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

Zielenziger, Michael, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, Doubleday: New York, 2006. 340 pp.

While Michael Zielenziger was the Tokyo bureau chief for the Knight Ridder chain of newspapers during the 90s, he learned of an unusual pattern of reclusive behaviour in young Japanese men — the so-called hikikomori (literally, “pulling away, being confined“). Numbering in the thousands, they were shutting themselves off in their rooms — from friends, family, career, and society in general — for years at a time. As a Western journalist he found himself largely alone, at the time, in taking an interest in the subject. It was all but ignored by the Japanese media.

In talking to Japanese sociologists and health professionals, Zielenziger found that this behaviour seemed to be a relatively new phenomenon. It didn’t appear in the global bible of mental health disorders (the DSM IV). Its particular set of symptoms didn’t appear in Western countries, nor in Japan’s Asian neighbours. Japan’s increasing affluence in the 70s and 80s seemed to correlate roughly with a baffling new behaviour afflicting those most likely to benefit from the country’s economic success. The economic downturn of the 90s seems to increase rather than decrease the incidence of hikikomori.

In a postmodern capitalist world, young adults in affluent nations the world over probably wonder how they might seek out the genuine and the true: it is a quest that seems particularly daunting for today’s young Japanese. p. 159

The hikikomori vary in age and behaviour. Some begin their retreat in middle school. Others begin in high school. Some have the confidence to come out of their homes in the middle of the night and roam empty city streets. Others remain completely isolated in their bedrooms for decades … with the essentials of life provided by embarrassed and anxious parents. These aren’t the recluses or shy geeks familiar to Western culture. Nor are they agoraphobics, functioning well in their own homes but hesitant to step outdoors. The hikikomori haven’t jumped to take advantage of phones or the Internet to establish social networks, as they’ve become available. Instead, they have chosen the one course that Japanese society provides young men to become asocial. Their families, deeply ashamed and disoriented, simply hide the hikikomori from the outside world: feeding, clothing, and providing for them. In their isolation, these young men read, sleep, daydream … and deepen their estrangement from modern Japan.

Some hikikomori are helped by antidepressants, but during Zielenziger’s extensive interviews with these boys and men, it became clear that they weren’t so much delusional or depressed as deeply lost. They felt anxiety over their inability to fit into Japanese society, and at some point simply gave up trying to do so. Yet the nature of Japanese culture means that they didn’t have the social or mental tools to establish an independent identity, to strike off in a different direction within Japan. They were bound to their families and neighbours for identity, yet deeply resented that same identity. Answering the question “what do I want?” seems impossible for them.

In many cases, the hikikomori were subjected to bullying in school by both students and teachers, a common trigger for initial retreat from public. In the West, bullying is seen as an aberration of the schoolyard but in Japan, it can persist for years and continue into the work environment. In tune with Japanese society generally, parents respond to that bullying with a “blame the victim” attitude — what had the boy done to trigger the bullying? As a result, the hikikomori can come to distrust their parents. Most hikikomori are, by Zielenziger’s account, estranged completely from their fathers, reflecting the distant role of fathers in many modern Japanese families. Occasionally, the hikikomori can even be violent with one or both parents.

Ironically, because Zielenziger was a foreigner, the hikikomori found it easier to talk about their experiences with him. The burden of “fitting in” was lifted when speaking to an American. Indeed, some of the hikikomori had found relief from their loneliness and inertia by visiting foreign countries. Some of the most poignant parts of Zielenziger’s book relate the discussions he had with these young people. They assumed that, as an American, he would have unique words of wisdom that would give them a direction or orientation out of their loneliness and isolation. But the internal compass heading that most Western kids are encouraged to develop with toddler-hood can’t be conveyed mechanically to the adolescents and young adults of Japan. Zielenziger seemed to be able to give temporary solace to the hikikomori with his very presence, and his writing is filled with real sympathy, but he didn’t have a magical solution for these individuals, any more than their counsellors and physicians.

Shutting Out the Sun began as a Western journalist following up a curious bit of Japanese sociology. As Zielenziger looked further, and sought root causes for the appearance of the hikikomori, he began to see very different patterns of social stress evident in the behaviour of young Japanese women. Yet another round of research let him see how more elderly men and women in Japan deal with current social realities. Considering these social behaviours separately, and then as a set, he began to see a common theme.

Japan’s tremendous leap in material prosperity, based upon a culture that emphasizes “fitting it” demands a psychological price from the individual. In the end, Shutting Out the Sun becomes a detective story about the nature of Japanese society … its unique and rapid adoption of industrialization in the late 19th century … and its new challenge to harmonize a prosperous nation with a culture that has placed little emphasis on individuation.

[…] in Japan, there is no God but the ‘ie,'[household] and no one to judge but the group. “Westerners have a long history of becoming individuals, and you have established how to create relations with others. But we don’t share that experience in Japan … I often think that our challenge now as Japanese is to come up with a new way to become individuals without relying on Christianity. [Hayao Kawai, President of Association of Japanese Clinical Psychology] p.70

Zielenziger summarizes the structure of his book in this way:

In this book, rather than focus primarily on politics or economics, my aim is to unravel the unusual social, cultural, and psychological constraints that have stifled the people of this proud, primordial nation and prevented change from bubbling up from within. First I examine the plight of the hikikomori, the young men who lock themselves in their rooms and find little solace in the larger society. After looking into their lives and those of their parents and caregivers, I explore the history and culture in which their tragic stories are embedded to approach some explanation for Japan’s contemporary social deadlock. Then I examine a cluster of behaviours that seem more familiar to Western readers: the fixation on consumerism and brand names in the search for identity; women’s painful lives and their reluctance to wed and have babies; and, finally, the high incidence of suicide, depression, and alcoholism. Then, I broaden the view to see how Japan stacks up against its closest neighbor and rival, South Korea. … Finally, I speculate on how Japan’s own survival strategy may come to resemble those of the hikikomori who negate themselves and their adulthood, and shut out the sun of vigorous self-affirmation and moral purpose. p.12

As mentioned above, Zielenziger’s curiosity was piqued by the hikikomori, and a substantial part of the book focuses on their shared attributes. As he talked to the hikikomori and their parents, it became clear that the government and the Japanese health care system were largely uninvolved in trying to explain or ameliorate their behaviour.

Unlike Americans, Japanese don’t naturally organize themselves into health-related pressure groups to draw attention to issues like this. (For years, Japan’s disabled quietly accepted their third-class status.) In contrast to the nation’s [page break] dense and intense economic networks, its social networks — its tentacles of charitable and civic organizations — are far less robust and efficacious. Only within the past half-decade, since 1998, has Japan enacted new rules permitting nonprofit organizations to incorporate without formal government approval, but contributions to nongovernmental organizations are still not tax deductible. p.44

Without a discrete civic response to the issue, and with general indifference on the part of the society as a whole, the phenomenon of the hikikomori has largely been ignored. What programs there are, at least seen in Zielenziger’s description, seem ad hoc and often assembled by volunteers or psychology professionals who would, themselves, be considered oddballs in Japanese society. Creating a safe physical environment, sparing use of antidepressants, and the establishment of undemanding group interaction show some evidence of success with hikikomori. The pattern of hikikomori behaviour doesn’t seem very amenable to purely pharmaceutical treatment, however, and the whole area of mental health therapy and clinical psychology is uniquely underdeveloped in Japan because of the dominance of the medical profession — Japanese doctors benefit financially when prescribing drugs. Ironically, it’s very difficult to get pharmaceuticals approved in Japan (introduction of the birth control pill and its variants was delayed for years) though the author notes that Viagra, and many antidepressants, were successfully “fast-tracked.” Without an easy pharmaceutical fix available for hikikomori behaviour, the broader society has many incentives to simply turn away.

Escape to Shopping – How Young Japanese Women Cope

Part way through the book, after considering the specifics of hikikomori experience, and introducing the reader to the features of Japanese society which make addressing the issue difficult or impossible, Zielenziger introduces us to the role of Louis Vuitton (and brand obsession, generally) in Japan.

He had a chance to attend the opening of a flagship Louis Vuitton store in Japan and speak with the management. The store was huge, even by comparison with the corporation’s French HQ. For Vuitton, and its managing director, it was a big financial risk but one that became possible after Japanese economic turndown in the 90s reduced local land prices. Vuitton has many smaller stores across Japan, and the prestige of a massive new store was meant to boost the sales and visibility of its entire chain. Young Japanese lined up for hours for the opportunity to buy limited-run handbags, other leather goods, and accessories. Despite the luxury prices, the enthusiastic clientele were by no means rich. They were largely lower and middle class Japanese — saving for long periods to afford specific items – and avidly reading magazines about upcoming products. Zielenziger interviewed some of the young shoppers and found an almost talismanic worship of Vuitton’s product line. He interprets such consumerism as a search for personal worth and authenticity. Not unusual per se in the modern world, but Zielenziger feels that the passion expressed in Japan for such products is beyond that normally seen in young people around the industrialized world. In Japan, it is a fundamental need to identify and authenticate through brand objects. In the rest of the world, Vuitton is admired but seen as only for the well-to-do. But the upper classes don’t line up around the block in the rest of the world to await a store opening.

Many of those fervent Vuitton shoppers are the so-called parasaito singles … a generation of young Japanese women foregoing marriage and children for a life with fewer burdens and restrictions. Living at home, without obligations to care for children or obey mothers-in-law, they are young women with both free time and money, a first in Japanese history. Able to gain independence of a kind, avoid the tremendous expense of Japanese accommodation and child education, and skip the psychological isolation of a home life without a spouse, these Japanese women have found a way to escape the system to better effect than the hikikomori. Nonetheless, the cost to Japanese society may be just as significant.

In Zielenziger’s account, the role of women in Japan is still rather grim by comparison with the West. Women are entirely responsible for child care but are deeply isolated once that child enters school. Infantilization of children, and a deep dependency of children on their mother continues until age 6. This creates unusually close mother-child connections but can also create dependency and control issues in later life. Women are also responsible for elder-care, of their parents and the husband’s.

A mother is held responsible for a child’s educational success. Despite government attempts to limit the hours Japanese children are at school, a whole new wave of “cram schools” keep kids at their desks memorizing facts from a very early age, well beyond the hours of public school. It is the mother’s task to manage the logistics and coercion of such an educational treadmill. Meanwhile, husbands may spend the majority of their time during the work week entirely absent from the home. And spend the weekends sleeping, to recuperate.

Because of the structure of the Japanese economy, single motherhood is a financial and social impossibility. Abortion is a common method of contraception and family planning. Relations between the sexes within marriage can be rather hollow. Intimacy of any kind must survive many countervailing forces. Facing an unappealing future as wife and mother, young women have simply opted not to marry, not to have children, and in many cases, to have relatively little to do with men.

The glass ceiling is still very much in effect for Japanese women at Japanese corporations though the situation is apparently somewhat better at foreign-owned companies. The joys of shopping, especially for brand goods that might cast reflected status and glory, has become a vital source of happiness in the absence of alternatives.

[…]as Yamada and I talked, he seemed to envy Europeans and Americans for being able to escape from the powerful grasp of materialism through some form of spiritual practice — whether through fundamentalist Christianity or twice-weekly yoga training, it didn’t really matter. This private, personal search helps energize the individual and infuse his existence with meaning. Japanese, however, seem to have no such recourse. “In order to fill the void:” between worldliness and true inner peace, Yamada said, “all [we Japanese] can do is read manga, take trips abroad, or go shopping. It’s awful. Shopping becomes an addiction, a tranquilizer.” p.157

Zielenziger introduces the term “homosocial society” to describe day-to-day reality for many Japanese women … and illustrates it with an image that contrasts dramatically with Western industrialized nations:

If you take a weekend stroll through Ebisu Garden Palace, or any of a dozen other modern Tokyo shopping centers, you will see what the anthropologists who label Japan’s society “homosocial” really mean. You will find shops and cafes filled with smartly dressed women, eating Italian panini, sorting through Fendi scarves, or lining up for a matinee performance at the movie theatre. But — unlike the scene in a typical American suburban shipping mall on a Saturday afternoon — you will see almost no men. Of the people visible, 90 percent will be women, with only a handful of couples. Rarer still would be a man and a woman strolling together with their child.

Where is Dad? He is either at home sleeping, recovering from a stressful week at work and the after-work “drinking meetings” that are inseparable from his duties; or at the golf course, playing with his bosses or entertaining clients. Statistical surveys show that “sleeping” consistently ranks as the most popular weekend pastime of Japanese men. According to family counselors, most Japanese fathers devote little attention to their children. p.187

To accommodate the increasing reluctance of Japanese women to get married and have kids, a small number of Filipino women have married Japanese men and raised families. The roles of the sexes continue however, and Zielenziger briefly recounts his conversations with Filipino women living in Japan who are very lonely and unhappy. Their Japanese in-laws are content with the situation. But they aren’t.

Affluent Japan needs to make social changes that better balance gender responsibilities, and place less emphasis on work for the sake of work. But that’s easier said than done.

Suicide and Alcohol

After considering the role of young women in Japanese society, and the abandonment of marriage and family by the “parasaito singles,” Zielenziger moves on, rather more briefly, to the sociology of depression, suicide, and alcoholism in Japan. Tales of Japanese sararimen being overworked to the point of death (karoshi), of train stations re-designed to stop men from leaping in front of the trains, and of vomit-strewn subway stations at midnight are familiar enough to those who’ve read about Japan during the last few decades.

Less commonly known, since the Japanese economic turmoil and stagnation of the 1990s, is the shift in suicide demographics. Suicide is primarily a male enterprise, but is now an adult rather than just adolescent preoccupation in Japan. In the face of reduced economic vistas, and a society that offers limited ways to be different and happy, suicide relieves the individual of the burden of social expectation. The potential loss of seniority or loss of a job places pressure on a Japanese individual that’s literally unbearable. The response of Japanese society to such events is largely “it can’t be helped.”

Long before a suicide occurs, depression has made an appearance. The struggle to cope with years of depression without appearing different to one’s neighbours and colleagues is common throughout the industrialized world. To do so in a Japanese context appears particularly daunting.

The role of alcohol in creating a safe social space for interaction between Japanese co-workers is also widely known. For some workers, the obligation to drink long into the night with colleagues, to never turn down a drink offered by a boss, creates a cycle of fatigue and depression that is overwhelming. As mentioned earlier, men often spend their weekends recuperating from long hours of work and drink during the work week. The pressure to work long hours and never take personal vacation time is only overcome by a recent national focus on statutory holidays … everyone must stop work, and therefore everyone can, without fear of losing their job.

Regrettably, individuals caught in the trap of work-related alcohol consumption face the twin dangers of physical disintegration and burgeoning alcoholism. In an attempt to create an environment of social ease and community, yet another burden has been placed on the individual.

Having inventoried the stress that men and women face in Japanese society, Zielenziger takes a closer look at the issue of trust, and whether Japan’s cohesive and productive society can really be described as high-trust.

Trust and the Individual’s Challenge in Society

Academic Robert D. Putnam has noted the distinction between northern and southern Italians which translates well into the Japanese setting. Zielenziger bridges the two:

In districts of southern Italy such as Umbria and Sicily, by contrast, social and cultural life remains relatively threadbare. Politics there is somebody else’s job to take care of. Laws are made to be broken. Fearing others’ lawlessness, citizens demand sterner discipline. “Trapped in these interlocking vicious circles, nearly everyone feels powerless, exploited, and unhappy,” Putnam has found. This lack of civic engagement made it harder for southern Italians to form guilds or mutual aid associations that might have led to wider prosperity.

Another political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, argues that “trust” — as contrasted to what he calls “familism”– generates wealth. Rich countries exhibit higher levels of social trust than poor ones, he thinks, and Japan’s prosperity results from “networks based on moral obligation … Something in the Japanese culture makes it very easy for one person to incur a reciprocal obligation over extended periods of time,” he writes, without [pagebreak] ever defining what this “something” might be. Because it is prosperous, he says, Japan must be a highly trusting society like the United States.” p.134-135

The Japanese networks I encountered each day — the keiretsu of bank and manufacturing groups, or the tribal-like zoku of special interests within political parties — do not bear out Fukuyama’s argument. … These networks — closed, confined, and exclusive, as they are based on pre-existing relationships — are not “trusting.” They do not readily accommodate outsiders. They tend to be impenetrable and controlling, not open and sharing. They husband and broker information instead of distributing it, and use their internally created confidences to gain advantage over members of rival groups. Organized into rigid vertical hierarchies, various branches within the same company or ministry often refuse to even share information with one another. For example, the Japanese once hired a French hydrologist’s firm to custom-build a water pollution control system, but would not share water samples that disclosed the precise nature of the pollutants the system should be designed to control. Even the contractor was an outsider, not part of the inside “network. p. 135

To Zielenziger, the co-operation of Japanese groups is different, in an important way, from the trust between individuals that might build a civic society of small-scale relationships.

Meanwhile, To The West

As part of his journalistic duties, Zielenziger was able to spend time in South Korea and talk to Korean scholars and health care providers to see if there was any parallel to the Japanese hikikomori in Korea. Apparently not. While occasional reclusive personalities are noted, nothing like the distinct pattern of retreat by young males exists. Some of this may well be due to the mandatory military service in Korea, beginning at 18, which provides both externalization and communal self-confidence to young Korean men.

Even more fascinating, Zielenziger gives us a brief historical summary of the role of Western Christian missionaries in Korea, beginning shortly after the opening of Japan in the late 1860s. Koreans were exposed early to a particularly American Protestant variant of medical care (hospitals for the poor) and public education (for women and the lower classes). Throughout the subsequent period of Japanese occupation, Korean Christians were seen as nationalists and modernists, and when Japan was defeated and the Korean War began, American Christian communities were major independent sources of food, clothing, and support for South Korea. These intellectual and material bonds sustained a Korean tradition of personal moral accountability. The process of shaking off the military dictatorship in the 70s and 80s was noticeably influenced by Christian Koreans and the deep-set idea of individual conscience. In the 90s, demands for reducing the influence of the chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) and increasing economic transparency were led yet again by political leaders well versed in the Western tradition of civil society.

Though Korea has struggled with more than its fair share of social turmoil (occupation, partition, military dictatorship, economic crisis), it has also defied the odds by creating a society that is increasingly responsive to citizen demands and global change, and increasingly prosperous. In fact, Korea is one of the few large nations that’s a relative economic success story in the 20th century – making its way from the “lowlands” of per capita GDP to the “foothills” (see chicagoboyz review of Lewis’ Power of Productivity). The Koreans actually improved their economic lot in comparison to the rest of the world in the last 50 years, unlike the Japanese, whose late 19th century economic boom had already set them apart from, and above, much of the world a century ago.

Like Japan, Korea has shown an ability to change its economic structure at a rapid pace. Unlike Japan, however, it also has made the shift to modernity in a way that lets its individuals create spheres of co-operation independent of government and broader society. The dynamism of Korean Presbyterian churches across western Canada, for example, is one of those cultural realities that brings Zielenziger’s comments literally close to home.

Looking to the Future

If the Korea has chosen, or been able to choose, a path which avoids the plight of the hikikomori and the parasaito and the saririmen, Japan will be tackling these particular social issues on its own. There will be no other national model against which to judge itself, or to mimic, or with which it can work out a Japanese variation of a well-trod path. They’ll be sorting these problems out themselves, without a playbook, and in quite unique circumstances.


Many things occur “only in Japan”: that is, in their daily lives Japanese do many things that Westerners — and even other Asians — find slightly unusual. Take the many Japanese men who, to while away their long commutes to work, paw through thick manga or comic books, full of sadomasochistic violence without a hint of self-consciousness. Or the way businessmen bow respectfully when they speak to some invisible other on their mobile phones. Or the fact that long beyond infancy, many five- and six-year old children continue to sleep in the same bed with their parents.

Indeed, this obsession with appearance, with finding the right costume to wear out in the world seemed a direct expression of the modern Japanese’s perilous quest to find identity. p. 151

The conclusion of Shutting Out the Sun focuses on the role of the United States in sustaining Japanese social isolation. The relationship has often been that of parent and child. From the forced opening of the American Black Ships in the 1860s to the devastation of the Second World War, to the artificially positive trading relationships of the post-War era, America has alternately disrupted and enabled the features of Japanese society.

In the last years of the twentieth century, an acid joke began circulating among Japan’s intelligentsia: how, after years of being hectored by foreign competitors, most notably the United States, over its mercantilist trade polices and insular structure, “Japan bashing” had evolved into “Japan passing” and then into “Japan nothing.” The joke insinuated that, while the attention of the Western world was turned elsewhere, especially toward China, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East, Japan’s prestige and global influence continued to wither away (In Japanese, the rhyming of the words bashingu, pashingu, noshingu only enhances the humor.) To me it seemed telling that the Japanese themselves were now describing their own once-prideful and glorious nation as one that might choose to stifle itself in seclusion, rather than seek to commingle more closely with the other cultures and economies of a shrinking globe.”

To Zielenziger, Japanese society has made a trade-off at some level similar to the hikikomori – it is retreating from the world in many ways, yet deeply dependent upon it.

Relatively few Japanese permanently emigrate to foreign lands, and those who do abandon the mother islands choose to assimilate relatively rapidly into the culture of their new-found lands — far more than say, Taiwanese- or Korean-Americans, for instance, who closely monitor events back home long after they have moved far away, and who choose, despite the great distance, [page break] to take an active role in home-country politics. Japanese-Americans quickly adopt an American lifestyle and sever almost all ties to the motherland, as if they immediately sense that, once departed, they may never be able to go home again. In addition, Japanese possess no universal religion or ideology to which citizens in other nations might easily relate.

A nation that cannot define itself clearly cannot hope to act in its rational self-interest. In periods marked by rapid social change, traditional identities dissolve and new ones must be forged. Yet for decades Japan was able to avoid this struggle for identity by immersing itself compulsively in its drive to catch up to the West, to makes its country, as opposed to its people, wealthy, to acquire products and an advanced lifestyle, and to mimic the consumption patterns it witnessed in foreign lands; to build the suburban towns, golf courses, and strip malls that seemed to bespeak a sense of prosperity. When its economic miracle finally broke apart in the early 1990s, however, Japan found it could not settle the most fundamental questions regarding its own character. What should it hope to be? p.262

One could blame America for this continued isolation, for indulging an economic system that was evidently closed in its food, construction, and banking industries, with opaque traditions of corporate governance, and which provided a lop-sided export-driven prosperity that left its domestic interest groups unchallenged. Cold War convenience might be used as an excuse. Indifference, perhaps, as well. But Zielenziger is unconvinced.

To simply blame American intervention for Japanese modern disaffection and disengagement, however, is to let the Japanese themselves rather lightly off the hook. Murakami [controversial Japanese author] fails to acknowledge how the defects so deeply embedded within Japan’s own cultural fabric make its people unable to articulate for themselves a new vision and new goals — even spiritual ones — after their tradition-bound culture began to give way and the American occupation ended. For even at the most granular and personal levels, Japanese have been schooled to look outside themselves — at group and contextual norms, rather than at inner conscience — as a means to define moral purpose. Without really understanding themselves, of course, the Japanese cannot hope to understand others. Yet rather than recognize and work to counteract their innate loneliness, Japanese seem to relish their singular inwardness — or seem, at least, resigned to their solipsistic fate, unable to imagine a different future in which they might interact and share comfortably with outsiders. p.265

Summing Up

As befits a senior journalist paired with an excellent editor (the famed New Yorker, Nan Talese), Shutting out the Sun is smoothly written, well structured, and makes compelling use of interviews and anecdotes. This book tells a story through the exploration of the lives of ordinary Japanese, and the academics/professionals who are attempting to help them. I get the sense that Zielenziger was challenged by his publishing team to really build a “big picture” around the plaintive personal stories he gathered in Japan. He has succeeded in large part. The challenges of the hikikomori, the parasaito, and the emotionally distressed are placed within the broader context of Japanese society. It’s a disturbing picture, and one with significant geopolitical implications as the 21st century proceeds.

It’s even noteworthy that Zielenziger introduces his book by describing the mental health issues of the women in the Japanese Imperial Household (Empress Michiko, and more recently, Crown Princess Masako [formerly Masako Owada]). The struggles of two generations of accomplished and pampered Japanese women to cope with the emotional demands of Imperial tradition in a modern world is symbolic of the larger stresses being placed on the prosperous Japanese.

For anyone interested in Asian studies, especially university or college students, Shutting Out the Sun would make a fine gift or a book to purchase for an upcoming trip or vacation. Approachable for the general reader, it’s also suitable for senior high school students in need of an essay topic, or perhaps just an intellectual nudge from a relative. Each reader will make their own judgment about whether Japan should be feared, bashed, or ignored, in the future. You’ll never look at Japan, Inc. in quite the same way. As to the validity of Zielenziger’s arguments and conclusions, the Internet has so many resources for seeking commentary on his book that sceptical readers will be well-served. Naturally, like any well-marketed book, you can start at www.shuttingoutthesun.com.

Shutting also makes a great complement to social anthropologist Alan Macfarlane’s upcoming book on Japan called Japan Through the Looking Glass: Shaman to Shinto (mentioned by Lex in his recent blog post). Like Lex, I had the privilege of peeking at the manuscript and Dr. Macfarlane’s cultural and historical insights seem to correspond with Zielenziger’s man-on-the-street interviews and journalistic timeframe. Japan is different somehow. Very different.

As noted above, Shutting out the Sun can also be read in tandem with William Lewis’ The Power of Productivity: Wealth, Poverty, and the Threat to Global Stability. Japan’s unique blend of free-market export economy and carefully-controlled domestic economy is profiled by Lewis and compared with other industrialized nations. While that economic profile has had a dramatic impact on Japanese national productivity, it can be more fully understood when seen in light of Zielenziger’s descriptions of the role of competition and individuality in Japanese society. As long as there was a road map to profit-making in the international realm, Japan could play the game with excellence. But to create a dynamic and changeable domestic economy required an internal dynamic, an internal assessment of goals and dreams. To a large extent, those have been missing.

The post-modern challenges of our own culture are profitably contrasted with those facing Japan. Shutting Out the Sun highlights these differences at a personal level. In the West, young people and adults have a set of emotional and intellectual tools to cope with rapid change. While those tools are far from perfect, they seem to stack up pretty well when compared with Japan’s halting efforts at forming a national identity in an era of unprecedented prosperity. Westerners, as individuals, fall prey to many ailments and many worries, but in most cases they can find a subculture that welcomes them. And the new technologies of telephony and the Internet, have made life bearable for many who thought themselves alone in society.

Yet again we bump up against a unique and rather offbeat angle on the Anglosphere Challenge, outlined in James Bennett’s book. Ultimately, a prosperous nation needs optimistic and ambitious people … and its young people should hit adulthood with expectations verging on the preposterous. Industriousness isn’t enough. Conforming isn’t enough. Forming social appetites from the bottom of society on up seems like a chaotic and wasteful process, but Japan’s quandary, outlined ably by Michael Zielenziger, appears to be a far more hazardous course in the long term.

Table of Contents

Introduction: An Adjustment Disorder 1
1. “An Arrow Pointed Deep Inside of Me” [8]
2. Broken Apart from Others [22]
3. A Long Tunnel [40]
4. Personalities “Front” and “back” [59]
5. Three Japanese “Lunatics” [76]
6. Careening Off Course [93]
7. The Iron Triangle of the Psyche [121]
8. The Cult of the Brand [146]
9. Womb Strike [161]
10. Marriage in a Homosocial Society [178]
11. Falling off the Tightrope [193]
12. Rising Sun and Hermit Kingdom [219]
13. A Completely New Value System [237]
14. Hikikomori Nation and Sheltering Uncle [262]
15. “A Single Ray of Light” [288]

14 thoughts on “Zielenziger – Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation”

  1. Thank you, James McCormick. You have done more than describe the book; you’ve conveyed the sadness in an affecting way.

  2. I have lived in Japan for various periods since 1968 and have one observation to offer. japanese society has always been very structured, with everyone occupying his specific place. People may have changed positions as they moved up in a company or moved from parent to grandparent, but they were always moving form one defined position to another defined position.

    The economy and society have become too complex for this structured approach to work. There are far too many permutations available today, and the huge number of real world possibilities exhausts the structured society’s ability to catalog and track them in an orderly manner.

    Who are the hikikomori? They are the guys who desperately want a stuctured place but can’t find one. They can find a job, but where does that job fit? They are terrified of being unconnected, so they hold onto the family connection. Unfortunately, as the hikikis grow in number, they really are becoming a recognized niche in the structured social order. They have succeeded. (And when their parents die…)

  3. A major oddity for me is the matter-of-fact a priori rejection of christianity. They seem to realize that embracing christianity would fix their problems but find it, somehow, impossible to do. It reminds me of a persian friend of mine who sadly told me that “if I could, I would become a christian”. But he could, and so could the japanese.

  4. Maybe I’m only stating the obvious here– I’m only a rank amateur in the field of Japanese history. ^_^;;

    Christianity arrived on Japanese shores in the 1550s in the form of Catholic (Portugese?) missionaries. The religion caught on pretty rapidly, but the Shoguns (perhaps from whispers in their ears from the Protestant Dutch? I don’t remember) got the idea that Christianity was ultimately incompatible with the Shogunate, and so Christianity began to be first discouraged, and then finally brutally suppressed, culminating in some pretty ghastly massacres in 1637-40. Afterwards, Japan was officially Buddhist and Shinto, with Christian missionaries only grudgingly re-admitted about the time of the Restoration, circa 1870.

    Between centuries of Shogunate-era anti-Christian propaganda and furious post-Restoration boosterism of Shinto (ending only in 1945), modern Japanese may feel that Christianity is somehow “un-Japanese”, even unpatriotic, much as many Americans are a bit uncomfortable with seemingly-goofy religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

    My two cents’ worth…..

  5. Yes, Hale, I think you are quite correct in your insight, although I don’t agree completely with your points on Dutch Protestants and boosterism of Shinto. Christianity had a tortuous history in Japan: good sources inform on Nobunaga Oda’s (first Shogun to being the unification of Japan, which culminated with Tokugawa) intention to convert Japan to Catholicism in order to undermine the religious basis of the Emperor’s remaining power. If successful, it is hard to imagine the possibilities that could have arisen from the insertion in Japanese culture of the concept of individualism in such a tender age. It wasn’t that way, though, and since then the idea of Christianity became linked to the negation of everything that culturally gave identity to the Japanese. Although this notion has obviously weakened over time, it is still alive and well: being a Catholic myself, and having been questioned about it by a former boss, I was told to keep a low profile if I wanted to be accepted as one of the lot. Which brings us back to the current topic.

    Just elaborating on Elliot’s intervention: consider the fact that the notion of being an individual professional in Japan is still far from being engrained, for a number of reasons. In the West, you would find little problem in justifying hiring someone’s services because she is really good, period. You know the person is intelligent, well-prepared, hard-working, and so on, and this is pretty much all there is to it. But in Japan, this is far from being enough. You must have a group badge in order to get you in: coming from a well-known company, or family, or university. It is like an insurance of sorts: “that association really educates its members, so this individual must be ok as well”. But in order to get the badge you have to go through all that described in Mr. Zielenziger’s book, and it is far from pretty. It gives a whole different meaning to the expression “attention to detail”. (Anecdote: a colleague was once called by her boss and asked: “Are you wearing perfume?” She was not, but had the day before, a Sunday. “Stop wearing perfume! Perfume is just for your personal satisfaction! It is inconvenient to other people!” That can be quite disturbing if done in front of an audience. It also reminds me of Hannibal Lecter.)

    But worse is, if you can’t adapt to it, you’re not out. They will keep you in, but will continue hammering you until you fit or break. This brings a sense of despair that is just too appalling for some on a generation of Japanese that began to be taught that they don’t have to kill themselves in order to survive. They can afford to break.

    All of this just fills me with admiration for the young generation of entrepreneurs who have recently been able to challenge these structures and find their own niches in Japanese society. Nevertheless, the arrest of the best known representative of this generation, Livedoor’s former CEO Mr. Horie, remains as a warning: regardless of the merit of his arrest, and well before his prosecution, the Japanese media was all out trying (and succeeding) to sell the idea that being young and ambitious (as opposed to young and diligent) was against good morals. If Japan is to find consistent growth within its own economy, historically, it is quite likely that such growth will come from those – young or old – who dare thinking and living outside the box. If hikikomori’s are a social problem, their antithesis, the Akihabara-zoku, or “tribe from Akihabara”, are the new movers-and-shakers. The Japanese version of trekkies, these exotic figures are the underlying drivers and market for videogame and anime development, robot research, “maid-cafes”, and every other new fad that puts Japan under the spotlights of trend-hunters.

    Will it be enough to warrant for stable growth? Hardly. But the fact that established Japanese economists are ready to concede that this is a force to be taken seriously shows that Japan may be ready to accept the contribution of (very unique) individuals after all.

  6. Wow. Thanks for writing, Tokyo Tower. I learn something new every day. Really– I’m NOT being sarcastic.

    Bearing in mind what you wrote, I have to wonder if maybe the United States’ victory over Japan in 1945 had something of the “poisoned chalice” about it. The United States had been able to reduce the Empire to ruins, of course, which wasn’t a good thing materially for the Japanese people in the short run. But over the long run, the Japanese may have learned a good lesson– that prosperity is best achieved through trade, not bloody conquest– but followed what ultimately was a bad example: the United States as it was in 1945. The Japanese naturally wanted to emulate their conquerors, but learned (wrongly) that the way to power and prestige was to insist on “mass”– big corporations, big government, big what-have-you– which ties in neatly with what seems to be a Japanese fetish for conformity. It’s only since our own (here in the U.S.) fetish for “bigness” (what I call Political Taylorism, after Frederick Taylor) led us to some bad times in the ’60s and ’70s did we start to abandon it, leading to the good times (economically, anyway) that we’ve enjoyed for the last quarter-century or so. Alas, Japan is still stuck in the ’50s, or even the ’70s, and can’t find its way out, economically or socially. And the poor hikikomori are caught in the gears of this machine that is stuck in neutral.

  7. Just another in a long line of books that begins with biases and a stereotypical understanding of Japan and its culture and based upon such foundations picks and chooses a narrative and a framework for research and analysis, all in the guise of a detective discovering something heretofore hidden, that lo and behold and to everyones great surprise concludes in a manner that supports said biases and blind spots. What we know about the author: he was lead by the nose into the “real” Japan by a few fringe academics with very definite ideological blinders, blinders that he shares and are the motivating force for writing this kind of book; he understands enough Japanese and stayed in Japan just long enough to thoroughly not know what he doesn’t know (and shows little interest in acquiring the skills and temperment to actually thoughtfully consider another culture); that this kind of work, of which his will become a fine part, for he is truly a gifted writer and craftsman, is just another of many beaten down nails in a long line of the “nail that sticks up gets slammed down” industry of Japanese studies. Do yourself a favor, get away from books like this. Fast. Learn Japanese. Not enough to be able to laud your knowledge over others who don’t know any Japanese, but rather enough to be thoroughly conversant in the literature and culture–ancient and modern. It helps if you can speak as well or better than the people you aim to undrestand and are in no way dependent on translators. Live here a few decades. Get some perspective on the nature of society and man in general and irregardless of this or that specific culture. Sorry. Bad advice. Much easier just to be another shallow thinker in the Japan Inc. industry. Sycophants and ideologues do better in the ivory towers and related industries. Especially gifted ones. Keep patting yourselves on the back. Too bad Japan remains something quite different, and in many ways, nay even the opposite, of what you imagine her to be. (Pray tell what has become of the UofC?).

  8. DCE
    Your comment is not clear in its criticism. That is, are you arguing that hikikomori don’t exist, exist in a smaller number, motivations are different, problems with their relation with society are different? What is it that you are saying is incorrect about this book – or this review? Which generalizations about Japanese society are too broad – and why do you think so? I am curious about your comments, but can’t see their point.

  9. DCE’s just blowing smoke, most likely. He may love Japanese culture too uncritically to either accept or intelligently critique anything the study says.

  10. (1) The claim in Shutting Out the Sun that there are more than one million hikikomori in Japan is known to be the fabrication of a publicity seeking shrink named Saito Tamaki.

    (2) In 2002 the BBC aired a special taking the line that hikikomori was a syndrome peculiar to Japan. Numerous UK viewers protested that their children or they themselves fit this “uniquely” Japanese pattern.

    (3) Korea has a higher suicide rate and a lower birth rate than Japan. The gap between those with secure jobs and good benefits and those with insecure jobs and no benefits is much larger than for Japan. The government has recently been calling attention to the alcoholism problem in Korea.

    I have lived off and on in Japan for thirty-six years with various periods in the US and Britain. To be sure, Japan has its social problems and its nut cases, but the social problems are much less severe than they are in either Britain or the US. Teaching sociology to Japanese college students (in Japanese) on a daily basis and having two young boys (four and seven) growing up Japanese, I like to think I know a thing or two about this country.

    Although Zielenziger does not describe anything that does not exist (other than the one million hikikomori), the patterns he describes are at most of minor significance and are hardly peculiar to Japan. (“Parasite singles” can be found in many countries.) I see this book more as a celebration of an idealized America (*) than an accurate depiction of Japan – Americans may not know how to make automobiles that people want to buy but American kids don’t sit at home and stare at the wall. (He ignores the American kids who instead of founding companies sell crack, hold up liquor stores, and help to give the US a prison population of 2.1 million – real millions unlike the hikikomori.)


    (*) In his public appearances Zielenziger has repeatedly contrasted “Japanese” with “Americans in Marin County [California]” – one of the most affluent counties in the US and one of the least representative in terms of income, education, crime, and ethnic mix.

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