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The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

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Germans love Japan. I live in Düsseldorf, home to one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe, and it shows. There's an annual Japan Day, a cultural institute (the Eko-Haus) -- complete with temple, garden, bell, and a traditional Japanese house -- and excellent Japanese food everywhere you turn.

When I visited Japan, most of the other tourists seemed to be from Northern Europe. Like me, they all raved about the discreet hospitality, the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the love of traditional handicrafts, the organization, the quiet, the world-class museums, the excellent fresh food everywhere, and all the many other things that make Japan such an intense pleasure to visit (seriously, drop everything and go now). Northern Europeans have an instinctive preference for cleanliness, order, and discretion, and they immediately sense they are among kindred spirits in the Japanese. And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up. We're not in a seminar room here.

But of course these are only surface impressions. They obscure two central facts: First, many of the things cultured Europeans love about Japan (the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, Kabuki) are like organ music in Europe: followed only by a tiny, graying minority of aficionados.

Second, Japanese society overall is in long, possibly near-terminal decline.

Which brings us to an interesting 2007 book about Japan written by an American journalist who spent years there: Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (book excerpt and interview here). The first part of the book deals with the bizarre Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young people, 80% male, who simply drop out of society altogether. They cannot take the pressure to conform, the endless high-stakes testing, the cram schools, the bitter rivalry to get into the best colleges, and the myriad other pressures of Japanese life. 

So they simply drop out, like Bartleby. They retire to a room in their parents' house, and never leave. They usually change their sleep schedule to stay inside during the day and leave, if at all, only at night. They don't go to school, don't work, just sketch or read or play video games or watch porn. Their parents allow them to stay and provide them with food and other necessities, and often cover up the fact that their son or daughter has become a recluse to save face.

The defining factor of hikikomori is that they're not mentally ill. They are also usually of above-average intelligence, since it is these children who are under the most pressure to perform. Usually, their reclusion starts after some stinging failure (failed exam, university rejection, bullying) along the assembly-line route of school-college-job. These people have simply decided to reject a society which they see as forcing them through a bunch of meaningless and terrifying hoops, all in service to a failing and irrelevant social model which nobody seems to be able to change. Estimates are that there are between 500,000 and a million hikikomori in Japan. The consensus seems to be that this precise phenomenon happens only in Japan.

The author, Michael Zielenziger (who speaks Japanese) interviews a number of hikikomori and the counselors and psychologists who try to help them. What's refreshing about his book is that Z pulls no punches. He obviously likes the Japanese, has enormous admiration for their many achievements as a society. He's not simply spewing a rant, he backs up many of his assertions with interviews, statistics, and other staples of good journalism. And many of the harshest indictments come from Japanese themselves. But still, to use an appropriately American phrase, he tears Japan a new asshole

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective....

The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” one famous Japanese political scientist concluded, arguing Japanese had never learned to properly differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. His society, he said, was like a pot crammed with octopus, unable to discern a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, he suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in a traditional tea ceremony, in which a sturdy, unitary wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others....

As I got to understand it better, I saw that, rather than a vibrant free market, Japan actually functions more like a highly controlled, quasi-socialist system where bureaucrats feel they know best how to organize the system of production, and have the power to make life unpleasant for those who don't agree....

Predictably, the book has stimulated as many howls of outrage as it has nods of understanding. Which is a good thing.

Polite society these days enforces an unspoken code of never criticizing other cultures. You wouldn't want to be accused of cultural imperialism, or Orientalism, or condescension, or any of the other mortal sins of orthodox politically-correct sensitivity. But these taboos do what taboos always do: reduce everything to mush.

Some cultures are just more successful at certain things than others. In fact, some cultures are more successful at almost everything than others (here's lookin' at you, Scandinavia!). Everyone who's lived abroad understands this. And a bracing, well-informed critique is more honest and useful than a bunch of feel-good pabulum. The book was published in Japan. Many of his interviewees told him, they would never have spoken to a Japanese journalist, since they would be ashamed to discuss embarrassing secrets with someone who shared the same complex social codes.

It's not the be-all and end-all, but is a refreshingly blunt and lively book. Perhaps one day I'll write something similar about Germany. Germany, I love you, but I know just about all of your dirty secrets....

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