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Shutting Out the Sun

How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation

By Michael Zielenziger

For those people who love Japan and have wondered how an economic and industrial system that was second only to that of the United States in the 1980s could have collapsed into stagnation and sociological malaise, Shutting Out the Sun offers a persuasive, if somewhat unnerving, explanation. Due to the problems that Japanese society faces, such as low economic growth rates between a series of recessions, an aging population that requires mounting costs for care (increasing by approximately $13 billion each year), a plummeting birthrate (now among the lowest in the world), a high incidence of suicide (more than 30,000 per year; for comparison sake, the US, with more than twice the population has approximately 35,000 suicides per year) depression and alcoholism, and an alienated young generation:

Frustrated and disaffected, many young Japanese just abandon their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of others wander like nomads outside the rigid traditional system, refusing to go to school, or accept job training. Even more disturbing──perhaps most disturbing──is the cadre of more than one million young adults, the majority of them men, who literally shut themselves away from the sun, closing their blinds, taping shut their windows, and refusing to leave the bedroom in their homes for months or years at a time.

How is one to make sense of such bizarre phenomena?

Shutting Out the Sun

This immense group of isolated individuals who refuse to participate in Japanese society and instead hide themselves away at home are called hikikomori. This word is a combination of the infinitive forms of two verbs, “hiku” or “to draw back” and “komoru” or “to shut oneself in.” Some of them have led this reclusive existence for more than a decade. The author states that this psychological disorder is unique in the world and due to the specific factors in Japanese society that arose over the course of many centuries.

One might argue that the term “Lost Generation” in the subtitle of this work is misleading. The “Lost Generation” of American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s and 30s including Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, were extraordinarily creative and productive. Their artistic output is a treasure that all can appreciate. In comparison, the “Lost Generation” of Japanese hikikomori are pathetic, and in reading about their lives one sometimes wants to grab them by the scruff of the neck and say, “Snap out of it!”

But that is exactly the point. Japanese society, that meticulously organized, intricately balanced and rigorously maintained system that works under clockwork efficiency has little patience with them, either. In fact, for many years the plight of the hikikomori was completely ignored by the establishment. There was no attempt made by the psychiatric profession to treat those suffering from this condition, nor to classify it or even to recognize it as a genuine phobia worthy of serious examination. It was often felt that these hikikomori just over-reacted to bullying in school and rather than accepting what is normal in Japanese society, they took the easy way out and just dropped out.

Of course, it has been recognized for a long time that bullying in Japanese schools has had many unfortunate consequences. But in recent years it has gotten to the point of being intolerable. A spate of suicides by students in recent years has brought the matter into sharp focus. It has become clear that not only are some youngsters ostracized or subjected to minor physical mistreatment, they are sometimes seriously tortured. There have been photographs that have come to light of boys’ arms covered with cigarette burns. And at times, the victimization extends to extortion. In one memorable case recounted in this book a student was forced to steal the equivalent of $500,000 from his parents over an extended period of time and turn it over to his tormenters.

One would think that the teachers in the schools would realize what was happening and put an end to it. But that is not the case. Sometimes the teachers took part themselves in the bullying. In Japanese, there is an expression, “The stake that sticks out is pounded down” (“Deru kui wa utareru.”) This means that not conforming to what is expected of you will lead to an unpleasant result. In other words, the victims had it coming to them. But things have really gotten out of hand as Zielinziger reports:

The evidence suggests students know their schools are failing them, which is why they are abandoning them in record numbers. In 2002, more than 131,000 children, including nearly 3 percent of all junior high students, simply did not attend school at all, according to the official figures; and these statistics probably understate reality. Yet schools seldom try to woo students back into the classroom once they leave, and parents are not prepared to drag them back.

And yet, Shutting Out the Sun is only partially concerned with these hikikomori. They are just one symptom of a deeply troubling problem that is afflicting Japanese society. Zielenziger takes great pains to analyze the situation from multiple perspectives, starting with the great economic and industrial success that Japan enjoyed in the 1970s and especially the 80s.

This was the “bubble economy,” and strolling through the Ginza you sensed the headiness swirling. In this last decade of the twentieth century, the Japanese had emerged triumphant. Who dared rival them? They built better cars more efficiently. They fabricated the most complex computer chips. These Japanese created an advanced, prosperous, and technologically sophisticated economy without the ghettos, the criminal underclass, or the social tensions that ravaged Western societies. Everything worked so well in Japan, visitors marveled.

So what happened? How could things have gone so wrong?

What these Japanese could not comprehend──nor could most of the rest of us, back then──was that the incredibly close-knit system they had meshed together, one which allowed the nation to accumulate so much wealth so quickly, also held the seeds of its undoing; that this same incessant unity of purpose that generated such fabulous industrial efficiency might prove weakness as well as strength. The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve──through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay──carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of its own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up.

There it is in a nutshell. The shock of losing the Second World War and being occupied by the US military caused Japan to adopt a regimen of pitiless self-denial. But the culture never knew when to stop. Even after it had achieved success, Japan Inc. continued its repressive measures to control the population.

The more I entered into the concealed realm of the hikikomori, the world in which they shut out the sun, the more I understood that these men were renouncing a complex web of values that made them feel impotent and without worth, one that curbed their innate individuality and suppressed the very qualities their nation needed to shake off its own inwardness. In Japan’s extraordinary transition from feudalism to modernity, I came to see, the adjustment has proven incomplete: nothing in this system, forged through stress, obligation, and mutual sacrifice, seems to inculcate fundamental tolerance and compassion.

Zielenziger traces the origins of the Japanese organization of society and work to the feudal conditions of the 17th century. He goes on to examine the ramifications since then from a variety of perspectives. What is surprising, though, is how he explores the matter deeper than usual, contrasting the Japanese approach to these things with the Western philosophical perspective:

However grossly they may ignore it in practice, Westerners today retain a belief in a transcendental power outside and above the commonplace, which over the centuries provided a viable compass whereby a nation’s people may judge the behavior of its leaders and others and exact accountability. At base, we profess a belief in moral leadership. In Japan, however, the boundary between sacred and profane, self and nature, society and self, and even, especially, between right and wrong are murky. In conversations with Japanese historians, sociologists, psychiatrists, and other social thinkers, I was struck by how often they highlighted the absence of monotheism in Japanese culture as an important element distinguishing their society from a Western one. In turn, the American theologian Thomas Kasulis believes that Japanese morality must be unfathomable to Westerners: “We find in the Japanese account no marked emphasis on any of the following: the individual [soul] as the primary unit of spiritual, moral, and political meaning; the notion of a set of universal principles applying to all humankind as the ideal of behavior; the idea of a legalistic, contractual relationship among persons or between people and their God; the idea of a divine plan worked out in natural and human history to which we feel responsible; or the hierarchy of rationality as what sets off the human from other animals.” [Thomas P. Kasulis, “Intimacy: A General Orientation in Japanese Religious Values,” Philosophy East and West no. 4 (October 1990): 433-49.]

The most unusual aspect of this part of the book is that although Zielenziger is Jewish, he expresses admiration of the role that Christianity played in helping Korea to forge unity in its culture. He devotes two of the fifteen chapters in the book, Chapter 12: Rising Sun and Hermit Kingdom and Chapter 13: A Completely New Value System, to a comparison between the ways that Japan and Korea modernized their respective countries. Whereas Japan fell back on the feudal model of the past, Korea used Christianity to build a consensus that allowed the populace to overturn Japanese domination and colonization.

And all of this just scratches the surface of this excellent work. Zielenziger quotes from a wide variety of sources, including the top contemporary novelist, Murakami Haruki, and the Dutch journalist, Karel van Wolferen. He uses a passage from the latter’s work, The Enigma of Japanese Power (reviewed here last year), to emphasize a point.

It would be comforting if a reassuring conclusion was reached in Shutting Out the Sun. But the rapid modernization of China only poses more problems for Japan. The following is the closest to a “happy ending” to be found in the work:

Although China’s inevitable rise will dramatically transform the political map of Asia, it will not in itself necessarily lead to domestic upheaval or displacement within Japan. Japan could well bury any lingering dreams of global, or even regional, superiority and choose instead to turn itself into an Asian model of Switzerland, a peaceful, relatively prosperous, insulated, and increasingly irrelevant nation, a quiet and stable second-rate power. Could the Japanese vote on it, I have little doubt that a majority would choose such gradual decline over any radical, destabilizing change.

The author, Michael Zielenziger, moved to Tokyo in 1996 to become the bureau chief for the Knight Ridder Newspapers, so he is quite knowledgeable about the subject. He remained in that capacity for seven years. The book is well-annotated with notes, has a useful bibliography and index and even four pages of Japanese words defined.

Anyone wishing to understand the intricacies of Japanese society and the factors that have led up to this difficult time in Japan’s history is well-advised to read this book.

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