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Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Michael Zielenziger
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After its 1990 economic crisis, Japan entered a period of stagnation and has yet to recover. Although at first limited to finances, this depression slowly spread to the country's political system as well as its national consciousness. One extreme example of the problem is the more than one million young men who have given up on school or employment, spending their days in their cramped apartments. In this well-researched and well-organized book, journalist and scholar Zielenziger reveals how these men ("hikikomori") are both a symptom of and a metaphor for Japan's ennui. With compassion and vigor, he presents close-up portraits of the hikikomori, while grounding their stories in the political, economic and historic realities facing Japan today. Zielenziger also suggests that women who avoid marriage and children, men who drink too much and both men and women fetishizing brand names are additional signs of the mass confusion and discontent. Seven years as a Tokyo bureau chief for Knight Rider newspapers has given Zielenziger the necessary access to this closed culture, though his exposé is bound to be controversial. His inclusion of both small details and the big picture makes the book as intimate as it is revealing. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

At the end of the 1980s, Japan's future seemed bright. A leader in the technological arena, Japan seemed poised to become the world's next superpower. Twenty years later, that promise has faded, and the once-influential nation is in crisis. Journalist Zielenziger, who has lived in Japan for 10 years, set out to discover why. Much of the focus of this engrossing, comprehensive work is on the clash between older and younger generations and on how the former's inability to let go of tradition is stifling the latter. Japan's rigid education and work systems have created a class of young people known as hikikomori, who literally shut themselves up in their rooms. Through interviews with several of these young men, Zielenziger reveals how the pressures on Japanese youths cause some to give up and retreat from society. Young women, too, are rejecting traditional roles and choosing careers with foreign companies over marriage and children. A piercing, astute look at how a society's refusal to embrace change is detrimental to its younger generation. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"Full of surprises and fresh discoveries, Shutting Out the Sun convincingly explains why the great Japanese juggernaut has faltered--and it does so with intelligence, insight, and verve. It's the keenest view of the Japanese character since Ruth Benedict's classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a worthy successor."
--Richard Rhodes

"Michael Zielenziger's focus on the real people who make up modern Japan is what makes his book so fascinating. He shows what the change in Japan's overall fortunes has done to its citizenry, and how their response affects their country's future prospects-–and its effects on the world. This is an important look at a limitlessly intriguing culture."
--James Fallows

"Michael Zielenziger offers us a classic, and a warning."
--Studs Terkel

"An incisive, well-written account of Japan's recent social and economic malaise, including a frightening portrait of the nation's hikikomori: disaffected youths who lock themselves in their rooms for months or years at a time as a way of coping with life in a society that denies them self-expression....Nuanced reporting on a tradition-bound society struggling to find its way in the 21st century."
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A good metaphor is a powerful thing. It can transmit truth instantly with an intuitive clarity that plain exposition can't achieve. In his trenchant examination of declining, post-Bubble Japan, Michael Zielenziger has found such a metaphor. The core of Shutting Out the Sun is a lively anaylsis of the crisis. Shutting Out the Sun puts a human face on the nation's plight and provides an intriguing point of entry into a consideration of Japan's crisis of confidence."
-- The Washington Post

"Well researched and clearly written...Shutting Out the Sun's centerpieces -- profiles of hikikomori the author interviewed and often befriended -- are vivid and heartfelt."
--The Seattle Times

About the Author

Michael Zielenziger is a visiting scholar at the Institute of East Asian Studies, U. C. Berkeley, and was the Tokyo-based bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers for seven years, until May 2003. He has written extensively about social, economic, and political trends in Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. After September 11, 2001, Zielenziger also spent long periods in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Israel, covering the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

Before moving to Tokyo, Zielenziger served as the first Pacific Rim correspondent for The San Jose Mercury News, and was a finalist for a 1995 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on China. He was also a contributor to two other Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the Mercury News.

Zielenziger was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1991, where he studied in the Asia-Pacific Research Center and Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is a 2003 recipient of an Abe Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council of New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



He 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 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 twenty-eight-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, nineteen-year-old Hiro, whose long hair nearly obscures his face, who dropped out of junior high when he was thirteen 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 thirty-four-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 twenty 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--surf the Internet.(1) 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 are called hikikomori, which translates loosely as one who shuts himself away and becomes socially withdrawn. (The Japanese word joins together the word hiku or "pull," with the word komoru, or "retire," to render the meaning "pulling in and retiring.") These men--and 80 percent of hikikomori are males--can not 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 disorders, their symptoms cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric ailment. Instead, Japanese psychiatrists say that hikikomori is a social disorder, only recently observed, that cannot be found within other cultures.(2) These men--as I found during months of conversations with 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. Some cut themselves. In the United States, where guns and knives as well as drugs are so readily available, youth violence can seem 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, handcrafting 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 such collective constraints, and flee to their rooms both for protection and self-preservation? Or are they--as Taka, one twenty-four-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."

I heard another point of view from the sixty-year-old white-haired mother of a hikikomori, a gentle and sympathetic woman who accepts and understands her son's plight, much as it grieves her: "Hikikomori are kids who value the intangibles," Hiromi told me. I had met her for coffee to talk about the desolate isolation of her son who, now in his thirties, has for five years been living at home, confining himself to his room because he feels he has no other place where he can just be himself. "Hikikomori can see the intangibles, but cannot speak out because there is no place in Japanese society that allows them to . . . So," she concluded, "a person who challenges, or makes a mistake, or thinks for himself, either leaves Japan or becomes a hikikomori."

And, indeed, leaving Japan has been a partial solution for some like Shigei, who has been hikikomori for the last thirteen of his thirty years. He told me that he was able to relax and meet others only when prompted by a friend to get out of Japan and visit Thailand on a trip his parents paid for. "I felt different in a country where the buses don't always run on time," he told me. Jun found temporary relief from his anxieties during a visit to India.(3) Another hikikomori, thirty-five-year-old Yasuo Ogawara, went into hiding in his twenties after being badgered and rejected, often cruelly, by residents of the provincial town where he had relocated with his wife. "In this society, anyone can become a hikikomori," he told me, describing how his in-laws had ostracized and bullied him to the point where the couple divorced. "It's the nature of our social system that is really the cause. It's a system operated by factions, and you have to understand the very nature of the social system to understand this problem.

"Today the values of parents and of young people are completely different," he went on. "The post-bubble bills are coming due, and we have just started to pay for our decades of focusing only on the material."

* * *

After listening to the tales and predicaments of dozens of these isolated men, I began to better understand the behavior of Jun and other hikikomori as their extraordinary but utterly rational indictment of a postindustrial monoculture. It isn't that these adults choose isolation out of indulgence, but that they see no ot...
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