Thursday, July 24, 2014

On “Shutting out the Sun” by Michael Zielenziger *****

One of the best texts on Japanese culture that I've read, this book initially seemed like it would be a disappointment. Zielenziger starts off his book writing about the hikikomori, and since that discussion takes up the first several chapters, I initially thought I'd ended up reading a book on some uniquely Japanese psychological problem. The hikikimori are adults who live at home with their parents, usually holed up in their room. Unable to take the pressure of integrating socially, they choose to wile away there time alone. The psychological problem sounded to me not dissimilar to autism or Asperger's syndrome, but in fact the problem is uniquely Japanese, as such people integrate normally into foreign societies. Usually, a bullying experience or something similar is the cause for the decision to withdraw from society; the hikikomori, Zielenziger claims, are often people who are too individualistic to fit in in Japan's very conformist society.

Zielenziger's discussion moves then to a more general discussion of Japan, a society, he claims, is essentially a hikikomori nation--a country that historically withdraws from other nations in the world. Here's where the book gets interesting: Zielenziger hypothesizes on why the Japanese are the kind of people they are and on why Japan, which had so much promise economically in the 1980s, fell into economic disarray in the 1990s and has not wholly recovered.

Zielenziger then goes into a history and culture of Japanese business. Japan's economy and politics is routed in the feudal culture that predates the modern world. Even though the United States transformed Japan in terms of its economic system, opening it up to the world, it did not transform the Japanese spirit. Hence, even though Japan became capitalist, the country transferred its warrior culture to the economic world: trade essentially remained one way (few imports, many exports), and businesses became the new extended families that one conformed to and that took care of the people.

Because Japan lacks a moral compass outside of societal conformity, Zielenziger hints, the Japanese often lack a sense of greater purpose or individuality. As such, capitalism becomes the end all and be all even more than it does in Western countries. A chapter is given over to fads and materialism in Japan, and how that is often the means by which Japanese gain a sense of “self,” which is not a sense of self at all but of cliques or groups.

It's at this point that Zielenziger gets into some of his most interesting discussions, comparing Korean culture to that of Japan's. Korea doesn't have quite the same tendency to cut itself off, and it thus doesn't have hikikomori. As a nation invaded multiple times by neighbors, Korea's independence is relatively short lived. It too has gotten rich in the capitalist realm, but unlike Japan it has managed to recover from the 1990s doldrums. This is because it has opened its economy to foreign investors. (Japan, meanwhile, closes itself off, maintaining corrupt or zombi firms, and slowly driving itself into debt. It was a nation of savers, but its debt has grown in the last few decades. That said, statistically, on the Web, it is still as far as I can tell a creditor nation, unlike, say, the United States, to which Zielenziger often compares Japan--I don't see the American system as all that great; then again, Zielenziger later notes how our two nations contribute to our mutual problems, since Japan allows us to drive up our debt by buying it.)

Zielenziger then goes into a very interesting study of why this might be so, and he comes to the conclusion that it is because Korea adopted Christianity (or at least one-third of Korea did). This has created a more Western sense of self that no longer looks entirely to the group for personal action and decision making. Zielenziger isn't trying to claim the Christianity is the boon of the world or anything like that--he's Jewish--but he is saying that Western ideas do lend themselves more to globalization and to the flexibility necessary to transform a culture when economic turmoil and other problems arise.

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