Creating a collective language: Youth from Northeast Asia Imagine the future of the region

Between July and October 2021, the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (DPPA), in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), gathered a group of 40 young professionals and students from China, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea and asked them to envision the future of Northeast Asia through a new lens, looking at the multiplicity of options ahead of them. During three zoom sessions that were also designed and facilitated by youth trained under the initiative, participants shared their hopes for a more cooperative Northeast Asia, among all generations, now and in the future. We asked them to share some reflections and ideas they would like to carry forward.

On 1 December, as dawn broke in New York and the work day was coming to an end in Tokyo and Seoul, a group of 10 people — a young Japanese woman temporarily based Finland, a Chinese political science student in Seoul and a student from Ulaanbaatar, among others — got together virtually for another in a series of meetings around the theme of imagining a common future in Northeast Asia. Natsuha, Ayaka, Yuefeng, Manjiang, Yunjin, Tengis, Yanjin, Yukako, Takaki and Moe had been asked to bring with them an “object from the future”. Their choices were eclectic: a storybook meant to remind us of the omnipresence of the art of storytelling, an avocado to represent the cycle of nature and growth, a set of headphones to shield against the aural assaults that could be in store, chocolate to symbolize the pleasures of daily life. And a clock to remind us that we never know how long our time on earth will be, nor what will happen to us in the years to come.

DPPA: What do you think Northeast Asia will look like in a few decades?

Yanjin, 24, China: I think we will have something like an Asian Union, although it’s difficult to know how it will operate.

Natsuha, 30, Japan: I wonder though if Northeast Asia can ever have a defined regional identity. Perhaps to achieve it, we should work on common textbooks and gather knowledge from all our countries, to identify what brings us together. History scholars should learn to include different voices into textbooks. It is impossible to have one identity for the whole region, but there can be multiple narratives. We can let different truths coexist.

Yuefang, 30, China: I agree, we don’t necessarily have to come up with a common history. Forcing commonalities is not necessarily good. Couldn’t we cultivate our differences instead? An Asian education could focus on reflecting the common future we want, instead of looking at the past.

Tengis, 20, Mongolia: In the future, we need more discussions, with diverse voices, such as young people, ordinary people.

Moe, 29, Japan: That’s why I think we need to create a new language. When we think of a regional union, we often refer to the European Union, because it is easier to use familiar concepts. But Northeast Asia has stronger inner boundaries which divide us. Instead of referring to other, which places a veil on the discussion, we should focus on creating a collective language to talk about a future Northeast Asian Union. Focusing on history and on the past is a Eurocentric way of looking at things. In Asia, we allow ourselves to be more undefined. A common regional textbook could be more fluid than usual history books.

Ayaka, Japan: Languages can divide us. We need to overcome our linguistic differences and elaborate non-verbal tools to interact between countries. We could start by sharing the stories of ordinary people, instead of big overarching political stories. Conflicts arise when we don’t know our neighbors. A regional textbook could focus on ordinary people’s stories… Let’s take food for example. In Northeast Asia, food is something intimate which we can easily share. If we start talking about food, we will also talk about the environment, or about forestry.

Manjiang, 26, China: And for that, we need more people-to-people interactions. Cross-nations education is key.

Yukako, 28, Japan: We should discuss what brings us together. Identities can be both inclusive and exclusive. When we face a common threat, regional identities become more powerful. But what does it mean to be Northeast Asian when there’s no outside threat? I don’t have an answer. Maybe that’s why we sometimes limit it to economic cooperation…

What will relations between generations look like in the future?

Yuefang: I think we would all benefit from sharing experiences between countries. It might be easier to talk to older people from neighboring countries than from one’s own.

Natsuha: It is indeed important to have interactions with other age groups. Life-long learning could bring a lot of opportunities. We don’t stop learning when we graduate.

Ayaka: We should imagine how Virtual Reality (VR) tools could help older generations explain how their life was to younger generations. We could recreate past realities and experiences through VR, so that children and youth can experience what their ancestors went through, conflict, war, the harsh realities of the past. This could also be a regional project: elderly people from different countries living in the countryside may have similar memories. Grassroot organisations could work on that. I could imagine a collective exhibition for example, made with the use of new technologies.

Moe: There’s work to be done to communicate our environmental concerns to other generations. We don’t want to blame them for climate change, but we want to protect the world in a different way. To some elders’ skepticism about climate action, we should object that we are trying to sustain the world they built for us. Instead of negating their work, we could switch the narrative.

Most of you are students or young professionals. How do you imagine work will look like in the region? What would be a good work / life balance?

Yunjin: The notion of work / life balance is an import from the Western middle class. Life is more diverse than that, especially for ordinary workers. Many of them struggle to keep up with higher life standards. Better social security systems should ensure a minimum wellbeing for all people.

Tengis: I’m from Mongolia, I think we tend to forget that in our countries most people work with their hands. This is key to bear in mind when thinking about the future — we need people to work with their hands too.

Ayaka: I agree. Instead of talking about life / work balance, we should think how to make people proud of their lifestyles. We need holistic changes. In Asia, farmers have very different ideas than us about work-life balance. Only if we are inclusive will we be able to talk about work-life balance in Asia in an accurate way.

Manjiang: Both governments and corporations could think about how to change things. They are the ones who elaborate policies and rules. The government should start reducing working hours.

Natsuha: In our region, being a hard worker is considered a quality. But some people sacrifice themselves. I used to feel guilty when I was taking a break. We should learn to focus on our wellbeing and health, challenge the status quo and the meaning of success. Success should be about happiness, not societal and cultural pressure.

Takaki, 21, Japan: We all heard about Japanese problem with overwork. For my parents’ generation, life was about work. But industries are changing, too.

Moe: In Japan, we remain attached to the concept of lifetime employment that took hold after the Second World War, when Japan needed to rebuild its infrastructure. Major companies would guarantee people money, security and a safety net, in exchange for people giving their lives to the company. This culture remains, although the economy is changing. Many families must find new ways to sustain themselves. I tend to consider that community and sharing can give us a better sense of security. But I’m not sure this is common thinking.

As we are nearing the end of the year, where would you like our project to go? What should the UN do for young people in the region?

Manjiang: As a strong organization and a point of contact, the UN can bring us together. Multinational organizations are good connectors and can help us build a more sustainable and stable communities. For me, the UN is a platform to build dialogue. That is something missing in the region.

Yuefang: We need to involve more diverse voices, bury aside our diverging identities, and keep on building this network, organizing more cultural exchanges, policy dialogues and debates. And continue exploring alternative forms of future. This enables us to look at the future in a less biased way. In political science, which I study, we don’t really use the future.

Yunjin: Some of us like to dream; others can have very practical ideas. I hope they can serve policymakers.

Natsuha: I would like to continue to discuss the identity of Northeast Asia. I think transnational textbooks are a very inspirational idea.

Ayaka: The UN has the capacity to gather creative people and policy makers and make things happen. I would love to see a collective exhibition, a virtual reality project.

The Futuring Peace in Northeast Asia project was conceptualized by DPPA (Asia and the Pacific Division and the Innovation Cell) in partnership with the UNESCO. The pilot project in 2021 looked at futures literacy skills of youth in Northeast Asia to uncover individual and collective visions of the future as it relates to a peaceful region in 2060. Phase II of the project in 2022 plans to expand the pilot by connecting their visions with policymaking, particularly linking the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda and strategic foresight.


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