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Yuji Genda Offers Hope for Japan’s Future

"One third of Japan's adults ages 20 to 59 feel their hopes are unattainable or have no hope for the future," said Professor Yuji Genda, a labor economist at the University of Tokyo, in the 2009 Cornell Law School Clarke Lecture, delivered in Anabel Taylor auditorium November 4.

One of Japan's leading public intellectuals, Genda is part of an interdisciplinary team that tries to solve societal problems by examining what promotes such intangible behaviors as hopefulness.

Genda related how Japan's economic slump of the 1990s had roots in the 1980s, when many banks failed and self-employment began to drop in most sectors, a trend that has continued. The 1980s also saw the start of fewer multi-generational households, more single-parent ones, a population shift from the country to cities, and greater poverty.

"If self-employment equals independence and family symbolizes security," Genda asks, "how do we transform people's uncertainty and caution into certainty and bold action?" Financial markets as well as people thrive on hope, so one answer may be studying hopefulness.

Genda and colleagues discovered that people with hope, surprisingly, are more likely to have experienced serious setbacks and can talk about them frankly and with humor. Other qualities include playfulness and a narrative shared across generations that allows people to imagine the future brightly. For example, many fear an aging society will drain Japan's social services. "But an aging society can also be seen as rich in experience, with older people encouraging younger ones to hope," said Genda.

Professor Annelise Riles, who directs the Law School's Clarke Program on East Asian Law and Culture, praised Genda's approach for becoming "a model far beyond Japan." And Dean Stewart Schwab, who commented on Genda's remarks, noted that Barack Obama won the U.S. Presidency on a campaign that emphasized "the audacity of hope."

--Linda Brandt Myers