A Nation in Retreat

By Janice Nimura,
who is a freelance writer and frequent reviewer based in New York
Tuesday, September 19, 2006


How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation

By Michael Zielenziger

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 340 pp. $24.95

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 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 Neither conventionally depressed, agoraphobic nor schizophrenic, these hikikomo ri , or socially withdrawn people, are often highly intelligent and painfully aware of the failings of the society they have rejected.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.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company