Shutting out the sun : how Japan created its own lost generation

by Michael Zielenziger

Paper Book, 2006




New York : Nan A. Talese, c2006.


The world’s second-wealthiest country, Japan once seemed poised to overtake America. But its failure to recover from the economic collapse of the early 1990s was unprecedented, and today it confronts an array of disturbing social trends. Japan has the highest suicide rate and lowest birthrate of all industrialized countries, and a rising incidence of untreated cases of depression. Equally as troubling are the more than one million young men who shut themselves in their rooms, withdrawing from society, and the growing numbers of “parasite singles,” the name given to single women who refuse to leave home, marry, or bear children. InShutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger argues that Japan’s rigid, tradition-steeped society, its aversion to change, and its distrust of individuality and the expression of self are stifling economic revival, political reform, and social evolution. Giving a human face to the country’s malaise, Zielenziger explains how these constraints have driven intelligent, creative young men to become modern-day hermits. At the same time, young women, better educated than their mothers and earning high salaries, are rejecting the traditional path to marriage and motherhood, preferring to spend their money on luxury goods and travel. Smart, unconventional, and politically controversial,Shutting Out the Sunis a bold explanation of Japan’s stagnation and its implications for the rest of the world.… (more)

Media reviews

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?
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Once upon a time, it seemed as though everyone was turning Japanese. Thanks to that nation's amazing socioeconomic miracle, every business tycoon (and tycoon wannabe) in the go-go 1980s was learning Japanese and modeling his corporate strategy on samurai principles. Japanese fashion, food and music were on the achingly hip cutting edge. And everybody in the West was driving a Japanese car.

Then, in 1990, something went wrong. Japan suffered an economic crisis that has yet to abate. This crisis, Michael Zielenziger argues in "Shutting Out the Sun," has now gone far beyond mere economics. It is depressing and enervating the very souls of its young citizens.

Zielenziger, a longtime Pacific Rim journalist (including seven years as Tokyo bureau chief for Knight-Ridder Newspapers), casts his net wide, providing ample background on Japanese social customs and economic history. He then focuses on one small aspect of these larger issues.

This is a particularly extreme example of social dysfunction: a class of severely depressed young men (and occasionally women) known as hikikomori. (The term is a conflation of two words roughly translatable as "pulling in" and "retiring.") Typically, hikikomori reject society, retreating to their cramped rooms, refusing to work or appear in public and letting their despairing but willing parents support them.

This withdrawal can be seen as rebellion against Japan's rigidly circumscribed society, which famously leaves an individual with precious little private space. Depression and rebellion are nothing new in any society, of course, but Zielenziger argues that the number of hikikomori is rising alarmingly as a direct correlate of Japan's recent malaise. (Estimates of this number vary wildly, from 50,000 to a million or more.)

Zielenziger's thesis about hikikomori as a microcosm of Japanese society seems pat, and he stretches far to pull together the disparate parts of this ambitious book. But individual chapters — on the history of Japan's economy and society, for example — are well researched and clearly written. And the book's centerpieces — profiles of hikikomori the author interviewed and often befriended — are vivid and heartfelt.

Seattle writer Adam Woog lived in Japan for much of the boom '80s.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nataliepm
For someone looking for a very cursory understanding of Japan, this book will provide that background, but as the author himself notes, he is a journalist. The books reads like a very long exposé on Japan, when, in fact, the book is riddled with misinformation. For example, a basic fact about whether a cited author is a sociologist or an anthropologist is mistaken in the text. All too often, the author will set up an interesting premise and then fail to follow it up properly. At one point, he makes note of his own Jewish heritage before launching into the claim that Christianity might be the reason that Korea modernized where Japan appears to be failing. What is the note about his heritage supposed to prove? That he is impartial? Why bring it up at all? What evidence can he offer that backs up his claim?

In short, the book is not terrible, but it is certainly not my first choice for intelligent discourse on modern societal problems in Japan.
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LibraryThing member seoulful
Although the author has no strong focus in the writing of this book, I found the information he supplied most interesting and helpful. In particular I was fascinated by his contrast of Japanese and Korean culture and by his surprising conclusion that an important reason for the differences had been the influence of the Protestant pioneer missionaries to Korea.… (more)
LibraryThing member outlandishlit
I don't read a lot of non-fiction. The only non-fiction I normally read is collections of personal essays, so this was a little bit of a struggle for me. But Japan and the hikikomori is a subject that has fascinated me for years.

Hikikomori are a group of Japanese young adults, generally male, who shut themselves out of society entirely. They choose to live in their rooms with little to no contact with anybody outside. This is a result of a rigid society and often intense bullying within the schooling system. Something that appears in Japan which is interesting: "Sekentei -- how one appears in the eyes of society, or the need to keep up appearances -- can powerfully constrain individual actions just as bullying does in the collectivist pressure cooker of contemporary Japan." So obviously it's fascinating to look at how a society is structured can influence people within it in extreme ways. I just don't know if this book is what I wanted to read.

I wanted to hear more from the hikikomori themselves and focus on their stories. Maybe I just wanted to read a piece of fiction about hikikomori, but I didn't get that. This book was mainly focused on the economy and sort of politics. This was all well and good at first, but it felt like Zielenziger was often repeating points he had already made. I kept just wanting it to end, which isn't a good sign.

Zielenziger took a few chapters to focus on some other interesting things that are sort of related. There are women in Japan who refuse to marry and have children, instead living at home and focusing on their careers. There was also the mention of extreme materialism, the birth control taboo, and the depression taboo. But then, by the end, the book strays even further than I had expected it to. It started talking about the effects of Christianity on Western society and how the lack of it influences Japan's society and lack of individualism. It was certainly interesting, but I'd like to see more research about it. And I'd like to see it in a book that isn't this one. He also brought up developing South Korea and did a lot of comparisons between the two countries. Again, interesting, but not exactly what I was interested in reading about.

Shutting Out the Sun was spot on about a lot of the things in Japanese society that would lead people to try to cut themselves off from society. While it's a fascinating topic, if the book had been less repetitive and stayed on track a bit more, I would have liked it a lot more than I did.
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LibraryThing member sublunarie
I found the story of the hikikomori to be utterly fascinating. The downward spiral of the history of Japan as compared to South Korea, however, seemed to be nothing but "filler", informational as it was. With an understanding of how difficult it must have been to gain audience with these men, I would have preferred more of what they had to say, and less of what the author did.… (more)


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