Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
© 2006 Michael Zielenziger
Shutting Out the Sun introduces itself with what readers will assume is its subject: the plight of an increasing number of young people who, for whatever reason, choose to withdraw into their bedrooms and cease to communicate with the outside world, ignoring even their parents. These persons, called hikkikimori, are merely part of Shutting Out the Sun, however, and readers who venture forward expecting a study of them will find that most of the time they are out of sight, mentioned a few times after the first chapter but never examined in fine detail. The true subject of Shutting Out the Sun is Japan, which in 2006 was still mired in economic stagnation and rapidly being overshadowed by India and China. Japan is a country in a profound cultural crisis, writes Michael Zielenziger, and if it does not adapt to the realities of 21st century globalization, it faces the danger of becoming a hikkikimori nation: one so withdrawn from economic and diplomatic activity it may as well not exist.
In the 1980s, Japan’s economic prowess was such that many in the west feared its future influence. People drove Japanese cars, their kids were obsessed with Japanese video games, and their homes were increasingly filled with goods from Sony. And then…in 1989…the future fell to pieces, at least for Japan, and it entered a recession that was still going in 2006 when Zielenziger published Shutting Out the Sun. But it wasn’t just the economy that was struggling. Japan’’s entire society was stagnating, argues Zielenziger; the same factors that had undermined its economic growth were also driving its young people to isolate themselves from the world, and skyrocketing Japan’s suicide rates.
The root of the probem, Zielenziger believes, is that Japan never really embraced liberal democracy; its prewar order simply adopted democracy as the new way that traditional authority asserted itself. Democracy was imposed from on high, from the American military authorities and Japan’s own leaders. Democracy was never conceived as a challenge to existing order, the way it was in America, England, and France; and the bones of democracy like a widespread belief in human rights distinct from government never developed. Elements of Japanese culture which had previously bound the nation together – immense social pressure towards conformity, for instance — continued. This time, the Japanese people were marshalled to rebuild Japan and flourish economically.
The urgent need to recover economically produced a distortion in Japanese culture, however; Japanese men became obsessed with work, developing a ‘salaryman’ approach that meant they were out of the home for the majority of the day: they worked long hours, then socialized with their business partners late into the evening, retiring home only to sleep. The intense pressure to succeed drove many men to drink in excess, and their constant absence from the home didn’t do their marriages any favors. Zielenziger goes so far as to suggest that for the Japanese salaryman, his traditional fealty to his family has been displaced, and is now centered on his firm.
Kids were likewise pressured to succeed, and to conform; many of the hikkimori introduced in the opening relate tales of persistence bullying enabled by authority figures who assumed verbal and physical abuse meant that the kid in question had done something to disrupt the group. As Japan connected to the outside world through television and the internet, however, kids who were abused were also tortured by the fact that there were other societies out there where things weren’t like this – where people weren’t obsessed with academic excellence all the time, where there was room in life for leisure. The intense pressure from their peers and family, however, meant that young Japanese who wanted something different were constantly suppressed in their efforts to find it. Unable to conform and unable to stand and resist, many chose to flee – into their rooms, or if they were old enough, into neighboring countries like Thailand or South Korea. Even those who wanted to conform often found they couldn’t: how could they succeed as Japan entered a recession that went on for a decade?
That recession was largely caused by Japan’s culture of conformity, Zielenziger suggests: Japan focused so much on itself that it did not watch the world around it, and those who wanted to try new ideas were generally suppressed. Because Japan’s status quo was so successful – growing GDP, little crime, no underclass — any perceived challenges to it, like a poor-performing company or a new firm that threatened to disrupt things – were actively mitigated. Firms that would have gone bankrupt for failing to adapt in the western world were instead propped up, and up and comers suppressed by the government. So change-resistant was Japan, writes Zielenziger , that even in the early 2000s many businesses were still circulating interoffice memos by paper and only grudgingly tolerating the entrance of computers into their offices. Email was dismissed as unprofessional.
Zielenziger finds Korea as useful counter-example; westerners who first visited Korea as missionaries and doctors were not driven away; they stayed and their interactions with Korea changed it. Korea grew in response to its interactions with the outside world, and despite his secular Jewish status, Zielenziger finds Korea’s embrace of Christianity particularly interesting, contending that it promoted a view of people as individual persons, not merely members of a collective, and that it further set limits to the state by defining it as something separate, instead of conflating it and society. Korea’s democracy grew from below, instead of being imposed from above by a military hierarchy. While he does not suggest that Japan should convert to protestant Christianity, he does wonder if Japan would have gone another way had it had more substantial interaction with the western world rather than merely taking its tools to use on behalf of a chiefly feudal order.
As the length of this review suggests, Shutting Out the Sun offers a lot to consider. The problem in evaluating it, for me, is that I know very little about modern Japanese culture, either from personal experience or from other reading, so I don’t know if this is insightful or completely off the mark. I do know it makes for disturbing reading, between the kids walling themselves off from the world, the parents drinking or killing themselves from prolonged misery, and the looming hints that Japan is actively dying and no one can shake the stupor.