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.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.
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.
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.”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.
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)