jobs which are located in Korea,” explains Harry.

“When I arrived here, I was thinking about getting a job abroad, but now I realise that I miss my country a lot, my family and my pet too, so I want to stay in my country [and work].”

Harry now awaits the result of his English exam but the hard work still lies ahead for him.

South Korea is renowned, not only for high educational expectations but long working hours and an intense professional culture.

Can you relate to the pressures students face? Please feel free to comment below or by emailing 

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