New Book Chronicles Japan's Spiritual Crisis

Since the twilight of the Meiji period, the Japanese have greedily appropriated Western ideas -- everything from punk fashion to music theory, economic theory to military strategy, and weapons manufacturing to civil engineering -- while also being suspicious and disdainful of Western society. Certain eternally recurring national handicaps that stem from the Iron Triangle's days as a rice-based farm collective -- a reluctance to think in instinctive, improvisational, and otherwise pragmatic ways -- not only contributed to Japan's defeat in WWII, but are now inhibiting that country's progress into the age of globalization. Add to that a postmodern spiritual crisis brought on by a decades-long, single-minded pursuit of economic prosperity. And if Michael Zielenziger's Shutting Out the Sun is any reliable source, then contemporary Japan is a culture whose resemblance to a bona fide dystopia might have shocked even Mr. Huxley.

Given the Japanese affinity for self-denial and stubborn insularity, it's no surprise that it took a Westerner to write about Japan's contemporary ills. Author Michael Zielenzeger toiled as a newspaper reporter in Japan for almost a decade, bearing witness to the soulless materialism and closed-mindedness that's helped run that once-proud nation asunder. From his rigorously one-sided research methods, you sense that every Japanese citizen who isn't a societal dropout is an overworked, amoral humanoid perpetually numbed by sake and driven by the need to conform at all costs. As a result of Japan's collective dip in self-esteem, which is tied inextricably to its economic plunge, Zielenziger finds that suicide (a Japanese pastime of sorts) is increasingly popular among the younger generation -- as played out in the current vogue of Internet "suicide groups." Youth unemployment is higher than ever; the birthrate has plummeted (assuming you think this is a bad thing); young Japanese women are more concerned with collecting Louis Vuitton handbags than finding a husband. And that's just the good news.

Zielenziger leads off his study with disturbingly detailed personality studies of young hikikomori (modern day hermits). Through these exaggeratedly anti-social (and sometimes even patricidal/matricidal) individuals, usually 25-35 year olds driven into hiding in their parents' homes by individuality-crushing communal standards, you get a firsthand look at the most tragic human consequences of Japan's collectively self-imposed totalitarianism (other than outright suicide, of course.) About six chapters in, Zielenziger gets to another of the book's major strengths: the business of dramatically constructing the step-by-step process of how Japan engineered what became a flimsy "bubble" economy that burst around 1989-90. Westerners might be interested to know that at the core of Japan's financial bottoming out was a real-estate-based economic structure, not to mention an inability to adapt to post-Cold War global realities. These days, the US may well be on a similar path to overplaying its own hand in the real estate game, both domestically and globally.

Strangely, the only well-adjusted Japanese we meet here are the sociologists, psychiatrists, and academics Zielenziger interviews, most of them citing the lack of religious belief (or any belief) as central to the Japanese crisis. The author very carefully asserts his own neutrality in this matter by professing to be a secular Jew. But he also enthusiastically weighs the ties between South Korea's embrace of Western Christianity and its ability to innovate and challenge the economic superiority of their long-time Japanese antagonists. Many of the prominent Asian authorities he speaks with suggest that Christian beliefs somehow, in practice, promote free thought and individuality. Sure, many Christians are also raging laissez-faire Capitalists. But how does one reconcile the pro-capitalist Calvinist/Protestant work ethic with the "socialist" teachings of Christ? Zielenziger does finally admit that these somewhat skewered Eastern views of Western Christianity are not completely rooted in reality.

Yet Western-style Christianity seems to be, if only by default, implied as the best alternative for the spiritual void created by "Japan, Inc." It may be that Zielenziger is onto something when he states, "On some deep level, Korea embraced Western ideals as well as Western implements, while Japan appropriated the tools of the West while renouncing the culture that helped create them." While this conclusion may convincingly describe South Korea and Japan's respective paths, what can one make of China's rise to economic power under a strange combination of Confucianism, Capitalism, and Stalinism? And is the adoption of Western ideals the only solution to national economic and spiritual woes? He seems unwilling to fully broach this problematic territory with any overtly committed theorizing.

It's true, though, that Zielenziger adroitly contrasts Japan's sputtering one-dimensional economic apparatus with the (at present) more multi-faceted, flexible, and durable Western economic engines. But in the chapter "The Cult of the Brand," he fails to make a convincing case for how the Japanese have overtaken Americans (or the extremely fashion-conscious English) in their downward slide toward a consummate consumerist Hades. Shopping as an attempt to fill an empty soul is a symptom of any society where the accumulation of status symbols and transaction of capital has become the primary activities of its citizens. But Japan is hardly the only country that succumbs to mass mystification via corporate branding. And if Japanese sociologists like Masahiro Yamada, whom Zielenziger quotes at length, really "envy Europeans and Americans for being able to escape from the powerful grasp of materialism through some form of spiritual practice" then Yamada and his presumptuous colleagues should witness the wide-eyed genuflecting masses at Mall of America, or Bloomingdale's on any given weekend: for many Americans, shopping is a spiritual practice. Thus, the very American term "retail therapy."

And Zielenziger does seem to find himself mired in hopelessly foreign subject matter when attempting to explain the escapist Japanese obsession with pop cultural phenomena. It may be true that, for vague reasons of spiritual neediness, the Japanese have a more fanatical attachment to Western pop ephemera than Westerners; but Zielenziger's empirical methods dredge up a few less-than-ideal examples. While taking in Japan's giant Fuji Rock Festival, he adopts a slightly superior Didion-like air, and deems his experience with otaku (hyper-obsessed pop culture geeks) as a global anomaly. He shakes his head in puzzlement at the exaggerated hero-worship of "an aging, fairly obscure British musician named Ray Davies," and assumes it's a scenario you'd see "only in Japan." You don't have to be an otaku to know that Davies was the lead singer/songwriter and founding member of British Invasion legends and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the Kinks. A simple Google search, and you'd find a man that's carried a worldwide multi-generational following for four decades running. So the otakus' enthusiastic singing along to Mr. Davies's songs is a spectacle you're likely to witness in most any civilized nation on earth. And incidentally, to find the American version of otaku, just go to the nearest Star Trek convention, or catch a concert by any surviving member of the Grateful Dead.

Nevertheless, the book's weak spots can't sink what ultimately stands as an authoritative, eye-opening reality check for contemporary Japan. Shutting Out the Sun ends on a disturbingly resonant note, as Zielenziger offers some frightening crystal-ball scenarios of what an increasingly powerless, passive-aggressive Japan could mean to global stability. And he quite rightly suggests that the USA may be unwittingly competing for a similar Japanese-style national Nothingness. In closing, Zielenziger offers some sound advice that the world's powers might want to consider. These words of wisdom should be posted on some gargantuan, universally visible billboard in blazing neon: "Ultimately neither withdrawing from the changing world nor a hegemonic quest to run it can lead any nation to peace, stability, and prosperity. And ultimately, the only truly practical coping mechanisms are those that embody tolerance, inclusion, diversity, and, yes, trust and the mechanisms to enforce trust -- along with the fundamental humanistic values of equality and the right to self expression."

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