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Shutting Out the Sun (review)

This is an excellent book on the hikikomori, the Japanese who have withdrawn from society to such an extent that many of them no longer even leave their rooms except to excrete, and maybe bathe once a month.

The author, Michael Zielenziger, was formerly the Tokyo bureau chief for Knight-Ridder; before that, he was the Pacific Rim correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News. He's now a visiting scholar at USC Berkeley's Institute of East Asian Studies, which might explain the weird anti-American vibe I got off some of the later chapters. Anyhow, the book is going to come as a shock to anyone whose only exposure to Japanese history and culture is through its anime and (translated) manga. Zielenziger is merciless in his analysis of Japanese society, especially in the spheres of education, politics, and industry - which can't really be neatly separated from each other, even to the extent they are in other Western countries; at times I had a strong sense of deja vu, recalling Robert Frezza's equally harsh portrait of post-apocalyptic Imperial Japan in Fire in a Faraway Place. The analysis is framed by vignettes describing the miserable lives and lonely times of several hikikomori, and the attempts of various psychologists and social workers to help them while trying to draw attention to the massive social problem these troubled people pose for Japan.

One gets the picture of an extremely dysfunctional society which has lost touch with its spiritual roots in a way that may be hard for many Americans to understand, given that so many of us attend churches of one sort or another or at least profess one or another creed that provides some moral and spiritual guidance. In addition, the true horror of a consensus-based society that crushes nuclear families into anomic collections of unhappy people is made extremely clear, as is the related horror that everyone seems to know there's something wrong, but nobody will talk about it for fear of being cast out and ostracized. There are reasons Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Zielenziger gets a tad off track when he compares South Korean society to the Japanese, frequently to the disadvantage of the latter. While I agree with his argument that the South Koreans are more adaptable as a society and that their long history of Protestant influence is a significant factor in this, his political vaporings about President Roh, his "sunshine policy" and the benefits of the ROK and Japan adopting a more pro-PRC stance are, frankly, completely fucking batshit crazy. This defective foreign policy was something the South Koreans corrected in the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections, BTW, so it's really irrelevant but still irritating. Just another example of a journalist treating his own opinions as fact, I guess, but it does make you wonder what less obvious nuances got shoved under the carpet.

In spite of the political annoyances, the book is excellent and I recommend it to anyone interested in Japan and its people.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
phoenixalpha
May. 21st, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)
as is the related horror that everyone seems to know there's something wrong, but nobody will talk about it for fear of being cast out and ostracized.

Sort of like Minnesota. Gee!

-/cynicism-

Edited at 2008-05-21 10:49 pm (UTC)
wombat_socho
May. 21st, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, sort of. This came up while we were discussing Kyoko Mori's Polite Lies a couple of years back because it examines that precise parallel.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )