Friday, August 01, 2008

'Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation'

by Michael Zielenziger
Non-Fiction/Current Affairs, 2006
Vintage, trade pb, 302 p.
The world’s second-wealthiest country, Japan once seemed poised to overtake America as the leading global economic powerhouse. But the country failed to recover from the staggering economic collapse of the early 1990s. Today it confronts an array of disturbing social trends, notably a population of more than one million hikikomori: young men who shut themselves in their rooms, withdrawing from society. There is also a growing number of “parasite singles”: women who refuse to leave home, marry, or bear children.
In this trenchant investigation, Michael Zielenziger argues that Japan’s tradition-steeped society, its aversion to change, and its distrust of individuality are stifling economic revival, political reform, and social evolution. Shutting Out the Sun is a bold explanation of Japan’s stagnation and its implications for the rest of the world.
This was a very interesting read even though reading it made me feel rather blue about the state of modern Japanese society. After reading it I also felt I could understand somewhat why the hikikomori retreat from society as they do. Not nearly to the same extreme of course, but I certainly have days when I’d like to hide away myself, when I just don’t want to cope with it all.

Some of the aspects of Japanese society that he discusses in the book I’ve experienced either first hand or indirectly so it was interesting to read the author’s thoughts on the root of many of these problems and behaviours. Although the overall message and tone of the book is mainly a negative one, it’s obvious the author cares about his subject matter (the book is dedicated to one of the hikikomori whose experience especially touched him).

Zielenziger spent many hours interviewing hikikomori and various care providers and specialists, analysing this recent phenomenon and other sociological aspects of life in Japan, and it was these sections of the book that I found most interesting. Did you know that, “the split between true feeling and public “face” is so deeply ingrained in the Japanese, they suffer far fewer cases of multiple personality disorder than do Westerners” (p. 64) or that regarding the Japanese obsession with brands, “94 percent of all Tokyo women in their twenties have at least one Vuitton product” (p. 148) or that “more than 660 Japanese commit suicide every single week – ninety-four persons per day, according to the National Police Agency” (p. 196), and that “no other country as prosperous suffers such a high rate of suicide.” (p. 197)?

But even though I found the sections on economy a little drier, they did teach me a little about Japan’s domestic economy and the complicated financial relationship that exists between Japan and the U.S. Also enlightening was his discussion of South Korea, its advance toward globalization, and how it now differs considerably from Japan.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad here, and of course no country is perfect, but neither my husband nor I want to settle permanently in Japan and the book reaffirmed some of the reasons why. Overall I think it was a very well-researched, well-presented look at the Japan of today and perhaps tomorrow.

My Rating: 4/5
(#31 for 2008, Non-Fiction Five Challenge)
“We lost our own narrative,” Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most prominent contemporary novelists told me one day, when I asked him to explain the meaning he drew from his nation’s lost decade. When the bubble collapses, “what we lost was confidence. Confidence in ourselves – socially and economically.”
Japan’s postwar story had been constructed around feverish economic conquest, and relentless growth had served as a sort of national religion binding citizens together, Murakami said. “We believed in the strength of the society and the power of our economy. And we believed that things were getting better and better, year by year and day by day … That’s a kind of confidence, but that was lost … Once the Cold War ended, everything changed. We couldn’t adjust to the new situation. It was a kind of chaos and we lost [our] sense of direction.” (p. 120)
You can read more about the book and the author on the website or the author's blog. Or listen to the author discuss the book, and read an excerpt here.


  1. Hi Nat :)

    I am very interested in reading this book and will buy it.

    Some of the feelings you describe I have myself experienced and still do when I left France and came to live in the US.

    Where I came from in France, life was relatively calm, people went home from their jobs at lunch time for a 2 hour break, in summer we have 8 weeks of vacaton and the french in general put their peronal life ahead of their career.

    I was thrown into a world which moved at a rapid pace, still does and it felt like I lost my footing. First thing anyone you meet here asks is "where do you work". For many years I did not work and raised my 3 sons which is a demanding job, yet still people would say things like "and you do not work?" it would get on my nerves so bad i slowly retreated.
    To be honest I am still not used to the speed of life in the States and the priorities.

    It occured to me lately that no one in the town I live in walks their dogs, I have in all the years never, and I mean never met annother dog on a leash. They sit in cars and look down at Oliver, the only way he meets them. I find this troubling. No one is to slow I guess to get from point a to point b, faster by car.

    But then I should not be surprised, the US is more and more compared to Japan and trying to emulate the Japanese business sense. Agorophobia is on the rise here to.

    Thank-you for your excellent review Nat

  2. This sounds fascinating. Thanks for a review of a book I doubt I would have encountered anywhere else.

  3. This sounds like an extremely interesting book, and an excellent way to learn more about contemporary Japan. Thanks for the review.

  4. That is one of the best reviews I've ever read about an incredibly fascinating subject. I must read this and soon. Thank you so much.

  5. Madeleine- I think the pace of life is even more hectic in Japan, if you can believe it?! Canada is much like the US in terms of people taking cars everywhere they go. The problem is that in most places the public transport just isn't very convenient. Still sad though.
    We both enjoyed living in Europe, even though England isn't quite as relaxed as France. :)
    Have you ever thought of returning to France to live?

    Florinda, Nymeth and Nan- It was interesting and I thought a fair analysis. I was already aware of many of the issues he discusses, although not necessarily in detail. I think it could be quite eye-opening for people who haven't lived here.

  6. I think about returning, however my 3 sons have made tne US their home and I find it difficult to pick up and leave them even so they are grown.

    Living in Quebec would be nice.

  7. Madeleine- Quebec is a great idea! :)
    I've only been to Montreal, very briefly, but really want to visit Quebec City someday.

  8. I read an article last year about the hikikomori. It mentioned a service that families could hire to try and lure these young men out of their rooms and out into the real world. I don't know how effective a treatment was overall, but it worked for those they interviewed. The people who ran and worked for the service came up with some very creative ideas--all based on the individual person they were trying to reach out to.

    I definitely am interested in reading this book. Thank you for a wonderful review.

  9. The writing style's great, but there are a ton of inaccuracies.

  10. Wendy- I thought I'd replied to your comment here, sorry! That article sounds interesting, the book also mentioned a few different services that have started up to help the hikikomori. There certainly seems to be several root causes of the phenomenon and it seems to be an ongoing problem.

    Anonymous- Such as? This is the first time I've read anything about the hikikomori and I have no factual background to compare the book to. I'd love to hear from you what the author portrayed inaccurately.


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