Watching anime, I’m hearing the term NEET bandied about more and more these days. I don’t have enough of a connection to contemporary Japanese society to say much about NEETs in the ‘real world’, but I do think that the recurrence of the term signifies its relevance and, importantly, the fact that it is a disputed label. 2DT discussed what exactly makes a NEET in a recent post about Kami-sama no Memo-chou, but it was watching Eden of the East which got me thinking enough to post here.
NEET is a typically concise Japanese acronym (though it’s based on English words) standing for “Not in Education, Employment or Training”. Basically, NEETs do nothing. They’re not contributing to society or the economy, they’re dead weight. They might have failed in their studies or other endeavours, or they might have voluntarily dropped out, become hikikomori, or refused to pursue mainstrem goals and expectations for whatever reasons. This was not desirable; it is anti-social by nature. I say was not, because the portrayal of NEETs in anime suggests to me that this perception may be changing.
Alice of Kami-sama no Memo-chou leads a band of self-proclaimed ‘NEET detectives’ who, while not holding conventional roles in society, still have an occupation and contribute in their own ways. Before I go any further I should make clear that I have only watched the first episode of this series and was not impressed, but 2DT discusses the first episode insightfully. I was reminded of this watching Eden of the East (which, by the way, I highly recommend), in which 20,000 NEETs are shown to combine their knowledge and intelligence to play vital roles in saving Japan – twice!
Eden of the East portrays NEETs as people who spend a lot of their time on the internet, and by association as people who understand how the internet works. They succeed through collective intelligence and information sharing, co-operating through interactive media in a way which people in face-to-face society aren’t doing. Even the ‘Eden of the East’ image recognition software from which the show’s title is derived is a great example of this, relying as it does on user input for the benefit of all. Maybe those who spend the majority of their time on the web do fail to participate in wider society, but might they participate in something else? If so, is that something else something we should reject or embrace?
As with Kami-sama no Memo-chou, NEETs are here portrayed as useful members of society – useful, in fact, in a way that your average salaryman couldn’t be. Itazu, an intelligent ‘conspircy nut’ who has shut himself into his tiny apartment, is a hero in Eden of the East, both for being clever enough to get vital information out of a Seleção phone and for being brave in the face of threats and violence. He is also your standard isolated, kind of gross NEET. More and more, NEETs are being heroicised and presented as characters who are worthy of sympathy (even admiration) rather than failures who can only be redeemed by joining mainstream society.
Is this just pandering to the subset of anime fans who are also considered NEETs? Playing on the sympathy that otaku types might have for fellow outcasts? Perhaps. Alternatively, anime that take this approach may be highlighting the ways in which NEETs could represent a future path for society. The internet and the so-called ‘web 2.0’ movements have great potential to change the way we socialise, share information, make decisions and organise ourselves, and the kinds of people who shut themselves in with their computers and live their lives through the internet? Those people – the NEETs for whom that is the social world – understand it best of all.
Computer-mediated communication will never (yes, I’m saying that now, a definitive statement) replace face-to-face social interaction, but it’s already changing the way we do things and the way we think. In recognising the humble NEET as having his or her own niche in our social worlds rather than being simply an outsider to the One True Society, anime series are acknowledging that these changes might not be a bad thing, after all.