Generation KY

Ever since the term “KY” topped the Buzzwords of 2007 at the end of last year, a million adults now cruelly and painfully abuse this popular youth expression in an attempt to sound au courant. KY (pronounced kei-wai) is an abbreviation of the phrase “kuuki wo yomenai” 「空気を読めない」— a pejorative description of someone who fails to “read the atmosphere.” In other words, those branded KY do not act properly in context of their respective social situation. If you are really bad at breaking the mood, you can be deemed “SKY” for “super KY” (pronounced like the English word “sky.”) There is now even an entire book dedicated to explaining this kind of romanized Japanese slang called 『KY式日本語—ローマ字略語がなぜ流行るのか』(“Why are KY-form romanized Japanese slang words trendy?”)

Japanese youth make up a smaller and smaller proportion of society every year, but they are still managing to confound their parents in unexpected ways. Both magazines Takarajima and Senden Kaigi have recently published special issues all about young Japanese, and opposed to tirades against wayward children from the past, the editors do not decry kids’ new and devious forms of delinquency, but struggle to explain their lack of creative social destruction. Kids are criticized as being uninspired, lethargic, and non-confrontational. Despite a social and economic system stacked against them, they aren’t fighting society, nor even amongst themselves. Drinking and smoking are out, as is conspicuous consumption. Since parents are no longer evil authority figures, Omotesando is filled daily with young daughters happily shopping with their mothers. In this new social paradigm, marketers and commentators no longer know how to research youth motivation. An interview with social psychologist Kayama Rika in Senden Kaigi boasts the telling article title: “Why can’t we read the minds of youth?” 「なぜ若者の心が読めないのか?」(It is telling that marketers once thought they could.)

In this backdrop, adults have thus latched on to the word KY as a clear linguistic expression of young people’s internal group dynamics. If being “KY” is the number one fear for teenagers, surely this suggests a “herd mentality,” where no one wants to stick out and adherence to implied social rules is critical for maintaining human relations. So thinks Narumi Hiroshi — Associate Professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design and fashion history expert. While previous fashion movements such as hippies, punks, and the head-to-toe black Karasu-zoku (“crow tribe”) dressed to express an anti-social statement, he sees the current fashion emphasis on “real clothes” and “cleanliness” as a product of pressures towards conforming to a group standard. Narumi believes that young people generally prioritize harmonizing with their close friends over self-expression.

KY thus becomes a very convenient way to sum up all of the identified attributes of Gen Y in a single phrase: a lack of curiosity and motivation, an obsession with “life-sized” (等身大) media figures, a satisfaction with being average, an emphasis on immediate social groups, and a disinterest in being anti-authority.

Although this current discussion posits the KY traits as “new” to the current generation, the standard Western criticism of Japanese society reads almost identically: i.e., over-adherence to group norms trumps individual expression. I find it hard to believe that Generation Y invented this concept of “reading the air” for the entirety of Japanese culture. Surely previous generations have also fallen prey to similar pressures. Other post-war generations, however, enjoyed countervailing forces to foster a sense of curiosity, a will to individual expression, and a desire for social change. Being under the imperialist American pop cultural umbrella created an inferiority complex that pushed Japanese artists towards higher and higher standards. Radical Marxism became a rallying point for political activity in the 1960s. Hyper-consumerism in the 1980s and 1990s gave wealthy kids an incentive to manufacture new aesthetic modes to set themselves off from an increasingly trend-conscious mass market. Now with politics and consumerism dead and a reaffirmed self-confidence in Japanese culture, youth no longer possess an ideology that encourages “change.” Japanese social critics seem most confused that today’s kids are starting to backtrack from 50 years of greater “individualism,” reverting to more conservative forms of Japanese social organization.

No one seems to mention, however, that the collapse of the cultural markets (music, fashion, etc.) have created less opportunities for young artists to stand out on the national stage. In other words, even if kids break out of this “herd mentality,” how would we know? Unlike the 1990s, there are no more investors handing out stores to club kids, nor masses of consumers to support niche indie labels. Without any incentives or rewards for young people to break the social rules and stand out, why do we expect them to do so? The fear of KY may be a very old condition for Japan, but the natural social antidotes have all dried up.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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5 Responses to “Generation KY”

  1. Joseph Says:

    Is this not just new terminology for the age-old criticism of 弁えない?

  2. Joseph Says:

    Or phraseology even? Sorry.

  3. Joseph K Says:

    Another, more broadly used phrase that gained some notoriety last year–しょうがない–seems to support this view of kids without the drive to strive.
    I’ve often got the feeling that young folk here seem to be content to cruise into whatever position society nudges them towards, not seeing any need to rock the boat as long as they’ve got a few opportunities to relax with friends now and then.
    If things continue in this trend, might not even the old “頑張っている” drop from advertising jargon due to a lack of relevance? Hmm…

  4. W. David Marx Says:

    If we have to go back to “shou ga nai” for explanation, then there is really nothing new about the social behavior of these kids.

  5. J Grefe Says:

    This is a wonderful post. Yesterday, I wrote about KY as well, but your writing frames it in a way that was unimaginable to me. That is, I have only been thinking about KY as a verbal excuse for destroying the otherness of the Other and not in terms of its cultural consequences. Thank you for exercising my brain.