Is the sun setting on the future of Japan?


SHUTTING OUT THE SUN: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, by Michael Zielenziger. New York: Doubleday, 2006, 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

The strength of this book lies in its sensitive and poignant portraits of hikikomori, Japan’s recluses. Their stories of withdrawal are etched with pain and anomie. Michael Zielenziger gives a voice to these unfortunate “isolates” and sympathetically examines their malaise.

Alas, “Shutting out the Sun” leaves readers in the dark about Japan and its future. Not far into this deeply flawed and monochromatic portrayal of contemporary Japan, we read that Japan, “lacks the same values, norms, and modes of thinking most inhabitants of advanced and prosperous nations today associate with modernity.”

And that, in the post-World War II era, Japan “systematically stifled change and resisted innovation.” Zielenziger’s Japan is thus fundamentally backward, rigid and inexorably stagnant, driving its people to despair and dooming them to unfulfilling lives. The troubled hikikomori are a metaphor for a dysfunctional society and a cudgel to flail at it.

This relentlessly despairing assessment focuses on the various pathologies of contemporary Japan but dismisses, marginalizes or overlooks the sweeping transformations, innovations, dynamism and cascade of reforms that don’t fit the narrative. Zielenziger uncritically accepts a casual projection that there are 1 million hikikomori, one that seems designed to get media attention. Focusing on this dysfunctional 1 percent as the basis for assessing Japan resonates with an agenda. The Japan that emerges from these pages suffers the consequences.

One winces as Zielenziger serves up the usual cliches and stereotypes. Here, yet again, we encounter a monolithic Japan, a society of miserable conformists where diversity is stifled in a book brimming with sweeping generalizations. This caricature of Japan is put on the couch and subjected to superficial psychoanalysis. Demonstrating that you find what you are looking for, by examining Japan from the perspective of severely depressed people, the author constructs a depressing society.

Zielenziger shakes his head in wonderment about things he observes in Japan that make no sense to him, regaling readers with tales of phenomena that happen “only in Japan.” One could add to that list a book wanting to be taken seriously based on analyzing an entire society based on the perspectives of its recluses. It is hard to imagine a publisher proceeding with a similar project on Britain or Germany, but for Japan there is that special genre for the weird and wacky.

While constantly reminding readers that nothing ever changes in Japan, and that mechanisms of social change are short-circuited, he presents much evidence that undermines his thesis. For example, in a country where norms and values allegedly do not change, he summarizes rapid changes in marriage, divorce and birth trends. He also explains that employment practices are changing dramatically. In detailing these significant changes in family formation and work, the author unwittingly portrays a Japan that he can’t reconcile with his stagnant story line.

The author’s fascinating interviews with a range of Japanese, some are dysfunctional, some are doing well, most are critics of contemporary Japan, also refute his analysis. He has stumbled onto Japan’s growing diversity and a number of well-informed Japanese eager to express their views and take issue with the powers that be and the way things are. Surely what they say is important, but it is also important to see what they represent — individuals who demonstrate independent thinking and rejection of conformity. Their very existence reveals just how much is changing here and their concerns are not unique to Japan.

In Zielenziger’s Japan, the hikikomori, unmarried women, childless and sexless couples, suicides, alcoholics and name brand addicts are all lumped together. He asserts that they share a rejection of the “authoritarian mind-set that still drives Japanese life.” But, would unmarried women really identify with the hikikomori?

Plowing through this dreary story of a nation sinking into the abyss, the reader is left to ponder how Japan has managed to cope with the various social ills shared in common by other advanced industrialized nations. Is it really doing so badly in comparison to other societies? Are most Japanese really mired in despair? Are there no efforts to address the substantial problems he highlights? Are values here really unchanged over the past 60 years?

More egregious and implausible are the ways that he seeks to deploy the hikikomori as a metaphor for Japan’s future foreign policy. In his view, Japan will become a national recluse, withdrawing from the international community. He also compares the U.S.-Japan relationship with that of an overindulgent mother dealing unsuccessfully with the problems of her troubled child. And, like hikikomori who violently lash out at their parents, the author worries that a pessimistic and self-absorbed Japan will embrace a fierce and violent nationalism. He shrilly warns that by propping up this national head-case the United States risks driving the rest of Asia into China’s sphere. Indeed. Prozac anyone?