Tag Archives: identity

Review 44: Shutting Out the Sun


Shutting out the Sun – How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger

One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here – and you learn it pretty quickly – is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.

Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, “Really? Because it looks like a big ol’ jumbled-up city to me.” And it does – aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we’ll say, “Kyoto is a beautiful city.” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too – tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your “true self,” the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.

The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that’s what has to be done. So, tatemae isn’t a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It’s a bargain between oneself and society – “This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that.” What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.

So what happens when someone can’t hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can’t handle? Well, that’s when things start to go wrong….

For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren’t enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.

In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it’s in – a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan’s social contract – the hikkikomori.

Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people – usually men – who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others – a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here – or they simply looked at their parents and thought, “Is this what I will become?”

An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who – often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae – support their boys’ choice of lifestyle.

At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don’t have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton – with its worldwide reputation for quality – seems to be a good idea.

It’s a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It’s a country that’s gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn’t changed nearly as much as the country has. It’s a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It’s a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It’s a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn’t exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.

The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn’t wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.

He lays the hikkikomori problem – and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth – at the foot of Japan’s collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.

The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person’s works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one’s personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.

There’s a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea – once called “The Hermit Kingdom” – found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they’d be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.

There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger’s dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn’t know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I’ve seen, I know that this is not the case.

Granted, I haven’t completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that’s an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don’t claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.

That’s what Japan needs now. Someone – or, more effectively, a group of someones – to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won’t be easy – revolution never is – but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.

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“To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.”
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
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Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger’s Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia

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Filed under identity, Japan, Michael Zielenziger, nonfiction, psychology, society

Review 30: Fight Club


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Well, now I reckon y’all have seen the movie, so there’s probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.

You know Tyler Durden.

He’s the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He’s the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called “society” could ever create. He’s the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering “Burn it all down. It’ll be fun.” He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.

Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.

The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply – with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us – social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules – that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.

But Tyler’s plan doesn’t end there – the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.

It’s a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler’s message – we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization – our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties – and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.

This, to no one’s surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it’s a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation – a label that I have come to despise – who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.

What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we’re not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we’re not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.

I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point – I do sometimes look around me and ask, “Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?” And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, “Shit, man, he’s right! I wanna start a fight club!” And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn’t one that they really wanted to hear.

The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It’s not about being a Real Man. It’s not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.

It’s about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It’s about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn’t show up because the narrator is rootless or bored – Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that’s not a very fulfilling way to live.

It is a cautionary tale for our generation – you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.

You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.

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“If you could either be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
– The Narrator, Fight Club
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Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site

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Filed under anarchy, Chuck Palahniuk, fiction, identity, made into movies, satire, society, terrorism

Review 15: Confessions of a Mask


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

From what I can tell, Yukio Mishima was not a very happy man.

Granted, the only works that I have read of this very prolific author are this and Kinkakuji, but I’m seeing a pattern already, and it doesn’t point towards Mishima being a cheerful, laid-back guy. Of course, his suicide by seppuku is also a good indicator that he took things way too seriously.

Published in 1948, Confessions of a Mask addresses a subject that would have been taboo anywhere, not just Japan. The main character, whose name is only given as Kochan, is a young man dealing with the fact that he is homosexual. He begins with one of his earliest memories, seeing a night-soil man and finding him beautiful, which he believes is what set his preferences for life. As he gets older, he doesn’t yet realize that he’s different from other boys, except in that he’s small and thin and gets sick a lot more often. He finds himself entranced by men, especially laborers, and not knowing if this is what he’s supposed to be feeling.

His sexual maturity is a sad and stunted thing. The pleasure and rapture that he sees in paintings of St. Sebastian hide dark urges of violence and despair. His boyhood love of a classmate is a secret that gnaws at him until he finally convinces himself that he was never actually in love at all. And his attempts to become “normal” end with nothing by emptiness and sorrow. Kochan has no friends to talk to, no family to lean on, and no way to know if what he’s feeling is good or bad. All he knows is that the other boys are fascinated by women, and he’s fascinated by other boys. In darkness and isolation, Kochan grows. What he grows into, however, is a pale, lonely and barren man.

Like many gay kids, especially in the pre-internet era, Kochan believes that he is unique. An aberration, a deviation from the norm. As far as he knows, no other boy has felt the way he did, and the only other one he hears of – Oscar Wilde – is long dead. His desire to fit in with the rest of the world leads him to play an elaborate game, to wear a mask so convincing that it nearly convinces himself. Being able to hide who he really is and what he really wants becomes a matter of hiding from himself. And as anyone who’s tried that will know, hiding from yourself only works for so long….

Such is the life of a young gay man in wartime Japan. While I’m sure what Mishima has presented here is not the average, it is a depressing picture of what it’s like to live in a society where such a deviation from the norm is punishable by societal exile. While I can’t claim to know what would have happened to a young man in that era who came out of the closet, the narrator doesn’t even seem to consider that as an option, good or bad. Thus I can only assume that the consequences would be dire.

There’s no doubt that this book is at least semi-autobiographical. A look at Mishima’s life shows a number of parallels, especially in the early days. Both he and Kochan were raised by grandparents and separated from their families. Mishima stared writing as a boy, an activity that his father deplored and which earned him beatings by other students in school. He knew what it was like to be different, and that probably fed into this novel.

Whether or not Mishima was actually gay is, it seems, debatable. He did marry, and had two children, which would seem to indicate against it, but if, like the character in this book, he fought against his own nature, such an arrangement could be understandable.

One of the things that I found difficult about this book – and Kinkakuji – was how very introspective it was. The narrator tells the story of his life from his older point of view, and dissects every thought and every memory in exacting detail. It creates a picture of a person who lives entirely in his own head, and attributes modes of thinking that one wouldn’t normally associate with, say, a twelve-year old. He appears to be very analytical, even from his earliest days. Though he tells us that he is not letting his adult mind get in the way of his memories of childhood, this great attention to detail proves him wrong.

The depiction of Kochan’s attempts to hide himself is yet another mask – the mask of purposefulness. The narrator would like us to believe that he made every decision with purpose, as part of a plan. That he really did choose this life of self-deception. Perhaps because the idea that all of this was beyond his control is just too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps because it is better to own a bad decision than to admit that it was an accident. The narrator shows us quite clearly how adept he is at hiding from himself, and so he cannot be trusted to tell us truthfully about how he thought when he was a young man.

This makes reading the book a challenge – the reader must evaluate every statement and judge every event for its possible veracity. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much is true and how much is falsehood. In the end, we just have to take Kochan at his word, all the while accepting that he’s probably lying – and doing it without being aware of what he’s doing.

Reading Confessions of a Mask today, sixty years after it was first published, is illuminating. In the US, we’re involved in a great societal discussion over whether or not gays should get married, and while being homosexual certainly isn’t something that is universally accepted, the prospects for young gays and lesbians in the modern age are much better than they would have been for someone coming of age in the 1940s. Even in Japan, where coming out to one’s family is still as hard as it ever was, there are gays and lesbians on television and the matter is open to discussion. A homosexual in Japan may not be as willing to kick down the closet door as his or her American counterparts, but the abject horror of being utterly rejected by society is probably much less than it was.

When you consider what happens in this book, the horrible mental contortions that the main character must make in order to hide his true nature from the world – and himself – you can appreciate how far we’ve come.

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“I had long since insisted upon interpreting the things that Fate forced me to do as victories of my own will and intelligence, and now this bad habit had grown into a sort of frenzied arrogance. In the nature of what I was calling my intelligence there was a touch of something illegitimate, a touch of the sham pretender who has been placed on the throne by some freak chance. This dolt of a usurper could not foresee the revenge that would inevitably be wreaked upon his stupid despotism.”
-Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
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Yukio Mishima at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Amazon.com
Homosexuality in Japan at Wikipedia

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Filed under coming of age, homosexuality, Japan, memoir, morality, sexuality, Yukio Mishima