I have been reading this awesome book called Shutting out the Sun. It is by a Knight Ridder reporter who spent a lot of time in Japan and the surrounding area. I had originally heard about the book when I caught him speaking on NPR about the topic of the book - hikikomori. It struck me as a quite interesting phenomena and with the time recently that I have spent in japan - a rather topical book to read.

The hikikomori are apparently Japanese men who are stuck in their rooms. They don't leave their rooms/houses and exhibit extreme anti-social behavior - a basic refusal to participate in society. What is interesting is that the hikikomori don't fit into the normal western  idea of a depressed person, and they exhibit all sorts of unique traits. For instance, the hikikomori seem to be less afraid of talking to foreigners than talking to Japanese people; they are mostly men, very few women are hikikomori; and are perceived to be very violent. According to the book, the hikikomori are basically rebelling against the very fabric of the Japanese collectivist society. They are lost individuals who don't want and cannot fit into the rigid Japanese world of invisible rules and high honor. The hikikomori are pressured into not revealing themselves due to the Japanese fear of mental illness and the scary potential of shaming their family. Sad.

The book was also full of some very interesting passages. From the short amount of time I spent in Japan I am not totally surprised by what they said - but it is always interesting when your quick off the cuff judgements are held up with reality (apparently). Check it out:

  • "the Saison Research Institute recently calculated that 94 percent of all Tokyo women in their twenties have at least one Vuitton product.." (p.148)
  • "'We've all been told the Pill has dangerous side effect,' Shizuko explained. Instead, Japanese doctors enthusiastically recommend abortion, because the procedure earns them larger profits from the national health care system than dispensing the Pill." (p.175)
  • "Global statistics compiled by the World Health Organization estimate the suicide rate for Japanese Men at 36.5 per 100,000, about double the comparable rate for American males (17.6 per 100,000)..." (p. 197)
  • "Even the language Japanese newspapers us serves as a soporific: rather than illuminating its readers, it seeks to calm them, to deflect responsibility, and to obfuscate. Newspapers seldom identify their sources directly or clarify who is responsible for brokering or implementing a policy, but rely on constructions like 'it was learned' or 'it was said.' Ambiguity is considered a virtue. One editor at NHK, the government-owned broadcast network often described as the 'BBC of Japan,' recounted how a superior chastised her: he handed back a script and instructed her, 'Could you make this story less clear?'" (p. 117)
  • "More than half of unmarried Japanese men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four report having no sexual relationships, friendships or even casual companionships with a woman." (p. 182)
  • "The rare Japanese who does stand out, who does for instance, garner a Nobel Prize in science, invariably recounts how he had been a poor student, considered "odd" or weird" within his university or corporation, and had soldiered in relative obscurity for most of his professional life. Luckily enough, such 'weirdos' never felt so discouraged that they became hikikomori. Yet many others felt compelled to abandon Japan in order to pursue their research.." (p. 99)

There are a lot more interesting passages - but you should obviously read the book. it is quite good and discusses quite a bit about the more mysterious parts of the our perception of Japanese society.

Check out the author, Michael Zielenziger's blog. It is interesting and currently has a bunch of commentary about North Korea.