Shutting Out the Sun by Michael Zielenziger
Publisher: Vintage. September 2007
Source: Barnes & Noble
First Line: To outsiders, Japan often appears as a murky, mysterious, and insular society that, over its many centuries, has proven exceptionally difficult to pierce.
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I don't read a lot of non-fiction. The only non-fiction I normally read is collections of personal essays, so this was a little bit of a struggle for me. But Japan and the hikikomori is a subject that has fascinated me for years.
Hikikomori are a group of Japanese young adults, generally male, who shut themselves out of society entirely. They choose to live in their rooms with little to no contact with anybody outside. This is a result of a rigid society and often intense bullying within the schooling system. Something that appears in Japan which is interesting: "Sekentei -- how one appears in the eyes of society, or the need to keep up appearances -- can powerfully constrain individual actions just as bullying does in the collectivist pressure cooker of contemporary Japan." So obviously it's fascinating to look at how a society is structured can influence people within it in extreme ways. I just don't know if this book is what I wanted to read.
I wanted to hear more from the hikikomori themselves and focus on their stories. Maybe I just wanted to read a piece of fiction about hikikomori, but I didn't get that. This book was mainly focused on the economy and sort of politics. This was all well and good at first, but it felt like Zielenziger was often repeating points he had already made. I kept just wanting it to end, which isn't a good sign.
Zielenziger took a few chapters to focus on some other interesting things that are sort of related. There are women in Japan who refuse to marry and have children, instead living at home and focusing on their careers. There was also the mention of extreme materialism, the birth control taboo, and the depression taboo. But then, by the end, the book strays even further than I had expected it to. It started talking about the effects of Christianity on Western society and how the lack of it influences Japan's society and lack of individualism. It was certainly interesting, but I'd like to see more research about it. And I'd like to see it in a book that isn't this one. He also brought up developing South Korea and did a lot of comparisons between the two countries. Again, interesting, but not exactly what I was interested in reading about.
Shutting Out the Sun was spot on about a lot of the things in Japanese society that would lead people to try to cut themselves off from society. While it's a fascinating topic, if the book had been less repetitive and stayed on track a bit more, I would have liked it a lot more than I did.
"'When they try to adapt themselves [to survive] in economic society, they have to destroy their insides. And in Japan, once you drop out, you can't drop back in.'"
"Mostly, modern Japanese have been forced to live, at best, as furtive individualists who mask themselves in outlandish clothes or dye their hair pink during a school vacation, but rush to the hairdresser before returning to work or the classroom in the same blue uniform and dark hair as their peers."
"Nisbett suggests that while Japanese literally see more of the world-they report more about a background context than their American counterparts do-they find it more difficult to detach an individual object from its surroundings"
"'In Japan, unless you have a real sense of being enmeshed with others, dependent on others, then you cannot feel secure. We're still a country where it's difficult for each person to live for himself.'"
Outlandishness Rating: 5/10
Hikikomori are an odd group of people that are hard not to be sympathetic with. I wish I had heard more of their experiences, though. I also found it odd that otaku were only mentioned briefly (like maybe a few sentences). Japan is an interesting place.