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.)
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
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. In describing Japans economic structure, the author describes a system in which economic outcomes
are managed more rigorously than economic opportunities
. How do you think such a system might be better or worse than the American one? How might it affect notions of individual aspiration? What elements of Japans “middle class” culture do you admire? Which would seem confining, or too difficult to attain? Why? Would you rather live in a society where there is more differentiation between “rich” and “poor” or one in which “everyone is middle class.”
2. The world “self” as used in the term “self-esteem” does not truly exist in Japanese. Yet the state of California, for instance, once created a panel to investigate how to increase “self esteem” among its citizens. How do notions of “self-esteem” help contribute to how you establish your own personal values? How implicit or explicit should measures of “self-esteem” be in establishing social goals? Under which situations might the need to be “yourself” be moderated in order to accommodate wider social interests?
3. Could a hikikomori like Kenji exist in your community? Would he be allowed to linger for years alone in his room or would someone or some institution intervene in order to help him? What sorts of young people “fall through the cracks” in American society? Do families and communities take sufficient care to prevent this from happening in your town?
4. In the book, Hitoshi Saeki the designer of store windows says, “I think young people all over the world ask, ‘What is our fundamental reason for being alive? What is our objective for living?” Do Americans adults as well as adolescents ask this sort of question? And would their answers differ fundamentally from those given by their Japanese peers or counterparts?
5. Is something always true? Or are truth and falsehood filtered by culture and context. The author argues that Japanese seek out contextual rather than absolute truth. Are you the same, or different and why? How might this affect your outlook on the world.
6. Some Japanese parents believe their socially isolated children are victims of the society around them. Others believe their children are lazy or irresponsible. Do you feel more sympathy for men like Kenji, or for their parents? And does the enormous amount of individual freedom Americans possess, in comparison to Japanese, alter the way you think about these family predicaments? What as an American parent, would you do if your child refused to leave the home? Would similar options be available to a Japanese parent?
7. In contemporary Japan, a full 64 percent of young men aged 25 to 29 still live with their parents. In America, the comparable figure is 13. 7 percent. Why do you think this is? Does this statistic tell us anything important about the differences between Japanese and American societies?
8. Birthrates are falling in many developed nations around the world, including Italy and France. The author argues that the feminine rebellion is a major cause for the rapid decline in Japans birthrate. Is this argument credible? What policies should the Japanese government encourage to stem the tide? Does it matter, or would you be happy to see your country transition from positive to negative growth?
9. Many of the social isolates as well as some adults portrayed in the book describe being bullied at school or in the workplace. While many Americans have been bullied as children in the playground, the author states that bullying is not considered acceptable in the U.S. workplace. Have you ever felt the pressure to conform? Do you have limits on when you can be persuaded to “go along” with others and when you resist? Is the threat of being pushed out of the “group” something that worries you?
10. The author emphasizes the importance of “social trust” in navigating a diverse, disruptive world, and notes that Americans are more “trusting” than Japanese. Do you think this is true? How do you establish “social trust” with strangers? What sort of limitations would you feel if you felt you lacked the “social radar” to discern truth and detect falsehood among others?
11. The rise of democracy in South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s is contrasted with the lack of such social upheaval in Japan, and the author cites the rise of Protestantism and the role of American missionaries in creating a vastly different sense of social and political space in modern Korea. Can religious thinking play an important role in helping citizens find their political voice? How is the Korean experience with religion, and the use of religion as a powerful organizing tool, similar and different from the experience in the United States? Do you think Protestantism and evangelical Christianity, now popular in the U.S., create different legacies? If so, what might they be?
12. The author suggests that Americas emphatic embrace of Japan has permitted the Japanese to enter the 21st century without a distinct and coherent foreign policy of its own. What are Japans options in the near future? What would happen to the United States if Japan chose to ally itself more closely with China. Is this feasible? On the other hand, what are likely to be the consequences if the U.S. and Japan ally themselves against a rising China?