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Kaiji: The Ultimate Millennial

by Norbert Daniels Jr.,

Following World War II and until the end of the 80s, Japan experienced its “Economic Miracle.” The country built itself up from the rubble of war and became one of the world's most powerful economies. But that came to an end in the early 90s when the Japanese economy stagnated. The country's real estate bubble burst, wages fell, and traditional jobs with salaries and benefits were replaced by low-paying temp jobs. This economy was a nightmare to step out of school into. The youth who graduated high school and college during that time are still reeling from the effects. For Americans, this sounds all too familiar to our 2008 economic crash. The manga/anime series Kaiji follows a protagonist who graduated high school in 1993. The series is drenched in the economic anxiety of the period, which makes it extremely relatable to millenials.

Kaiji is a gambling manga and anime series by Nobuyuki Fukumoto that's been running since 1996. The story follows Kaiji, a young man reduced to a listless deadbeat by his inability to find steady work in the difficult 90s Japanese economy. One day Kaiji is visited by a loan shark, informing him that he's on the hook for a large loan that he co-signed for a coworker. In the best case scenario, it would take Kaiji 11 years to pay off the loan. To pay off the debt, Kaiji goes through a gauntlet of high stakes gambling games with rewards of up to millions of dollars and punishments ranging from slavery to death.

The strongest arc in the anime is the underground labor camp arc in the beginning of season 2. Months after a disastrous loss to the Teiai Group, Kaiji's in deeper debt than ever and no hope to ever pay it back. Since he can't pay in cash, Kaiji is abducted and put to work in the Teiai Group's underground forced labor camp. Prisoners there are tasked with constructing a massive nuclear bunker. A “kingdom” where even in a nuclear apocalypse the wealthy can live lives of luxury. After the 90% cut that goes towards debt repayment plus room & board, Kaiji is only able to pocket a mere ¥9,100 (about $85 USD) for an entire month of backbreaking physical labor.

The night of his first payday Kaiji balks at the sight of his fellow workers spending their money on overpriced snacks. Kaiji's goal is to save up every penny for six months in order to buy a one-day pass to the outside. Once out, he would hope to win enough money in one day in gambling to wipe his debt clean. But he's soon humbled and learns how foolish his mindset was. The small indulgences of beer and potato chips are what keep people going in the camp. Denying oneself of these small pleasures takes superhuman willpower. Even if he had saved up those six months to get the day pass, the idea that he could win the money needed in one day is absurd, even for him. Kaiji's initial attitude is the same one that leads people to blame the economic conditions of millenials on spending too much money on Starbucks and avocado toast. On paper, a couple decades of making your own coffee at home could eventually lead to enough savings to put a down payment on a house. But the real issue isn't people allowing themselves small treats in their lives. It's the larger system that keeps people trapped in a prison of debt and poverty.

The work camp becomes even more insidious when a visit to the camp's infirmary reveals that paying off the debt through work may not be a possibility at all. When a worker collapses in a coughing fit, Kaiji is ordered to help take him to the infirmary. The whole way there, the worker is begging not to be taken to the camp hospital. He insists from his stretcher that he can still work. When Kaiji reaches the infirmary he finally understands the man's desperation. The sick room might as well be a graveyard. The narrator describes it best: “Laid out before him was a hell within hell! The end of the line! Lungs wrecked by dust, bodies destroyed by slave labor! Damned souls, suffering through their final hours!”

If the havoc the labor wreaked upon the workers bodies wasn't bad enough, Kaiji is told that workers have to pay for any medicine. And of course if you can't work, you won't get paid. The vast majority who end up in the infirmary die there. Working diligently doesn't guarantee paying off the debt and achieving freedom. In all likeliness, most of the workers in the camp will perish years before they could ever earn their way out. It's an incredibly cruel system. It becomes scarier when you realize that the system Americans live with isn't all that different. A 2009 study by Harvard Medical school found that 45,000 Americans die annually directly because of a lack of health insurance. The issue of healthcare and health insurance may be the single most defining political topic for American millennials. The country has gone from passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to the majority of the voters supporting Medicare for All in 2020. Unlike America, Japan has universal healthcare free at the point of service. It's frightening how well Fukumoto's fictional vision of healthcare in Hell resonates with the reality that Americans face and are currently fighting to change.

Kaiji escapes the work camp and clears his debt. But it isn't through the individual discipline of denying himself convenience store snacks. It's through uniting with his fellow workers, a group called the 45'ers (remember Occupy Wall St.? That sounds a bit like the 99% to me). Together they take the fight directly to the system that's been extorting them and walk away with enough money for Kaiji to escape and set off on a journey to win enough money to settle all their debts.

There's a gap between Kaiji in the legitimate world of employment and the world of the Teiai Group's games. In the outside world, Kaiji's looked at as a hopeless bum. At best, he's a minimum wage convenience store clerk. In the first episode, loan collector Endo gets a read on him that cuts deep. “You feel like garbage everyday, don't you? Powerless, degraded and non-productive.” But Kaiji's gambling reveal that he's worth much more than that. We see that he's virtually unmatched in willpower, tactical thinking and emotional intelligence. These skills are enough to save his life numerous times, but unfortunately they don't translate into gainful employment. It's a subtle but powerful message about one's true worth not being measured by their economic success.

Kaiji isn't just the story of a man playing extreme gambling games. It's the story of a man who is part of a generation who got the economic rug pulled from under them. A narrow field of options and the crushing prison of debt weigh heavy on his spirit. But in the end he manages to pull through by uniting with those who share his plight. Kaiji's story is one that should resonate with American millennials and help them understand their common plight with the Lost Generation of Japan. Japan's Lost Generation is still reeling decades later, and things aren't looking so hot in America right now either. But Kaiji tells us that if we learn to stick together, we'll hit our jackpot eventually. Just like the show says, “The future is in our hands.”

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