Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Michael Zielenziger, "Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation."

I'm ashamed to add a Japan-bashing book to the list, but it must be done.  This tome was, albeit biased and pretty pro-American, a solid book.

The author's premise is that, metaphorically, Japan increasingly resembles a hikikomori.  A hikikomori is the Japanese term for a shut-in, someone who rarely if ever ventures out into the world.  It is a phenomenon, given its scale, almost unique to Japan.  Although government estimates place the number of hikikomori living in Japan at 700,000, other estimates place the number higher, at nearly 1,000,000.  The cause, as outlined by Zielenziger, is essentially an inability to adapt to the rigid stresses and pressures that are forced onto the average Japanese youth.  Pressure to succeed, pressure to perform well on one's examinations, and perhaps most importantly, pressure to fit in with the rest of the group.  This final form of pressure usually takes the form of verbal bullying, which can reach ludicrous levels and even lead to suicide.  Zielinziger highlights how this problem is not unique to youth alone - it continues well into a person's adult life, suggesting why most hikikomori drop out of society in their early to mid-20's.  In fact, social bullying can be seen at every level of Japanese society (among adults, it is known as ijime).  Hikikomori essentially give up trying to cope with this pressure and the idea of fitting into society.  Instead, they retreat into their rooms to drink, pursue hobbies, sleep, or do nothing.  Japanese hikikomori rarely tune into online worlds (this is a popular misconception) and are also a huge source of domestic violence.  A majority of hikikomori are known to attack their parents or immediate family, the same individuals who give them food and money to survive.

Where does the overall metaphor come in?  The author proceeds to zip through a number of social ills that are beginning to hurt Japanese society.  Such problems, as identified by Zielenziger, include population decline, women not wanting to marry, inhospitable treatment towards immigrants, under-employment/unemployment, and an economy that is slow to adapt to the high-speed, globalizing 21st-century world.  In effect, he feels that Japan is becoming cut-off from developing technologies (mostly internet entrepreneurship), and is simultaneously suffering a demographic crisis.  Both of these factors, in turn, have transformed Japan into a virtual hikikomori, isolated on the world stage and increasingly unable to muster up the internal will necessary to change the situation.

In the end, I was a little skeptical of the book's claims, or at least, the way in which they were presented.  I have read and heard quite a bit about the systemic social pressure that exists in Japanese society, and I definitely agree that it is basically no good for Japan's ability to innovate and compete in the 21st century world.  Social bullying, as seen in Japan, results in excessive deference to one's superiors, an urge to conform, and a need to downplay one's own abilities and talents, none of which is helpful in creating a competitive, knowledge-based economy.

However, the book ended up being a quiet defense of Western values and American superiority.  Although the author was careful to throw in information about the United States' own social ills, and explain the many positive aspects of Japanese society (relative socioeconomic equality, low crime, teamwork, etc.), his tone still essentially held up America as the model of success.  I have a lot of faith in this country, and can get pretty patriotic, but I always hesitate when I hear that Japan needs to become more like the United States.  I've always thought that the Japanese have a special sort of strength - an ability to do great things when they come together.  Japanese society may be too rigid to adapt quickly to changing conditions, but give it time.  It will still do great things.

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