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Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generationby Michael Zielenziger
Synopses & Reviews
The worlds 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.
In Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger argues that Japans 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 countrys 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 Sun is a bold explanation of Japans stagnation and its implications for the rest of the world.
"After its 1990 economic crisis, Japan entered a period of stagnation and has yet to recover. Although at first limited to finances, this depression slowly spread to the country's political system as well as its national consciousness. One extreme example of the problem is the more than one million young men who have given up on school or employment, spending their days in their cramped apartments. In this well-researched and well-organized book, journalist and scholar Zielenziger reveals how these men ('hikikomori') are both a symptom of and a metaphor for Japan's ennui. With compassion and vigor, he presents close-up portraits of the hikikomori, while grounding their stories in the political, economic and historic realities facing Japan today. Zielenziger also suggests that women who avoid marriage and children, men who drink too much and both men and women fetishizing brand names are additional signs of the mass confusion and discontent. Seven years as a Tokyo bureau chief for Knight Rider newspapers has given Zielenziger the necessary access to this closed culture, though his expos is bound to be controversial. His inclusion of both small details and the big picture makes the book as intimate as it is revealing. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A good metaphor is a powerful thing. It can transmit truth instantly with an intuitive clarity that plain exposition can't achieve. But its very elegance can obscure frayed edges of ideas, editing out contradictions and ambiguities to produce an oversimplified image. In his trenchant examination of declining, post-Bubble Japan, Michael Zielenziger has found such a metaphor. During his seven... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) years in Tokyo as a bureau chief for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, he stumbled upon a phenomenon apparently unique to Japan: hundreds of thousands of young people, overwhelmingly male, who have retreated to their bedrooms and refused to come out, sometimes for decades. Neither conventionally depressed, agoraphobic nor schizophrenic, these hikikomori, or socially withdrawn people, are often highly intelligent and painfully aware of the failings of the society they have rejected. Perhaps they were bullied at school, perhaps unable to keep up with expectations — whatever the reason, they have found themselves incapable of submerging their true selves beneath the surface of Japanese conformity and have turned their backs on it completely. Zielenziger interviewed dozens of these recluses, along with their bewildered parents and the trailblazing therapists trying to help them. He has come to understand their isolation as an 'extraordinary but utterly rational indictment of a postindustrial monoculture.' He marvels that 'they seem to perceive the nature of Japan's economic and spiritual crisis far more acutely than do the hundreds of bureaucrats and politicians I have met over the years.' The core of 'Shutting Out the Sun' is a lively analysis of the crisis. Japan's rigidities systematically marginalize the creative types (many hikikomori among them) whose innovative thinking might reverse the country's slide into isolation. Without visionaries, Japan remains frozen in an 'Iron Triangle' of interconnected business, bureaucracy and politics — a configuration that powered Japan's postwar reconstruction but stifles the initiative that might lead Japan forward. As one American economist points out, Japan has 'gradually shifted from promoting winners to protecting losers.' Having leaped from feudalism to futurism in a single century, Zielenziger continues, Japan skipped its own Enlightenment, importing technology without the philosophy that nurtured such advances. Western-style individualism never penetrated the clannish interdependence of Japanese society and, as the pace of growth falters, individuals find themselves with little to fall back on. The hikikomori are just one symptom of this national crisis of confidence; Zielenziger examines others, including luxury-brand fetishism, tumbling marriage and birth rates, alcoholism and suicide. In contrast, he offers the example of Korea, where political protest, patriotism and entrepreneurial spirit mark a nation that has stayed nimble in the face of change. Provocatively, Zielenziger suggests it was Korea's embrace of Christianity that fostered the self-esteem, individual conscience and community responsibility notably absent in Japan. But back to the metaphor. Japan, Zielenziger argues, is itself showing signs of adopting the withdrawn behavior of a hikikomori, 'rejecting global integration when it cannot dictate the terms.' And like the mortified but ultimately indulgent parent who leaves a dinner tray outside the hikikomori's closed door, the United States can enable this voluntary isolation if it manages Japan's national defense and allows unrestricted access to American markets. Hikikomori are known to lash out violently against the parents who represent both a rebuke and a vital resource to them. In a fit of renewed nationalism, Zielenziger ominously suggests, might not Japan someday react similarly? It's hard to resist such satisfying symmetry, especially when delivered with style and enlivened with sensitive first-person reporting. 'Shutting Out the Sun' puts a human face on a nation's plight and provides an intriguing point of entry into a consideration of Japan's crisis of confidence. But not all of Japan's creative minds have locked themselves away, and the ultraconservative old guard is passing. The future is not as tidy as the metaphor makes it seem." Reviewed by Janice Nimura, who is a free-lance writer and frequent reviewer based in New York, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
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.
About the Author
Michael Zielenziger is a visiting scholar at the Institute of East Asian Studies, U. C. Berkeley, and was the Tokyo-based bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers for seven years, until May 2003. He has written extensively about social, economic, and political trends in Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. After September 11, 2001, Zielenziger also spent long periods in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Israel, covering the aftermath of terrorist attacks.
Before moving to Tokyo, Zielenziger served as the first Pacific Rim correspondent for The San Jose Mercury News, and was a finalist for a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on China. He was also a contributor to two other Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the Mercury News.
Zielenziger was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1991, where he studied in the Asia-Pacific Research Center and Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is a 2003 recipient of an Abe Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council of New York.
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