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Shutting Out The Sun
by Michael Zielenziger
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2006)
Shutting Out The Sun
I first learned about the uniquely Japanese social phenomenon of “hikikomori” through a New York Times article. Roughly translated to “pulling away” plus “being confined,” hikikomori is the term coined to refer to Japanese teenagers and twentysomethings who, disillusioned by job prospects, exam failures, or bullying, retreat into their childhood bedrooms for months, years, or even decades. Refusing to emerge for any reason, including hygiene, socializing, or sustenance—many expect their long-suffering parents to leave meals outside their bedroom doors—hikikomori represent teenage angst and alienation multiplied to the nth degree, supported by a society where blood ties and social embarrassment force families to ignore or sustain the problem.

In Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, Michael Zielenziger, a former foreign correspondent and current research scholar at the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies, turns a Western eye on this uniquely Eastern social disorder, as well as its accompanying maladies: "futoko," young people who refuse to attend school, and "parasaito," young working adults who refuse to leave their parents' houses.

Through hard-won interviews with hikikomori and their parents, as well as in-depth visits with the handful of counselors, psychologists, and good Samaritans looking to cure the disorder, Zielenziger offers interesting economic, historical, and cultural reasons for this troubling phenomenon. Instead of resorting to sensationalistic reports of hikikomori violently attacking their beleaguered parents, Zielenziger combines his keen knowledge of Japanese culture and customs with what seems to be a genuine desire to determine the root of the problem. The hikikomori he interviews are well-spoken, intelligent youth, not the lazy dropouts most would automatically assume them to be. The tension between Western society, which values individuality, and Eastern society, which strives to serve the interests of the group, permeates the book, yet Zielenziger remains commendably neutral throughout, neither condemning nor applauding either society.

Though a little dry at times, due to lengthy descriptions of economic factors contributing to the plight of hikikomori, Shutting Out The Sun ultimately sheds some light on the social and psychological consequences of Japan’s meteoric post-war modernization, suggesting a technologically advanced society that remains dependent on social constructs created in feudal times. This book is not for the casual Japanophile, but as the sole English book available on the subject, it is a must-read for anyone interested in hikikomori, parasite singles, or other current Japanese social concerns.
Posted by: J. Bowers

Print Reviews (July 13th, 2007)


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