NEETs: the death or the future of society?

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.

Portraying NEETs as cute loli girls doesn't hurt either... although, is it cause or effect of more positive connotations?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.

Is this the sight of genius at work?

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.

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6 Responses to NEETs: the death or the future of society?

  1. Human society is evolving, the average dosage of media intake nowadays is intense. We will live in virtual reality before you even realize it. Just like “Ghost in the shell” senses can be manipulated, you wont know what is real and what not anymore

    • Curuniel says:

      I think it’s more that our idea of ‘real’ will change, and is changing. Some people still consider relationships mediated by computers and the internet to not be ‘real’, but if I’m a real person and so is the person I’m chatting with, how is there not a social relationship there? I have a real interest in virtual worlds. The physical, face-to-face world is still distinctive, though, and although that may change for us one day, that’s a long way off.
      As far as the ‘culture of simulation’ goes, we certainly are embracing it more and more; I’m a child of my time, I don’t see that as inherently bad at all.

  2. H says:

    [Insert Jean Baudrillard reference here.]

  3. Kazuna says:

    I like the ideology of being a NEET as well. I don’t like the fact that there’s a stigma that everybody has a debt they owe to society once they are born. What’s even more is that people that do often contribute to society in a non-standard way are often not given the same recognition. A society that only respects those with income and money isn’t exactly my idea of an ideal society. If society approached problems from a sort of “Open Source” standpoint and not from a standpoint of money or power, things would be lot more bearable.

    • Curuniel says:

      Sadly the society we know is a capitalist society, and changing that would change an afwul lot of other things which we might not like so much. Still, I know what you mean, there are moral and ethical shortfalls which aren’t made up for that easily.
      In some ways though, EVERY society has this mentality that “everybody has a debt they owe to society once they are born.” Whether it’s an obligation to your family, clan, people, state, whatever, we’re all born into webs of social relations that rely on obligations, and that’s part of what shapes our identity. I think that the idea of people as independent, free agents who decide everything about themselves is a very new contemporary one, something different to how human beings have usually thought of themselves.

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