I have always been fascinated by Japan. From childhood I’ve read and devoured everything about Japan that I could get my hands on. Samurai films, cherry blossoms, geisha, sukiyaki and teriyaki, sushi, medieval Japan, Hirohito, judo, ninja ,the tea ceremony, yakuza, the Ginza… everything interests me. A too- brief visit to Japan in 2001 only fueled my interest.It was amazing to see how the country had risen phoenixlike from the ashes of its WW II defeat to become the world’s second leading economy. In the late 80’s and early 90’s the Japanese industrial colossus seemed unstoppable. Those were the years when Akio Morita of Sony wrote a book called ” The Japan that Can Say No” and the Japanese were gobbling up prime U.S properties like Rockefeller Center.
And then the bubble burst.The real estate market went bust, the stock market collapsed and , more than a decade later, Japan continues to languish in the economic doldrums. What is most shocking is what this has done to Japanese society.It is a subject that is brilliantly explored by Michael Zielenziger in his book Shutting out the Sun: How Japan created its own Lost Generation. Japanese society, he says, is like a duck in a pond. Viewed from above, the duck appears to be moving effortlessly over the water but underneath, its legs are paddling like mad.
Zielenziger starts out by describing the plight of the hikikomori: young people , mostly male, who have withdrawn from society, dropping out of school or college and shutting themselves up in their rooms in their parents’ apartments. Their parents leave food trays outside their doors and the youngsters spend their lives shut up in their rooms listening to music, watching TV and surfing the internet. I had heard of these dropouts from society but had assumed that they were schizophrenics and I had absolutely no idea of their numbers. According to Zielenziger, these misfits are actually intelligent and creative and their numbers may run as high as 400,000. And that is a very conservative estimate since families hide their troubles out of a sense of shame. The reasons for this troubling , uniquely Japanese phenomenon are many and varied – bullying at school, lack of affection at home, the dysfunctional nature of the Japanese family, a sense of isolation and hopelessness , a rejection of their parents lifestyle, a feeling that they cannot conform and the intense pressure to succeed are some of the reasons for these youngsters shutting themselves up in their rooms. Sadly, the parents have to cope with the problem by themselves since the Japanese government has only recently begun to grudgingly accept that there is a problem.
After telling us in some detail of the travails of three of these unfortunates and their families, Zielenziger describes the underlying causes for their condition. In doing so, he paints a very bleak picture of Japanese society. Dysfunctional families where the husband spends almost all his waking hours at work or at post-work drinking parties and the wife brings up the child all by herself ; where there is little closeness between husband and wife and where the husband finds it easier to talk to bargirls than to to his wife. As a consequence, young girls are choosing to stay single rather than marry and find themselves confined to the house raising a child. Rather they prefer to stay with their parents and spend their money on luxury goods and foreign travel earning themselves the sobriquet of parasaitos or parasite singles. We learn about shigarami ( the “tangling vines “of social and business obligations that stifle the Japanese individual ) , otaku ( nerds or geeks who become so obsessed with a cultural icon or a cartoon character that they rarely leave the house), Japanese democracy, the work climate in offices, parent-child and husband wife relationships, morality, ethics, altruism and particularly the conformist, group oriented hierarchial nature of Japanese society. Along the way there are some startling revelations. For instance, until a few years ago, most Japanese offices resisted the use of PC’s and the Internet because they undermined the layers of centralized control while empowering the individual. This in a nation which is a leading exporter of computers!
There are many other amazing anomalies that Zielenziger describes as he paints a comprehensive picture of modern Japanese society. Zielenziger was the Tokyo-based bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers for 7 years and is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute of East Asian Studies , UC Berkeley but he wears his scholarship lightly.The book is written in such a way as to make it interesting to the casual reader and it is likely to become the standard work on Japan for years to come. For anyone interested in Japan and the Japanese it is a must read.
Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation. Michael Zielenziger. Doubleday (2006) $ 32.95