Aug 13, 2008

More Book Stuff! This Time, Shutting Out the Sun by Mark Zielenziger

I'll call him Henry. Henry was a student of mine back in Okayama, a bright guy who lacked all manner of social skills. I would ask him something simple, something like "How are you?" and he would look around the room, quickly jerk his head from side to side as if searching for others and say "Me?"

"Yes. How are you."

"The Hanshin Tigers won." He was obsessed with the Hanshin Tigers, Osaka's baseball team. He would watch their games on television and, when they weren't televised, listen to their games on his radio. He also listened too NHK's regular English language programs, and bought the network's English learning publication with religious regularity. Often, he would bring it in to the school and show it to me. The only other thing that I knew he did was that listned to a band called B'z and bought everything they released. Henry was thrity one when I taught him, had no job, and lived with his parents, who paid for his television, radio, NHK magazines, CDs, and English lessons. I suspected then, and still do, that his fifty minute English lesson was the single longest conversation he had each week, given his extreme social strangeness. "I hate Henry," my Japanese coworker often said, "no job, not in school, nothing. He's a parasite."

Henry, though, at least got out of his house. Despite the fact that he had no job or friends and, at thrity one, still lived with his parents, at least he got out of his house and went to bookstores, CD shops, and English lessons. Across Japan, there are thousands of men (and they are mostly men) who don't even do that. They're known as hikikomori, shut-ins who simply stay hidden in their rooms, living with their parents, talking to no one. Compared to the hikikomori, Henry was downright sociable. These recluses are a departure point for Shutting Out the Sun, a book by American journalist Mark Zilenziger.

Shutting Out the Sun
was something of a bait-and-switch, in that I picked it up thinking that it would be about a specific phenomenon within Japanese society, the tragic presence of the hikikomori. However, that was only the first few chapters. The time that Zielenziger does spend on the hikikomori, their parents' struggles, conversations with community workers and therapists who have worked with them, and a few interviews with recovering shut-ins themselves, is great. It's the best part of the book, and I do recommend Shutting Out the Sun for its illustrations of troubled youth within Japan.

But then the book's quality turns south and never recovers. After doing some interesting and probing work into the phenomenon of the hikikomori and doing a chapter on Japanese women who don't wish to marry or have children (a book topic all of its own) Zielenziger goes into a full-on anti-Japan rant. The book ceases to be about the plights of troubled youth (something I wanted to read about) and turns into an elongaged rant by a whiny gaijin who doesn't like the country he lives in (I didn't want to read that- I get enough of that at the bars). Ostensibly, he's trying to explain how Japan produced the hikikomori

Now, there's plenty of stuff about Japan that I don't like, and that does indeed need to change. The overworking, the inflexibility, the LDP, the consumerism, etc. This stuff is, indeed, uncool, and all worthy of coverage. However, Zielenziger hits the same note over and over again, bashing Japan for being a "collectivist" society that fosters codependence and discourages individual ingenuity. I don't think this is completely incorrect, but I do think that such an argument lacks nuance, and that Japan is a bit more complex than just that.

Something that I found especially aggravating was Zielenziger's glowing portrait of Korea. Over the past fifteen years South Korea has indeed done extraordinarily well and is worthy of all sorts of praise. It is not worthy, however, of the glowing and one dimensional lionization that Zielenziger heaps upon it, particularly with regards to Korean Christianity.

Rather oddly (especially since he professes himself to be a secular Jew) Zielenziger points at Japan's lack of a Judeo-Christian worldview as a source of its social ills. Conversely, he points to the presense of Christianity in Korea as a factor contributing to South Korea's economic success. Zielenziger's biggest target is always "collectivism" as a general idea, and holds up Christianity as something that promotes individual rights and responsibilities. As someone who was raised Catholic and since abandoned it, I believe that I can rightly say that Christianity can just as well degrade and impede individual rights. If anything, a friend of mine who used to work in Korea mentioned that the traditional, conservative Confucian values often work in concert with, rather than in opposition to, Christianity.

Zielenziger is correct when he characterizes Japan as being a largely secular country, however. But, he stretches too far. He criticizes Japanese for having no firm relgious beliefs, seeing it as a tragic cause of so many of the country's symptoms.

I was a bit personally put out by this.

Secularism, I think, is something that countries, communities, and civilizations in general should strive for. I'm not going to get up on a soapbox and give some sort of Christopher Hitchens style anti-theistic rant, but I do think that for the most part, we are better without religion. It would be a terrible tragedy if we ever lost philosophy, mind you, but religion really ought to be phased out. I would disagree with Zielenziger in that I don't think that Japan's problem is lack of relgion, but a sort of prevailing philosophical and political apathy.

But I digress.

Zielenziger also devotes a bit of time to Japan's relationship with the U.S., likening Japan, as a nation, to a sort of world-affairs version of a hikikomori, and painting the U.S. as the overly indulgent and enabling mother who lets her child keep up his isolation. I can see how one would draw this conclusion, but I think he takes the metaphor a little too far. I do agree with him on a major point though- during MacArthur's occupation, the U.S. did it's damndest to crush emerging, progressive Japanese political parties for fear that they had communist sympathies. America successfully propped up the old guard and destroyed the emerging competition, thus screwing over Japan's chance at an emerging liberal tradition. I agree that that has harmed the social and political life of Japan.

But, when Zielenziger points out things like this it seems that he's not so much trying to explain how Japanese society produced hikikomori, as the other way around. It looks like his primary ideological project is illustrating the ills of Japanese society, and then using hikikomori as an ugly example of how bad things are. This isn't a bad approach, necessarily, but the structure of the book makes the reader think that it will be the other way around.

The biggest problem with Zielenziger's book (other than his grating opinions about Christianity) is not so much its inaccuracy, but its hopelessness. Zielenziger paints a picture of a static and staid Japan that is unable and unwilling to change. He imagines the country sliding only further into it withdrawl and irrelevance, and offers almost no real hope for the future, presenting change and progress as something stifled by the choking conservatism of Japanese society.

I would describe this view as politically immature. I can imagine Zielenziger as one of those pontificators who takes a sort of perverse joy in prophesizing doom, who gestures with eagerness at the flawless canvas of doom. I remember political science classes from university, and I've seen the type. I've even been the type. The type that can only discuss problems as if they are all-consuming and insurmountable, relishing the accompanying hopelessness and angst.

Japan, I think, can change. Just yesterday two of my students said they think that Japan will have should have a female prime minister someday. I have another student, a young businessman who has described himself as a "feminist," and still another who (without any prompting from me) said that Japan really ought to officially apologize to Japan and Korea for wartime atrocities. I realize that the people who take English lessons may not be representatives of society as a whole, and are probably more progressive than a lot of people, but they certainly don't fit in the picture of gloomy, doomed conservatism that Zielenziger paints.

Somthing will change. It has to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That book is rubbish. I'd think he got his information from wikipedia, but wikipedia's article on hikikomori is more accurate. He got it somewhere off of google, that's for sure. Check this out: