Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
by Michael Zielenziger
Doubleday, 340 pages, $24.95
Their calm demeanors, high standards of living, and clean, crimeless streets give the impression that all is well among the Japanese. But beneath the country's plastic, neon-lit surface lurks a people on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So says Michael Zielenziger in his new book, Shutting Out the Sun. Consider the swelling numbers of parasaito, grown women who continue to live with their parents and have no plans of ever marrying. Also troublesome are the futoko, kids who refuse to go to school, precursors to the uniquely Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori (literally “pull away”), or the young people who, in protest against the families and society that bred them, don't leave their homes or, in some cases, their rooms for years. In actuality, hikikomori may be the canaries in the coal mine—the first casualties of a sick society—says Zielenziger, a journalist in Tokyo for seven years.
Shutting Out the Sun delivers a survey of Japan's symptoms. With a birthrate of 1.3 children per woman, Japan is graying faster than any other nation. Its marriages, increasingly fewer and delayed, are unusually sexless, while the Japanese spend more on the illicit sex trade than national defense. Burdened by long workweeks, men see little of their families: “Work is the family for most men” as one of Zielenziger's sources put it. About 340,000 abortions are performed each year in Japan, 30 percent the number of births.
The most serious health issue facing the country isn't a disease but suicide, at a rate for males double that in the United States. What's more, many are now joining group-suicide pacts with total strangers over the Internet, arranging times and places anonymously. The preferred method involves parking a car in the woods, taking sleeping pills, and burning charcoal briquettes to die by asphyxiation. The irony is enough to make one cry: Japanese are finding the strength to permanently end their loneliness in the support of other lonely souls.
Despite what economists say, Japan's current crisis of morale has little to do with deflation or unemployment. Among Japanese, there is a theory that the trauma of their defeat in the Second World War, and the ensuing protection provided by America, sent them into childish escapism. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga [comics] and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn't have seen thirty years ago,” the famous animator Hideaki Anno told a writer for the Atlantic Monthly. “We are a country of children.”
For Zielenziger, however, the turning point came when postwar Japan adopted Western social implements such as capitalism without the accompanying values and intellectual history, traveling “at breakneck speed from feudalism to industrialization, to war and then reconstruction, without ever experiencing the Enlightenment.” Indeed, though he stops short of the conclusion, in a strange twist of world history, this chain of oriental islands, secluded until the mid-nineteenth century, is on its way to demonstrating that Western modernity cannot be sustained without spirituality.
Zielenziger finds in religion the key for understanding why Japan's society differs so sharply from its equally capitalistic neighbor South Korea. Still largely absent from the Japanese mind, he insists, are the Judeo-Christian notions of a self apart from the group (there is no Japanese word for “self-esteem”), the individual conscience and soul, absolute moral principles, and providence. “As a secular Jew living in Asia, I had never considered how Christianity might have influenced Korea's modernization,” precisely as it didn't in Japan. Less than 1 percent of Japanese claim belief in Christianity. Even so, many celebrate a nonreligious version of Christmas and pay large sums for Christian-style church weddings that carry no religious significance for them. Whereas other cultures would see this behavior as inconsistent or bizarre, the Japanese do not, approaching religion as they would a consumer product.
Tellingly, suicide carries no moral stigma in Japan but is often perceived as an act of honor or absolution. From samurai-period seppuka (self-disembowelment with a sword), to World War II kamikaze pilots, to today's businessman who hangs himself after losing his job, Japan never ceased to believe that the individual exists for the preservation of the ie, or clan, be it the family name, the corporation, or the country. One might suspect the Japanese would easily interpret Christ's crucifixion as sacrifice to the ie of humanity, but this hasn't been the case. Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychologist, observes that, for those in the West, “God is looking down, like an ego, judging you. But in Japan, there is no God but the ie,” and the ultimate ie is a God named Japan. Kawai sees the need for Japan “to come up with a new way to become individuals without relying on Christianity.” How it can do so is unclear.
It should come as no surprise that foreigners in Japan often find the country lonely and isolating. Without standing as either individuals or as members of the closed Japanese system, and without recourse to any shared universal human narrative or moral grammar, outsiders have no sense of place—something also felt by more and more of Japan's own youth. Perhaps for these same reasons, Japan has proved unable to come to terms with its own imperial history: The Japanese Ministry of Education deleted references in textbooks to the forced suicides of Okinawans; Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the sex trade operated by the Japanese army; and many Japanese dispute the historicity of the Nanking massacre.
Others interviewed by Zielenziger were candid about their country. Haruki Murakami, a popular novelist, says, “We lost our own narrative,” referring to the past fifteen years. But can a narrative that is purely national and economic ever survive, and is it even worth preserving? “We have just started to pay for our decades of focusing only on the material,” adds another voice. And Japan will continue to pay that spiritual debt, not in yen, but in lives—ruined, taken, never born—until the country finds its soul. Hiroyuki Itsuki, a popular author in Japan, tells Zielenziger, “The suicide rate is high because people do not have God in their hearts.”
Addressing Japan's problems in front of the country's political assembly in 2005, Koichi Kato, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, asked: “What is the Japanese soul, what is the Japanese heart? It's not a question we can answer in five or ten minutes.” For that matter, Japan has been unwilling or unable to provide an answer in hundreds of years—since before the Second World War and even before the black ships under Mathew Perry arrived to open up Japan to the world. Nationalism and prosperity have failed to give meaning to the lives of Japanese, and the questions posed by Kato can no longer go ignored. Michael Zielenziger calls Japan's youth the “lost generation,” but what becomes clear in reading Shutting Out the Sun is that Japan is a lost nation, and the “lost generation” is merely the first to say so as it desperately, sometimes tragically, searches for a reality beyond the material.
John Rose is an assistant editor at <span style="font-variant: small-caps">First Things</span>.