Written By: Ben Cosgrove
The teenage years can be hard anywhere. That said, in very few societies is the idea of youth as fraught as it is in Japan, with its culture of conformity.
In 1964, LIFE photographer Michael Rougier and correspondent Robert Morse spent time documenting one Japanese generation’s age of revolt, and came away with an astonishingly intimate, frequently unsettling portrait of teenagers hurtling willfully toward oblivion.
In Rougier’s photos—pictures that seem to breathe both reckless energy and acute despair—we don’t merely glimpse kids pushing the boundaries of rebellion. Instead, this generation of lost boys and girls seem to be trying to tell us something something reproachful and perplexing about the world we’ve made.
The teens and other young adults portrayed in Rougier’s pictures, Morse noted in a 1964 LIFE special issue on Japan (where some of these images first appeared), are “part of a phenomenon long familiar in countries of the Western world: a rebellious younger generation, a bitter and poignant minority breaking from [its] country’s past.”
All through that past, a sense of connection with the old traditions and authority has kept Japanese children obedient and very close to the family. This sense still controls most of Japan’s youth, who besiege offices and factories for jobs and the universities for education and gives the whole country an electric vitality and urgency. But as its members run away from the family and authority, this generation in rebellion grows.
In notes that accompanied Rougier’s film when it was sent to LIFE’s, Morse delved even deeper into the lives, as he perceived them, of runaways, “pill-takers” and other profoundly disengaged Tokyo teens:
Nowhere in the world does youth seem to dominate a nation as they do in Japan. They are overwhelming and everywhere, surging, searching, experimenting, ambitious at some times, helpless and without hope at others. Isolated on a tight little island, they have not, except on the surface, become international like their counterparts in freewheeling Europe.
Seeing the well-scrubbed faces of the black uniformed male students and middy-bloused girls swarming through Tokyo, physical-fitness minded young men galloping through the Ginza, and the bright young things clamoring after a teen-age idol, it would seem to the casual observer that here is a country with a youth as wholesome and happy as a hot fudge sundae.
This is not true at all.
A large segment of Japanese young people are, deep down, desperately unhappy and lost. And they talk freely about their frustrations. Many have lost respect for their elders, always a keystone of Japanese life, and in some cases denounce the older people for “for having gotten us into a senseless war.”
Having sliced the ties that bind them to the home, in desperation they form their own miniature societies with rules of their own. The young people in these groups are are bound to one another not out of mutual affection in many cases the “lost ones” are incapable of affection but from the need to belong, to be part of something.
Both the article in LIFE and the story told in Morse’s ruminative and, in some ways, far more devastating notes make clear that this “lost generation” was not even remotely monolithic. While they might, to varying degrees, have shared a genuinely nihilistic outlook toward their own and their country’s future, the runaways, rock and roll fanatics (the “monkey-dance, Beatles set,” Morse calls them), pill-poppers, “motorcycle kids” and innumerable other subsets of Japan’s youth-driven subculture attest to the breadth and depth of teen disaffection to be found in 1964 Tokyo.
That Michael Rougier, meanwhile, was able to so compassionately portray not only that disaffection, but also captured moments of genuine fellowship and even a fleeting sort of joy among these desperately searching teens, attests to the man’s talent and his dedication to share the story of what he saw.
—Liz Ronk edited this photo gallery for LIFE.com.