Foreign press correspondents who choose to write a book about Japan fall into two categories. Some start with a general idea and try to build a demonstration around that broad intuition - for example, that the economy will set into decline at the very time when it was booming (to borrow from Bill Emmott's The Sun Also Sets), or that Japan is run by an Iron Triangle that is hollow at the center (as Karel van Wolferen demonstrates). Others take a different approach and try to gather as much information as they can about a narrow subject - Tokyo underworld, for instance, or Japanese base-ball, or the plight of princess Masako.
Michael Zielenziger tries to combine the two approaches. He starts with the ordeal of the hikikomori, those youngsters who live in complete social isolation, shutting themselves away from the sun, closing their blinds, and refusing to leave the bedroom in their homes for months or even years at a time. He then broadens his topic to the fate of the whole nation, arguing that Japan has entered into depression mode and now faces gloomy prospects. He provides an interesting comparison with South Korea, where a vibrant civil society found the way to recover from a severe economic crisis.
Hikikomori are a problem that is specific to Japan. Those reclusive young adults, mostly men, suffer from what specialists call a social disorder, not from a mental illness that could be diagnosed and cured accordingly. Indeed, their plight find echoes in Japan's founding myths: according to the fable of Japan's creation, the sun-goddess Amaterasu once hid in a cave and plunged the world into darkness after her unruly brother ravaged the earth and despoiled her gardens and temples. Only through songs and merriment could she be coaxed from her deepest isolation. But modern recluses, often pampered by their over-protective mothers, have little incentive to leave their seclusion and face the society that often rejected them as teenagers.
What is the connexion between the sorry case of these individuals who seek refuge in the isolation of their room and the state of Japan as a nation? First, as a social disease, the hikikomori phenomenon must have social causes. The author hints at a few of them: the traumatism of war and defeat, which may revisit grand-children after having skipped one generation ; the lack of moral purpose and self-direction, when the pursuit of material wealth delivers emptiness rather than inner contentment ; the heavy conformism of a group-centered society that lacks tolerance for deviant characters ; the structure of dependence that, according to psychiatrist Takeo Doi, characterizes Japanese men's relation to their mother, etc.
At a deeper level, the author suggests that the absence of monotheism and the lack of a universal religion in Japanese culture may explain Japan's ethical relativism, the situational nature of its moral values, and the lack of compassion for victims. Elderly ladies have to fight their ways to find a seat in the metro, and homeless people camping rough in Ueno Park are usually fed hot soup by Korean Christians, not by native Japanese. I wish the author had developed this intuition a bit further and explained why, in contrast to Korea, Christianity never took hold in contemporary Japan. One obvious reason, judging by novels from Ayako Miura, Toyoko Yamazaki or Kappa Senoo, is that Christianity was considered as alien and anti-patriotic in Japan, whereas it became closely associated with the movement for independence and then with democratization in South Korea. But to my opinion, there is nothing intrinsic in Japanese culture that defies or rejects Christian beliefs, and Japanese make superb Christians. Anyway, a few pages on this topic would have been welcome.
So is Japan really a hikikomori nation? For Zielenziger, many Japanese behaviors can be attributed to the deepest desires of this island country just to be "left alone". Japan's isolation has not stopped with the end of the sakoku era and the opening of ports to foreign influences and exchange. Japan remains a closed society, admitting little strangers and forcing strong individuals to either conform or flee into exile. At the national level, America's embrace has the effect of barring the country from going out on its own and finding its place under the sun. But the author pushes the analogy too far, and provides a picture of Japan that is far too gloomy and pessimistic. His attempt at providing a detailed case study of a social phenomenon and to link it to a broader explanation at the macro level fails on both counts. In my opinion, Japanese contemporary novels or movies are better at capturing the zeitgeist than this journalistic account, and reading it to the end was by and large a waste of my time.