An incisive, well-written account of Japan’s recent social and economic malaise, including a frightening portrait of the nation’s hikikomori: disaffected youths who lock themselves in their rooms for months or years at a time as a way of coping with life in a society that denies them self-expression.
Visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies, Zielenziger was puzzled by Japan’s seeming inability to recover from its economic slump when he began his seven-year stint as Tokyo bureau chief for Knight Ridder in 1996. Then he met some of the more than one million socially withdrawn hikikomori. Mainly men, often bright and creative, they include Kenji, 34, who reads, watches TV, daydreams and rarely leaves his room in his mother’s tiny apartment; and anxious, angry Jun, 28, who barricades himself from his parents, sleeps late into the afternoon and bikes frantically through downtown streets after dark. Unlike western youths who still live at home or act antisocially, Japan’s disenchanted suffer from a “social disorder” unique to a nation in spiritual crisis, declares the author. Drawing on interviews with young people, parents and psychiatrists, Zielenziger finds in these frustrated young people a way of understanding a change-resistant nation in which “obedience and group harmony,” though they served Japan well in the past, are now stifling the creativity and innovation needed to regain a place in the complex global economy. He goes on to describe other behaviors, from increases in binge-drinking and group suicides to the refusal of many young women to marry and have children, that he says also reflect the nation’s inability to imagine a future. “Japanese today do not know who they are,” one writer tells Zielenziger. “If asked to identify themselves, they can only give a job title or company name.” The country would rather withdraw than transform itself, he concludes.
Nuanced reporting on a tradition-bound society struggling to find its way in the 21st century.