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Japan’s Nervous Breakdown

August 26, 2010
by Michael Zielenziger
Image source: Courtesy of Director Kal Karman

In his recently released book, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, journalist and visiting International Studies scholar Michael Zielenziger recounts the fall of Japan from the world’s second-wealthiest country into a morass of economic and social troubles. Zielenziger documents the plight of more than a million young men who shut themselves in their rooms, withdrawing from their nation’s rigid society and its aversion to self-expression.

In the halcyon autumn of 1991, Tokyo seemed the indisputable center of the universe, a gravitational force as mighty as ancient Rome. Wandering the streets of Ginza, Tokyo’s most illustrious entertainment district, I felt as if I had been sucked into a strange new vortex, a dizzying universe quite unlike any that might have preceded it. A Japan once renowned for the Zen-like restraint of its aesthetics—its material simplicity, its tranquil bamboo gardens, its glassy ponds stocked with calming carp—now bathed itself in brassy neon lights and erupted in convulsions of exuberant decadence.

Each evening, as dusk fell and the lights took hold over this fabled neighborhood, a herd of black Rolls Royce limousines and Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Crown sedans strode like stallions into the narrow back alleys, exacting every inch of curbside as their tribute. Chauffeurs paced, smoked cigarettes, and kept fidgety vigils long into the night after disgorging their passengers, the shadowy and powerful men who would emerge again only around midnight, their ties slightly askew, their gait a bit wobbly from rounds of smoky scotch or chilled sake.

As the sun retreated, young women who carried themselves as delicately as their dresses, in fabulous silk kimono, heavy obi sashes, and white geta, the traditional wooden sandals, began drifting by twos and threes into inconspicuous bars and hostess clubs, whose entrances were signified only by tiny gold-plated Japanese nameplates. Other women, sheathed in expensive European couture and stilettos, strutted toward caverns with neon-lit names like Club Royale or The Monaco. These women would linger fastidiously over their customers, offering delicate morsels of small talk and watered-down whiskey to ease the flow of conversation among the barons of finance and industry holding court.

Once again, the city’s business elite was setting off on its nightly amble, a ritual of dining, drinking, and entertaining known as nomikai—literally a “drinking meeting.” Behind sliding shoji screens discreetly shut, the nation’s deals were sealed and relationships cemented. Here in the Ginza, discerning patrons could find restaurants that inserted real gold flakes into the desserts. Or clubs that offered rare single malt scotch served on icy round globes hand-chiseled from Alaskan glaciers. Waiters instructed patrons to listen for the crackle and hiss of 10,000-year-old oxygen being set free from the primordial glacial fields as the fist-sized orbs dissolved in their glasses. Corporations, it was estimated, were spending $35 billion per year on such exercises in male bonding, six times what their Europeans or American counterparts did.

This was the “bubble economy,” and strolling through the Ginza you sensed the headiness swirling. In this last decade of the twentieth century, the Japanese had emerged triumphant. Who dared rival them? They built better cars more efficiently. They fabricated the most complex computer memory chips. These Japanese had created an advanced, prosperous, and technologically sophisticated economy without the ghettos, the criminal underclass, or social tensions that ravaged Western societies. Everything worked so smoothly in Japan, visitors marveled. No wonder these well- tailored executives seemed so invincible, if not arrogant, as they wandered from men’s club to “snack bar” to consort with their favorite hostesses for hire.

What these Japanese could not comprehend—nor could most of the rest of us, back then—was that the incredibly close-knit system they had meshed together, one which allowed the nation to accumulate so much wealth so quickly, also held the seeds of its undoing; that this same incessant unity of purpose that generated such fabulous industrial efficiency might prove weakness as well as strength. The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve had—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities. It also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” Masao Maruyama, one influential Japanese political scientist had concluded, arguing the Japanese had never learned to differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. Instead, he likened his society to a pot crammed with a giant octopus, unable to see a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, Maruyama suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in the traditional tea ceremony in which a sturdy wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others.

As the elements that constituted global competitiveness radically changed in the 1990s, however, the Japanese system—already heavily insulated from the outside world—ultimately proved itself far too inflexible. To me it seems no accident that mighty Japan careened off course precisely when the age of information, intelligence, and flexible global production utterly disrupted a fairly rigid industrial order.

For just as a growing contingent of social isolates, or hikikomori, shut themselves off in their rooms rather than mediate a society they find intolerable, or “too severe,” as one such recluse put it, Japan itself chose to ignore the obvious signs that its corporations invested and exported too much, that its webs of closed, protective relationships would never be as dynamic as open ones, and that national investment schemes that relied on government experts to envision the future could never consistently outperform those who summoned the wisdom of independent innovators, diverse risk-takers, and the signals unrestricted markets provide to guide their evolution.

Jun pedaled fever­ishly down the narrow back streets of Kanda and Asakusa, legs churning, his face—intense dark eyes, a well-trimmed mustache—obscured by his bicycle helmet. He cruised past the silent storefronts selling rice crackers and stationery, past the ancient wooden Senso-ji shrine surrounded by shuttered souvenir stands, and darted through darkened alleys and deserted streets, his mind disengaged from the outside world, the rhythms of J-Wave radio reverberating through his headphones, the beat propelling him forward, no destination in mind.

Manic, angry, indomitable, Jun pumped fast, faster, through these ancient neighborhoods heavy with his history, his legs almost flailing, his knees driving hard. Sweat beading his forehead in the humid night, he sliced through the low-slung neighborhoods of Tokyo’s old downtown, the working-class flatlands along the banks of the Sumida River, far removed from the aristocratic, hillier districts to the West, deathly still in the hours after midnight, the road illuminated only by the arc of a few scattered streetlights and the eerie blue fluorescence of the ubiquitous Family Mart and 7-Eleven convenience stores. Later he might stop at one to browse through its huge array of comic books and purchase a plastic polyethylene bottle of orange drink to slake his thirst.

These tranquil few hours before dawn are strangely precious to Jun. Only in this empty calm can this wiry 28 year old work off his restless anxiety. Only on these rare dark nights, when he can gather the courage to venture out of his tiny room, can Jun be in the world, yet be himself and escape for just a few hours the confinement of a bedroom that has become his citadel. Being alone seems to him his only mode of self-preservation.

“I have an arrow pointed deep inside of me,” Jun said to me once, as he sought words to describe his pain. “Listening to music and getting high from the exercise, that’s the way I coped. At night you can go out when other people can’t see you… If I didn’t go out at all on those nights,” he added darkly, “I’d probably have done something violent to my parents.”

Jun is not alone in his pain and anxiety. Nor is he uncommon in his solitude. There is also gangly, 19-year-old Hiro, whose long hair nearly obscures his face, who dropped out of junior high when he was 13 and lives at home uneasily with his bickering parents, seldom stepping outside. Hiro has no idea what he’s going to do with himself as he emerges into adulthood. And there is 34-year-old Kenji, who almost never leaves his tiny room in his mother’s modest apartment on Tokyo’s western fringe. He is a pale, quiet child-man, his smile wan, his hair thinning. For most of the past 20 years, his daily rituals have seldom varied. He reads the newspapers each morning and watches Tokyo Giants baseball games on television every summer evening. He passes long afternoons with magazines and daydreams. Sometimes he speaks to his mother. Other days he sits silent, deep in thought. Anxious, trembling, and alone, Kenji is scared—too scared and too scarred to venture into the world beyond his front door.

Across Japan, more than one million men and boys like Jun and Hiro and Kenji have chosen to withdraw completely from society. These recluses hide in their homes for months or years at a time, refusing to leave the protective walls of their bedrooms. They are as frightened as small children abandoned in a dark forest. Some spend their days playing video games. A few—an estimated 10 percent—scroll the Internet. Many just pace, read books, or drink beer and shochu, a Japanese form of vodka. Others do nothing for weeks at a time. Unable to work, attend school, or interact with outsiders, they cannot latch onto the well-oiled conveyor belt that carries young boys from preschool through college, then deposits them directly into the workplace—a system that makes Japan seem orderly and purposeful to outsiders, even as it has begun to break down.

Men like Kenji, Hiro, and Jun—and 80 percent of them are men—are called hikikomori, which translates loosely as one who shuts himself away and becomes socially withdrawn. (The Japanese word joins together the term hiku or “pull,” with the word komoru, or “retires”—to render the meaning “pulling in and retiring.”) These men cannot be diagnosed as schizophrenics or mental defectives. They are not depressives or psychotics; nor are they classic agoraphobics, who fear public spaces but welcome friends into their own homes. When psychiatrists evaluate these hikikomori using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM IV, the standard guide used in the West to diagnose mental disorder, their symptoms cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric ailment. Instead, Japanese psychiatrists say that hikikomori is a social disorder, only recently observed, one that cannot be found within other cultures. These men—as I found during months of conversations with them and others just like them—are often intelligent, stimulating, highly open and responsive adults full of cogent ideas and fascinating insights into society and themselves.

There is ample mystery attached to this pathology, one that stubbornly pricks at the curiosity of someone hoping to fathom the plight of modern Japan. In Western Europe or the United States, many modern teenagers also resort to antisocial behavior, but exhibit it differently. In rebelling against parents and schools, many “act out” and explode in rage, or wear outrageous styles of dress to make a “statement,” or play loud music sure to offend the older generation. In the United States, where guns and knives as well as drugs are so readily available, youth violence can be commonplace, as if representing an unspoken tradeoff for the openness, independence and self-expression the society demands. Yet a culture that encourages individual freedom from an early age, that instructs young children to “stand on their own two feet” and find their own way through life, actively encourages originality and risk-taking and is far more likely than Japanese society to accept certain strains of nonconformist behavior. In a vast and heterogeneous nation like America, a man like Kenji might end up designing computer games, hand-crafting furniture, launching a tiny software startup, editing music videos, or writing a web log.

Yet in the confinement of Japan’s neo-Confucian society, which preaches the importance of obedience, discipline, self-inhibition, and group harmony—and where even individual identity is deeply swathed in mutual interdependence—men like Jun and Kenji have imploded like vacuum tubes, closing themselves in, cutting themselves off, and utterly marginalizing themselves. Unable or unwilling to go out, languishing alone in their rooms, they depend on their parents to leave their next meal at the bedroom door.

Is this isolation, I wondered, simply these young adults’ peculiar form of rebellion against their prevailing culture? Or are they too sensitive or inquisitive to accept it, and flee to their rooms both for protection and self-preservation? Or are they—as Taka, one 24 year old, suggested—simply and unsettlingly “different” from the society that surrounds them? “I was raised to have a good career and be a good boy,” he told me. “My problem is that I can’t go to work like other people. I’m different.”

From the September October 2006 Global Warning issue of California.

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