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.
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.
In short, the book is not terrible, but it is certainly not my first choice for intelligent discourse on modern societal problems in Japan.
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.