Thursday, April 19, 2007

Japan's lost generation

I've always been somewhat of a Japanophile. To my gaijin eyes, it's the most fascinatingly eccentric culture. I haven't been to Japan myself, although I have had a couple of particularly gratifying layovers at Narita (I ran around that airport manically, flipping through offensive "Rapeman" manga, gawking at unidentifiable snack food, admiring the Pringles can with its kanji logo, and loving every second. I had my picture taken under some sign to prove that I was technically in Japan. Oh, if only I'd been able to get into Tokyo).

Recently I read "Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation" by Michael Zielenziger. This rather depressing tome caused my Japan-loving heart to wilt.

It turns out that there is a new social disorder unique to Japan: hikikomori. Hikikomori sufferers are intelligent, mentally normal adults who withdraw into their bedrooms and refuse to emerge. Hikikomori can go years without even speaking to their own parents. Although Western agoraphobics are quite social with people inside their own homes, hikikomori refuse to interact with anyone. The overwhelming majority do not even interact with anyone over the internet, spending their days in complete isolation.

The typical hikikomori is a man who was bullied in school. It turns out that in Japan, there are no anti-bullying laws, and parents and teachers alike trust in the judgment of the group. If a child is bullied, clearly the victim drew it upon himself through some fault sniffed out by the group. Some become hikikomori after some form of traumatic adult ostracization: one example in the book was a man who was bullied by his inlaws after moving to a small, rural town.

Hikikomori is seen as a social disorder, not a mental illness. The sufferers are not sick themselves; if they are taken away from Japan, they can function.

Additionally, there is another new trend: "parasite singles", women who choose not to marry but instead pursue a career and live with their parents into their thirties and forties. The roles of wife and mother are so daunting that many educated women are simply opting out. Society seems very inflexible and not allow leeway, for example, in Japan, it is illegal for a married couple to have different last names. (Where is the Japanese Lucy Stoner?) Men are expected not only to work long hours, without taking vacations, but also to stay out late nightly drinking with coworkers, and the result is that childrearing falls entirely upon the mother. After experiencing the exhausting task of caring for a newborn, I can't blame the parasite singles for opting out.

Zielenziger's forecast for Japan is dim. He feels that Japan is not suited to adapt to modern ways, as its schools focus upon rote memorization rather than the analytical thinking needed to excel in the post-internet world (we here in the U.S. with our regrettable "No Child Left Behind" policies are falling into that trap as well). He can't see a solution, just plenty of problems.

My lazy, hedonistic style of mothering would not be possible in Japan, as it relies heavily upon the labor of the Sober Husband, who is actually better than me at brushing children's hair and making them go to bed (by the end of the day, I'm exhausted and tend to let Lola run roughshod all over me). I would surely have opted to be a parasite single there. Let us all raise a glass (preferably with a Hello Kitty logo) to the hardworking mothers of Japan, admirable, non-lazy women (and also to the parasaitos, may they be forever fabulous in their cutting edge couture).


crazymumma said...

That was fascinating. And are you saying that these men who hole up in there rooms HAVE functioned "normally" outside of Japan?

It seems like a very brutal dog eat dog society, but I do not think that it is fair of me to say that, as any culture, including our own of course has it's own strange ways.

the Drunken Housewife said...

In the book, two of the hikikomori written about had visited Thailand, where they were able to go out and do things. A big part of the problem for them in Japan was not being able to face the judgmental gaze of the neighbors, who would look down upon them for having fallen off the economic ladder. In Thailand, where no one knew them and society was much less monochromatic, they felt free.

It's problematic for an unemployed, uneducated shut-in to emigrate, although emigrating would seem such a perfect solution.

Also, Crazymumma, I share your inclination to not want to criticize another culture too much. All societies have their pluses and minuses, ours included.

hughman said...

the line into hikikomori is kinda scary. like one DSL away.

the Drunken Housewife said...

As long as your dog keeps getting you out of the house, you'll be okay, Hughman. In my case, Iris and Lola require me to leave the house many times a day and interact with a variety of people, whether I want to or not.

hughman said...

yes, DH, polly does drag me into what little human contact i am forced to endure. often, i am shocked at how people would interact with me at all but having a beautiful diva like polly on a leash ensures some interaction.

Anonymous said...

How disturbing and more than interesting.

And I share your concern about No Child Left Behind (also known as Nickelbee.)

The only good thing NCLB did was focus attention on minorities and their success in school, to the extent that it was no longer acceptable to have 95% overall and yet, have 75% failing rate for a minority in the school--(a subpopulation, also called a subpop.)

That the hikkomori were able to change their behavior when they changed location is hugely significant.

Anonymous said...

It makes total sense that people would do better when removed from their location. That's classic a PTSD conundrum: avoiding people and places that remind you of the trauma.

My friend Jonathan went to live in Japan several years back. He told me that it was common to see Japanese businessmen in Tokyo throwing up on the sidewalks in the evening after having gone out and gotten smashed drunk. It doesn't seem like a very happy culture to me. But yeah, their aesthetic sensibilities are amazing!

Anonymous said...

And what about Buru? The selling of schoolgirls soiled panties in vending machines? I know the practice is outlawed now, but I think they still have them in shops.

The widespread selling of soiled schoolgirl underpants to business men is a horrifying snapshot of gender roles.


Silliyak said...

It also makes me think about how much more humiliating the WWII internment camps must have been than what we can imagine.

hughman said...

i'll never eat sushi the same again.

Anonymous said...

I visited Japan several times, and became fascinated by the culture and people instantly.
it's one of the most intriguing cultures in the industralized world. therefore it's easy for a gaijin to get completely surprised by certain behaviours, especially when we judge them using our own standards.

for instance, the number of so called "love hotels" may give a Westerner an impression that Japanese people are a particularly kinky nation. however, after having stayed in an average apartment with thinnest walls possible, where you can hear the neighbor sneeze, it's no surprise that couple escape to love hotels.

similarly, the hikikomori phenomenon reflects certain aspects of the Japanese culture: desire to keep private matters private and toxic parental love and care for parasitic males. and it's important to note that hikikomori is not so much a generation, but more like a social disorger affecting between 0.1-1% of the population. in the US and Europe, I've seen and heard of many cases of people who withdrew from the social life to a degree similar to hikikomori. it's just easier to live like that in Japan.

(sorry, that's just the Japanophile inside me.)

the Drunken Housewife said...

Europosh and other Japanophiles: you should read the book. I wrote just 8 short paragraphs summarizing a few points from Zielenziger's exhaustively researched 300 page book. He goes into how Japan's feudalism & dependence upon rice formed the national character, uses South Korea as a comparison point, discusses the impact of religion, etc.., the economic crash of the 90's & the causes, etc... It's a fascinating culture and an interesting attempt at surveying its present problems.