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Customer Review

73 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eclipsed..., February 5, 2007
This review is from: Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation (Hardcover)
While reading Shutting Out the Sun, I found myself at times in admiration of Michael Zielenziger's insight and also perplexed by his conclusions. I've made many japanese friends and visited the country multiple times. While no expert, I can certainly say that my interest in the country and its culture, is beyond casual. I have my own theories (and first-hand experiences) with many of the concepts of the book. Mr. Zielenziger is foremost a newspaper man and his pavement-pounding, investigative journalism is deserving of five stars. However, his conclusions in the second half of the book bring the whole work down a peg and sound more like the "cocktail-party theorizing" that I imagine goes on amongst international correspondents.

The first 92 pages of the book are intense and revealing as Zielenziger explores the dark world of the hikikomori (young Japanese who withdraw from society, not leaving their rooms). He interviews the doctors, the parents, and even the hikikomori themselves. He ties their plight into the overall societal and economic problems of the country as a whole. He describes how certain problems and behavior are particular to Japanese society. He does this very throughly and convincingly. Then on page 93 Chapter 6: Careening Off Course Zielenziger, uh... careens off course! The chapter shoots off into a 30 page crash course on Japan's post-war economic history. Then later another chapter doing the same with South Korea. He runs through the history of Christianity in South Korea. He compares Japan to South Korea. He compares Japan to China. He compares Japan to America. With the exception of chapters like "The Cult of the Brand" and "Womb Strike" the second half of the book falls wildly short of the first.

Who cares if China is more open to foreign investment? The freedoms, annual income, and standard of living for an average Japanese are far better than that of Chinese citizens. He interviews two commercial, non-political, pop artists; Haruki Murakami (novelist) and Takashi Murakami (graphic artist) but what about their (very political) counter-parts? Kenzaburo Oe (writer) or Katsuhiro Otomo (manga artist) come to mind. He downplays the very active and internationally recognized arts movement coming from Japan during it's recession. Zielenger claims the architecture coming from Japan suffers "from a dreary sameness", again I find this odd, as a lot of contemporary cutting edge green architecture has come out of Japan in recent years. I saw kids in Japan downloading full color maps and searching the internet with their cell phones way before such things were done in America and Zielenziger says the japanese are lagging in their use of the internet. He claims foreigners will have trouble in Japan because "few signs, maps, or menus are available in Roman script." That is simply untrue! Even the subway ticket machines have a button to press for english!

This all may sound like harsh criticism, and it is, but I still have to recommend this book to people deeply interested in Japan, as it is the first and only western work dedicated to the hikikomori and other obscure Japanese societal woes. The good parts are really good. The bad parts were thrown in there to make the book 298 pages (340 with acknowledgements, notes, index). Zielenziger tries too hard to conjure up new reasons why Japan can't get its act together instead of furthering his own profound findings. The fault in his attempt to live up to the sexiness of the books title can be found in part of his summary, while describing Japan's possible, dismal fall from grace he states Japan could choose "to turn itself into an Asian model of Switzerland, a peaceful, relatively prosperous, insulated, and increasingly irrelevant nation, a quiet and stable second-rank power." Doesn't sound so bad...
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 28, 2008 1:12:28 AM PDT
Romulus says:
Are you giving this book 4 stars for the first 92 pages? I think a re-edit is in order, don't you think?

Posted on Sep 1, 2008 1:04:57 AM PDT
Kev says:
Point taken, but I'm trying to give a cautious recommendation. I was disappointed with aspects of this book but would still buy it and read it because the good parts are good and I know of no other book that deals specifically with the hikikomori problem. So in one sense I gave it a higher rating by default. If I could give the book 3.5 stars, I would.... Also, it's not just the first 92 pages that I found insightful. I mentioned that the chapters "The Cult of the Brand" and "Womb Strike" were both good and there are some other informative bits throughout, but page 93 is where I started parting ways with the author on some major points.

Posted on Dec 20, 2008 4:30:03 PM PST
Scotacus says:
IF one were to read this book, as well written as it is, without a critical approach, they would likely come away with the impression that Japan is in pretty bad shape, and will likely get worse. Like yourself, I have a strong interest in Japanese culture and society and have been able to develop some relationships with Japanese. I am informed that this book provides somewhat of an extreme position, choosing to highlight the vulnerabilities, and spending little time on positives. One major area missed is the nature of relations between men and women, and the issue of *face*. Women, who are not parasaitos, tend to do well for themselves in current Japan, job-wise, while men, like those who shut themselves away, will turn down positions due to loss of status, or such scandals as having a female supervisor.

Posted on Dec 24, 2008 9:15:52 PM PST
Good review overall, but I strongly disagree about the architecture. I've lived in Japan for five or six years, and find it every bit as lifeless, boring, unoriginal, even inhuman, as Zielenziger claims it is. They deaden the cities, which are visual wastelands -- every one of them looks exactly the same, apart from topography. Modern China is far more inventive and even fun when it comes to new buildings. (Old Japanese houses are wonderful, though.)

I also disagree about some of the diggressions, which I found interesting. But you're right, over all Zielenziger does go over the top with the bad vibes. (Pardon mixed metaphor.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 12, 2009 7:54:12 PM PST
Kev says:
Yeah, I stuck around Tokyo quite a bit on my first two trips but have since seen much more of the urban sprawl (Kawasaki? ugh), so I see both yours and the author's point about the architecture. Although, personally I kind of like the chaos... "So ugly it's cool" kinda thing.

Where abouts did you live?
Thanks for the comment....

Posted on Apr 13, 2009 12:46:01 AM PDT
S. True says:
" saw kids in Japan downloading full color maps and searching the internet with their cell phones way before such things were done in America and Zielenziger says the japanese are lagging in their use of the internet"

The cell phone tech is great but the Japanese do lag behind in use of the internet.

What to do some online shopping? Be prepared for a scan of a paper media catalogue, with instructions on how to get the paper catalogue.

Want to bring up your bank's website to do some oneline banking? Not going to happen. You'll find investor information.

Want to reseve a ticket on JAL, or the shinkansen, or reserve a hotel room? You'll get an advert for some special deals and a phone number to call to make the reservation.

Want to pay for something online? You'll get a confirmation number and instructions on how to pay for it at the local convience store.

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time can tell you that while the cell phones are usually a generation ahead of the west, the uitlization of the internet is fustratingly limited.
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