Shutting Out the Sun

Shutting Out the Sun
Michael Zielenziger

Before their fall from the commanding heights of the world economy you could read for days about the secrets to Japan’s success. Since then there have been nearly as many books trying to explain what went wrong. I remember reviewing one of these, Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, fifteen years ago. Shutting Out the Sun is a later work in the same genre, taking as its dominant theme an analogy between Japan’s hikikomori (young male shut-ins) and Japan’s economic withdrawal and isolation, with the United States serving as enabling, co-dependent mother. It makes for an interesting mix of pop psychology, cultural studies, and political science, though it’s undone just a bit, I felt, by the amount of sympathy Zielenziger has for the hikikomori.

There is no consensus opinion on hikikomori syndrome. Some see it as a case of advanced codependency. In the West the diagnosis would likely be some form of autism. Zielenziger thinks it might be related to post-traumatic stress disorder, which I think is a huge stretch. Essentially, they appear mainly to be bitter losers who have decided, in the best adult-baby fashion, to sulk their lives away while being cared for by their mothers. I’m no proponent for tough love in general, but sympathy is the blood these vampires feed on and serves only to encourage and enable them. As does a judgement like Zielenzeger’s that the hikikomori are “far more sensitive and intelligent than their average classmates.” On what evidence? And does he really believe that these cases possess “the very qualities their nation need[s] to shake off its own inwardness”? It seems to me they are more symptoms of the disease than they are its cure.

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