Thursday, April 22, 2010

Japan's lost generation

The publisher's comments on Michael Zielenziger's 2006 book, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation(rpt., Vintage, 2007), read:
The world’ s second-wealthiest country, Japan once seemed poised to overtake America. But its failure to recover from the economic collapse of the early 1990s was unprecedented, and today it confronts an array of disturbing social trends. Japan has the highest suicide rate and lowest birthrate of all industrialized countries, and a rising incidence of untreated cases of depression. Equally as troubling are the more than one million young men who shut themselves in their rooms, withdrawing from society, and the growing numbers of “parasite singles,” the name given to single women who refuse to leave home, marry, or bear children.

In Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger argues that Japan’s rigid, tradition-steeped society, its aversion to change, and its distrust of individuality and the expression of self are stifling economic revival, political reform, and social evolution. Giving a human face to the country’s malaise, Zielenziger explains how these constraints have driven intelligent, creative young men to become modern-day hermits [the term used by the Japanese is "Hikikomori"]. At the same time, young women, better educated than their mothers and earning high salaries, are rejecting the traditional path to marriage and motherhood, preferring to spend their money on luxury goods and travel.
Reading this is very sad indeed. While Japan -- where I grew up and visited last in 2005 -- still outwardly retains a clear continuity with her past, I have heard from many friends and acquaintances who continue to reside there that the younger generation has, in many respects, lost its way. If earlier generations failed to embrace the Light of Christ (less than 0.1% are practicing Christians of any kind), they at least had the sense of identity that comes from being a unique people with strong national and moral traditions informed by Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist sources. The stalwart moral character and generous spirit of the Japanese people was noted by St. Francis Xavier when he arrived there in 1549, and these traits were very much alive in the Japanese during my childhood. I would insist that they are very much in evidence still. Yet among the younger generation they have been sharply eroded, and nothing has effectively filled the void. Pray for Japan and her people. In the Lord's Providence, I am inclined to think that they are destined still to play a major role in the international community for decades to come.

Related: Phil Rees already reported on the phenomenon of Hikikomori back in 2002 in "Japan: The Missing Million" (BBC, October 20, 2002).

[Hat tip to A.S.]

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