JAPAN'S "LOST GENERATION" OF BRILLIANT SHUT-INS
by Sandip Roy
Rebellion by hiding in your room
Japan's economic bubble burst, stories emerged about the hikikomori, the thousands of young men who lock themselves in their rooms, isolating themselves from the world and even their own families for weeks, months, sometimes years. Michael Zielenziger, who was Knight Ridder's Tokyo-based bureau chief for seven years, has written a book about the phenomenon. But in "Shutting Out the Sun -- How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation," Zielenziger, who speaks Japanese and had remarkable access to the reclusive hikikomori, says they are not just cultural oddities. Their isolation is really a silent protest against contemporary Japanese society.
Q: Sandip Roy: How many hikikomori are there in Japan?
Michael Zielenziger: It's very difficult to get an accurate census. The best estimate has been 1 to 1.2 million young Japanese, 80 percent men. One prefecture went and surveyed door to door and came up with an estimate of at least 650,000 men nationwide.
Q: Were you surprised to find who they were?
A: Hikikomori isn't classic depression. I found they were incredibly bright, very sensitive people who in our society would be building new software companies, putting out new videos on YouTube. Someone like Steve Wozniak, who helped change the world by helping to start Apple computers, might well have been a hikikomori had he grown up in Japan. He was different from his peers but he wouldn't know how to express himself in Japanese society.
Q: What do they do at home all day? Are they online?
A: Most of these young men were not on the Web when I was studying this in 2003. At that time, Internet penetration in households was very small, mostly because a telephone monopoly charged you 10 yen a minute to be online, which was very expensive. Most Japanese even now use their mobile phones to do their Internet surfing. Some of these men were involved in high-end intellectual exercises. One was reading Wittgenstein in its original German. Some are drinking, some are pacing the room, some drawing cartoons. A few are occasionally beating up their parents.
Q: Beating up the parents?
A: It's not often discussed, but if you get a Japanese and an American counselor in the room and have them talk about domestic violence, the American counselor assumes you are talking about wife-beating. In Japan it's more likely to be a 20-year-old adult who beats his mother with a baseball bat. In some cases the mother is very much co-dependent with the son. She believes her role in society is to be nurturer of the golden child. Fathers are wedded to their own family, which is the corporation.
Q: What do you mean when you say these hikikomori are actually engaging in a form of protest?
A: All societies have rebellion. In our societies young adults act out. In Japanese society the social space is so regulated and so conformist that the only safe space in which these social isolates can rebel is by hiding out in their rooms.
Many of them have endured some very powerful bullying or trauma. Bullying in Japan is a fine art. In Japan, even 35-year-old adults can be bullied by their bosses at work. One hikikomori remembered that at age 12 his classmates simply stopped talking to him. They completely ignored him. To this day he does not know why.
Japan is a collective environment and that stress is huge. If you are 12 in America and are bullied and you tell your mom, in most cases mom will talk to the teacher. In Japan, in 9 cases out of 10 the parent will ask what you did to bring this upon yourself. In Japanese society, group harmony and collective obedience is a very strong impetus. You are supposed to get along with others; if you can't it's your fault. It leads to a problem where selfhood is suppressed for group identity.
Q: Why is it mostly young men?
A: They have the burden of trying to make their way into an industrial economic society that doesn't function as well as it did in the 1980s. When the economy was growing, the pie was growing, no matter who you were. You were guaranteed the conveyor belt would take you from grade school to a job that you could have for life. When that bubble collapsed in the '90s, society became a lot more uneven -- more like our society. Young adults are losing self-confidence without these guarantees. They don't know how to succeed in a society where obedience seems empty, but the society still demands obedience and hierarchy. And these talented young men and women are the canaries in the coalmine in the contemporary morass of Japanese society.
Q: What's going on with the women? You write that one in six Japanese women own something from Louis Vuitton.
A: Women have decided, I don't want a baby, I want a Louis Vuitton purse. Women do much better being a "parasito single" who has a good job and lives with her parents. She doesn't want to marry a Japanese man who will say, quit your job and stay with my child.
Q: No children, shut-in men. What's going to be the long-term consequence if these are the canaries in the coalmine?
A: Japan by 2020 will make south Florida look like a youth hostel. One in every nine Japanese will be over 80. Japan needs 610,000 immigrants each year over the next 50 years to maintain a stable working population. For over a decade, smart Japanese have said we need to embrace immigration -- we need nurses, maids, workers. But then they say we can't do that because it would endanger our beautiful, fragile culture. You have to be cognizant of the fact that Japanese believe they are unique. During the trade wars the Japanese said they could not import American beef because their intestines are different, or use Western skis because their snow is different.
Q: But what can Americans learn from Japan?
A: I often believe Japan and American are mirror images of each other. We are such an individualistic society, we often wonder is there a common will to improve society together. It's refreshing to be in a country where people say, I am not the most important person in the room. There is no road rage in Japan. We regulate opportunities, the Japanese regulate outcome.
Michael Zielenziger was Knight Ridder's Tokyo-based bureau chief for seven years and is author of "Shutting Out the Sun -- How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation"
Comments? Send a letter to the editor.
Albion Monitor February
16, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.