From the library: Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation, by Michael Zielenziger

From the library: Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation, by Michael Zielenziger February 13, 2015

This is actually an old book, dating from 2006.  I strayed from the new book section at the library and stumbled upon it.  And reading it, I wondered whether I was essentially reading history, or whether conditions in Japan are still much the same now as nine years ago.  I also had a major dose of schadenfreude, having grown up in the Detroit area in the ’80s.

The book starts out talking about a phenomenon in Japan of the hikikomori, teenagers and young men who isolate themselves to an extreme degree.  Their nearest American equivalent might be the stereotypical young man who spends all his time in his parents’ basement, playing computer games — in the first place because these are Japanese homes; there is no basement.  They spend all their time in their bedrooms, completely isolated.  They neither interact with their families, nor do they have online relationships; they generally don’t even have computers, but instead they do such things as watch TV, draw, or just . . . nothing, all day long.  They’re paralyzed.

And it’s the nature of Japanese society that gives them this paralysis.  In the first place, many of them stopped going to school at as young an age as middle school, because of bullying.  And unlike the U.S., where administrators, teachers, and parents work to stop bulling, there, everyone’s pretty much OK with it, because it’s what compels conformity, and Japan insists on conformity and punishes deviance.  This insistence on conformity further means that these boys and men keep the shades closed, and don’t dare let anyone see them inside, or leaving the house, out of fear that the family will be talked about.  And seeking help is even worse, as it brings shame upon the family — though some courageous men and women are beginning to establish programs to help these hikikomori, such as day programs and drop-in centers.

And these aren’t just a few isolated cases; the estimate is that there are 1 million such teens and men.

The author interviews a number of these hikikomori, and reports that their fundamental problem is that they just can’t fit in to Japanese society.  In fact, in some cases, when they’ve been able to travel abroad, they’re freed from their isolation.  And this ultimately means that it’s Japanese society that’s dysfunctional, and these people would be perfectly ordinary elsewhere.

He then extends his story to Japanese society more generally.  After World War II, the nation threw itself into a frenzy of rebuilding, focused on Japan, Inc.  The government focused on transforming Japan into an economic powerhouse with cozy relationships between banks and major corporations meaning that the concept of corporate accountability to shareholders didn’t really exist.  There is no independent media to speak of — no one to report corporate or political scandals.  And the government has been controlled by a single party since shortly after the end of World War II, with no reform (economic or social/cultural) on the agenda and no means of any young upstarts placing it on an agenda — no way for anyone reform-minded to work within the system, or outside the system.  No protests, no Movements, etc.

(Skipping ahead, at the end of the book, he further says that America played a role here, too — its desire for an ally in the Cold War and, later, for someone to purchase its government bonds meant that it was the enabler for Japan’s dysfunction.  But here he speaks very much from a 2006 standpoint, when Japan was, wrongly in his view, an “ally” with Bush rather than standing up and going their own way.  Heck, at the end of the book, he points to J-Pop as a promising new development, when, according to The Birth of Korean Cool, it has now been surpassed by K-Pop.)

Anyway:  conformity, conformity, conformity.  Some of this is familiar:  the Japanese child, in cram school ’til late at night, exhausted.  (And the parents, financially burdened by its cost.)  The Japanese man, expected to work late hours and/or go drinking with the boss — and with the boss calling the shots, and pouring the shots, and essentially compelling their subordinates to keep drinking because it would be shameful to refuse.  The father having no relationship with his child, because all he wants to do is sleep on the weekends.  The women, many professing their unwillingness to marry because Japanese men expect women to abandon their careers, and, anyway, the ambitious ones are stymied by severe discrimination against women; those that do, often unable to find a husband because the old “arranged marriage” culture never really evolved into a modern “dating” culture.  And the birth rate, low as it is, is only propped up due to an openness to sex before marriage, but without much modern contraception, and a still-very-much-alive shotgun wedding expectation.  (Though at the same time, the author says there is no cultural or other disapproval of abortion — it’s not clear what the story is.)

On top of all this:  the crash of the 90s put a major dent in the lifetime employment expectation, leaving the country adrift, but without any actual reform coming from this.

Then there’s a lot of pyschologizing, which I can’t really summarize, because I read the book in too many fits and starts, but here’s something striking:  Japan doesn’t have much, if any, tradition of charity/civic engagement/altruism.  Japan doesn’t have much in the way of religion.  Shintoism isn’t really a theology in the sense that we would think of it, but more a set of ritual practices and shrines to visit from which modern Japanese may pick and choose (in the same way as they have, ever since modernization, chosen which aspects of Western techonology, governance, and culture to adopt).  And due to their history, the Japanese people don’t have a values system in the way that we would imagine (“Judeo-Christian” values).  Here’s a striking paragraph:

Unlike most of the people in the West who profess belief in a force beyond themselves, the Japanese worship many gods, not one.  Modern Japanese find no contradiction in visiting a Shinto shrine at New Year’s to bow and pray for health and prosperity; and then hiring a Caucasian preacher to conduct their wedding ceremony in a Christian church for the status it conveys; and finally being cremated in a Buddhist temple as saffron-robed monks chant sutras in Sanskirt amid wafting incense.  In this pragmatic menu of beliefts, Japanese learn to pick a la carte, to choose what they need, when they need it, much as they might place their orders for individual morsels at a sushi bar.  By implication, even moral values are situational.  Taiichi Sakaiya — eocnomist, former Cabinet minister, and renowned social thinker — says this relativist belief system allows Japanese to go through life without ever developing either a conviction about absolute, inviolable, or divine teachings, or a fixed “road map” of ethical principles.  “What’s morally right today is what a majority of Japanese people say is right today,” he told me, when I asked him to define Japanese ethics.  “Of course, if tomorrow the majority changes its mind, then the same behavior becomes immoral and wrong.”  A Japanese must cast his gaze outside, not within, to discern right and wrong.  (p. 124 – 125.)

Indeed, there’s another consequence of the lack of something recognizable to us as religion:  it drives a materialism, a search for status symbols, like designer handbags, as a source of meaning, lacking the meaning found in some kind of spirituality.  And (skipping ahead a bit) in a digression, the other considers the different path that Korea took, in which youth protests produced democracy in the 80s, and a greater vitality now (though, ironically, a lower birth rate), and notes that Korea welcomed, rather than persecuted, Christians, who are, though not a majority, nearly so at 1/3 of the population and growing, and were the driving force behind economic, social, and political change.  The author says, though as an American Jew he didn’t expect this:

It may be too simple to argue that exposure to Christianity alone has changed Korean consciousness.  Yet the churches have coached the Korean people in forming social networks, building trust among strangers, and accepting universal ethics and individualism in ways that served as powerful antidotes to the autocratic worldview that their grandparents — and indeed, the Japanese — had been taught (p. 261.)

The author also discusses another feature of Japanese society:  the high suicide rate.  Japanese men kill themselves at the rate of 36.5 per 100,000, double the American rate; no other wealthy country has such a high rate (only the Finns, who are apparently called the “Japanese of Europe,” come close, at 34.6).  The rate of depression is high, too, but Japanese rarely seek help, due to the shamefulness of it.  And alcoholism is a serious problem, and the Japanese language has even created the term akuru-hara, or “alcohol harassment”:  “a company worker being forced to get drunk even though drinking makes him sick.”  (p 216).

Not surprisingly, many young Japanese “flee to the breathing room more open societies offer” (p. 280) and, once they do so, find that they have extreme difficulty reintegrating themselves, or simply never return.

And the author leaves us with one final data point, the experience of three Japanese humanitarian workers who were held hostage in Iraq in 2004.  Returning home, they weren’t greeted with relief and celebration, but with anger and disapproval for having ignored government warnings, and found this experience far more difficult to bear than their actual captivity.

Where does that leave us?  Zielenziger offers some final conclusions about American-Japan relations and the U.S.’s role as enabler, but he’s also very clearly writing from a 2006 American political viewpoint, with a few jabs at Bush.  Has anything changed?

The book also raises further questions:

It’s understandable that Japan’s birthrate is so low if their society is so dreadful.  But then why is Korea’s even worse, and Germany’s just as low?

And if Japan is in some ways a prototypical atheist society, is it a warning for secularists in the United States and Europe?

(Added:  let’s go there:  multi-kultis always want to say that “deep down, we’re all the same” — but deep down, the Japanese as profiled here are quite alien in many ways.)

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