Critique Vol. XI No. 2 (May 2004)
Japan’s Other Hostages
By Michael Zielenziger

When three Japanese held hostages in Iraq returned home last month, they were greeted initially not with garlands of flowers, prayers of thanksgiving and cheers from strangers, but with cold stares and accusations of disobedience.

Their cruel reception might have shocked most Westerners. The young aid workers and freelance photographer were vilified for defying Japan’s mighty bureaucrats and venturing on their own into a chaotic landscape scarred by war. The government even demanded reimbursement for the flight that brought them home. Yet the fact that these former hostages were forced to hide in their own homes and apologize nervously to society for “causing trouble” after being held at knifepoint, reflects a reality hidden behind the shoji screens of modern Japanese society. After all, more than one million other young Japanese adults lock themselves up in their own homes, never leaving their rooms, rather than endure the coercion and mutual surveillance that informs Japan’s collective society.

Hikikomori
The syndrome these young adults suffer from, known in Japanese as hikikomori is seldom discussed in polite Japanese society and has only been recently recognized as a disorder by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. These young adults do not suffer from psychological disease like schizophrenia or agoraphobia, but from a social disorder psychiatrists believe exists only in Japan’s unyielding culture. These adults, eighty percent men, are prisoners of the rigidities that bind modern Japan. Conformity, fear of risk-taking and reprisals for dissent keep their insular island nation outwardly placid and “trouble free,” yet constrains its ability to adapt and adjust to a changing world. Like the returning hostages, these hikikomori often suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress after enduring harassment and hostility from coworkers, classmates and strangers alike. Ironically, Saitoru Saito one of Japan’s leading experts on traumatic stress and its relationship to hikikomori in young adults was asked to treat the returning hostages.

For centuries, Japanese have been raised to follow Confucian doctrines of filial piety, loyalty and fealty to the group. Long after China went capitalist and South Korea became the nation with the world’s fastest growing Christian population, Japanese still reject the principles of universalism and individualism: that everyone should be treated the same even though each of us is different. Among Japanese, you are either inside the group or a total stranger. Without reading a stranger’s business card, a Japanese cannot know how low to bow or how respectfully to treat someone since he cannot discern the other’s social standing. A drive for material success motivates, but altruism and civil society remain drastically undernourished. Indeed, many Japanese find it difficult to understand why any young person would go to Iraq to help feed strangers; Japan’s growing ranks of homeless are usually fed by Christians of ethnic Korean descent, and charity, as Westerners define it, is virtually unknown.

In today’s Japan, being different is often dangerous. An individual more intelligent or creative than others is subject to fearsome bullying and cruel harassment from other members of the group. Many hikikomori would rather sit in their rooms, reading books, playing video games or drinking, than endure painful ostracism for being “out of the ordinary.” As one hikikomori told me, “To survive in Japan’s economic society, I’d have to kill off my insides, my own original voice.”

In American society, young adults who seek unique and unusual ways to express their individualism and unleash their creative energies might be starting software companies or rock groups. Westerners are raised to belief they should “stand on their own two feet,” take risks, lead others and think for themselves. Japanese, by contrast, learn from an early age that membership in a group is what gives a person his identity and that adapting to the needs of others ensures the survival of all. They live in a “deduction-based” society where as long as you don’t make a mistake, you win annual promotion but taking a risk can prove suicidal. (Indeed, Japan’s suicide rate for adult males is among the world’s highest.) Japanese themselves say they live in a “village society” of mutual support and mutual surveillance, where outcomes are guaranteed even if choices are ultimately limited. No one should be too rich or to poor, and a “convoy system” permits large firms to protect small ones within their own industry, while entrepreneurial effort is discouraged by a financial system that limits risk-seeking venture capital.

In the simpler era of the Cold-War world, when strength in mass production inevitably led to national wealth, the West came to admire the perseverance, discipline and group ethic that informed Japan’s stirring rise into the first rank of industrial powers. A homogeneous society governed by seniority, reciprocal loyalty between salaryman and boss, and consensus-based management, as well as congenial, sometimes collusive links between businessman and bureaucrat, Japan seemed to have found the magic formula for economic growth -- one that eluded Western nations staggered by crime, turmoil in the workplace, class differences and civil disorder. Japanese didn’t sue each other or go on strike; they wore impeccable suits, worked hard, produced fault-free cars and consumer electronics and served as a bulwark against Communist instability in Asia.

But fifteen years after the collapse of Japan’s “bubble economy,” the demise of the Soviet Empire and the dawn of a “post industrial” society distinguished by creativity and customization, the Japanese have not yet been able to rekindle their economic engine, and there is growing fear, in Japan and elsewhere, that China and South Korea are stealing their thunder. Today Japanese find that the same system that forges group consensus and represses dissent actively resists the sort of “creative destruction” a new century demands.

The Best and the Brightest
Some of the best and brightest simply pick up and leave. Conductor Seiji Ozawa and designer Issey (CQ) Miyake essentially abandoned Japan for the world market after enduring the limits of harassment and testing the boundaries of imagination; baseball players Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui craved the global competition Major League Baseball offered; talented, educated women flock to Seventh Avenue and Silicon Valley. But Americans must wonder if their last, best ally in Asia will inevitably turn inward rather than engage the outside world, face up to its need for fundamental change and finally accept that irrepressible human desires for autonomy and self- expression must finally be unleashed.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER, former Tokyo bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers, is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Shutting Out the Sun, his book examining Japan’s social deadlock, will be published in 2005 by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday. An edited version of this article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times opinion section on May 2, 2004.

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