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

The first 120 or so pages of Shutting Out the Sun (2006) are fascinating, and indeed, Zielenziger’s portrayal of a number of Japanese hikikomori (shut-ins), their families, and those working the help bring them back out into the public world, manages to be very thoughtful and compassionate, and even, at times, moving.

Later chapters are less powerful, in my opinion, in part because of the way Zielenziger presents the social problems he chooses to tackle. Many, such as the falling birth rate, the lingering (relative) conservativism among men, the precipitously-declined birth rate, and the national obsession with conspicuous consumption of brand name-goods, are presented as if they were uniquely Japanese phenomena, when anyone who was in Korea at the time could have noted that many of the same issues were also of concern, and often more severe, in South Korea.

Indeed, Zielenziger’s brief discussion of Korea is outright laughable: he praises Korea for doing so much better than Japan in so many ways, but those of us better-acquainted with the situation here recognize the vast majority of his assertions, and the assertions of his Korean interviewees, as flat out wrong. While Zielenziger managed to find those Japanese who were willing to be critical of Japan, those he spoke to in Korea seem much less willing to be critical… or, perhaps, excited to convince the world how much better Korea was doing than Japan. (This is even more apparent in hidsight, as many of the social problems Zielenziger discusses in terms of Japan have increasingly worsened in Korea.)

Of course, part of the reason for this blind spot is the apparent absence of hikikomori in Korea. While the theme of the dysfunctional shut-in has appeared from time to time in Korean films, I have never heard, anecdotally, of a single case of a Korean hikikomori. That said, there are vast numbers of young Koreans who, while they do not lock themselves into their bedrooms and expect their parents to support them, refuse to get a job or go to school, and indeed opt out of society only out to hang around in PC-Bangs, comic book salons, or at home (and online). Still, since for Zielenziger the hikikomori is an emblem for what he sees as Japan’s greater problem — a kind of all-encompassing self-isolation of sorts — this technical difference is crucial for his text; it is probably less crucial for an understanding of the general social malaise that has arisen in Northeast Asian metropoli generally, as well as among young modern people worldwide.

Indeed, I think Zeilenziger’s application of the notion of a “lost generation” of Japanese is profoundly applicable to South Korea. It’s hardly a coincidence that the very group of people here who are most prone to suicide are those who are considered, by Korean standards, “young” — the under-40 crowd. (Recently, it was announced that suicide was the top killer for everyone in Korea under 40, if you hadn’t heard.) Interestingly, the bottom third of the cover of the book seems, in the background, to be a photograph of a ceremony on the Japanese “Coming of Age Day” (成人の日), and yet he spoke not at all of how this ritualistic recognition of adulthood factors into the malaise he describes as near-universal among Japanese youth.

Having read his sections on Korea carefully, I feel it hard to take quite so seriously a lot of his assertions about Japan. A wiser researcher, engaged in such comparison, would have found a startling series of similarities, whereas one gets the impression Zielenziger based his conception of Korea’s difference on the basis of some self-congratulatory talk by a few Korean “experts” and how much he appreciated his weekend-trips to Seoul.

All that said, I suspect Zeilenziger probably does offer some useful insights regarding Japan; but more importantly, this book is probably good reading — in the vein of the cautionary example — for expats in Japan and Korea alike: many of us engage in the same kind of armchair (or cocktail party) philosophy as Zielenziger, and his text is a shining lesson of how severely one can get it wrong when one starts engaging in comparisons with the unknown, or when one gets attached to the idea that the culture one knows best is somehow uniquely flawed.

One last thing: after all the buildup, the last few chapters — especially the final one — seem to want to offer some hope… and yet conclude in such a way as to suggest Zeilenziger saw none, without his coming right out and saying it directly. I found this part of his analysis particularly troubling, in part because of the responsibility I see for one describing problems. That’s not to say I fault him for not solving Japan’s problems in fifteen pages or less, but rather I feel let down by a conclusion that, in lieu of suggesting what might sprout through the cracks in the foundation, we get a tight-shot of one foundation crack in particular, and zoom in, and cut.

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