Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shutting Out the Sun - Michael Zielenziger

Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
Shutting Out the Sun is really about Japan in the first decade of the 2000s, and as such parts of it might be just a tiny bit outdated.  However, there's still some really interesting stuff in here.  The thing is, I think Zielenziger divided the book into two parts.  A very interesting, well-written first part, and a second part that's basically just economic info and isn't as good for reasons I'll discuss more below.

The first part of the book really focuses on the phenomenon of hikikomori, which is a mental health epidemic (Is epidemic too strong a word?  I don't really think so, but maybe.) affecting primarily young men in Japan, where the sufferers shut themselves away, refusing to leave their rooms for months or even years, and refusing to let anyone else see them, as well.  The cause seems to be rooted in what amounts to a form of social anxiety that's brought out because Japan's social constructs are very rigid and community-based, and there's not a lot of ways to exert one's personality.  Zielenziger even points out that things that Westerners would normally count as asserting one's personality, such as unusual clothes, collections, etc., tend to be just another way of fitting in with a certain social group in Japan.  In this part of the book, Zielenziger makes a point to talk to a lot of Japanese citizens who either identify as hikikomori or who study and try to help the hikikomori.  In his introduction, he even made a point to say that he felt a need to include as many Japanese voices as possible because, as an outsider and a Westerner to boot, he couldn't really get a grasp on the hikikomori phenomenon as well as those who are "inside" Japanese society do.  I thought this was a very good point, and was happy to see that Zielenziger did such a good job with this.  I also particularly liked his chapter on women in contemporary Japanese society, and how careers, marriage, and birth control are handled; this was another chapter in which I think there were a good number of Japanese voices to help give us outsiders a look at what's really going on in Japan.

But then we hit the second part of the book.  In the second part, Zielenziger tries to make an argument for the economic and social issues that have formed an atmosphere in which young men can shut themselves away from society and the national birth rate can plummet because women refuse to have children.  In the second part of the book (roughly the second half; there is no real "part" division built in) the Japanese voices nearly vanish.  Zielenziger still has a lot of citations and there's definitely some research here, but it's pretty much all from a Western point of view and, though he does make an attempt to point out American imperialism towards the end, it's somewhat of a weak one and lets the West in general and the United States in general off very lightly for contributing to Japan's current situation.  Granted, many social constructs play into the social problems now facing Japan--but if you're going to make an argument that economics is essentially behind the social problems, then you really need to put a heavier does of the blame on the country that forced the economic situation on Japan in the first place.  That would be us, the good ol' US, and Japan probably doesn't have as much freedom to just "ditch" the US as Zielenziger implies.  Because of the lack of voices in the second half of the book, it does come off as very superior-sounding.  Very much, "Well the west is like this, why can't Japan just change to be like this, too?" with only a passing nod to the conditions that do prevent Japan from just adapting Western attitudes.  And then, of course, there's this kind of expression that the "Western" way is the only way and a presenting things as globalization when they're really imperialism.  Yes, globalization is a real force, but the things that Zielenziger brings up here more often than not fall into imperialism instead.

Overall, some interesting information and interviews to begin with, but the second half is a work I'm very leery of praising.  I liked this book overall, because of that first half, but have some reservations about the second and don't feel confident giving it more than...

3 stars out of 5.

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