Tokyo Damage Report

Japan book review 1: SHUTTING OUT THE SUN

REVIEW OF SHUTTING OUT THE SUN, by Michael Zielenziger (2004)

Every misfit or social loser knows that “society is trying to make me conform to their bullshit rules, man!” – but it’s really difficult to say exactly HOW society does it. This book promises to explain the political and historical background to so many social problems in contemporary Japan; suicide, hikikomori (kids who refuse to leave their homes for years, escaping from school, jobs, and judgment), death by overwork, alcoholism, low birth rate, etc. But – just like an inarticulate teenager – this Stanford graduate and Berkeley professor can’t articulate just what decisions made by whom created today’s miserable society. So he just settles for saying “it sucks!” a bunch.

So the lack of examples is bad. On the other hand, though, the author is– and I mean this in the best way – a  total schizophrenic.
He’s a “secular Jew” who thinks that Japan should be more Christian (since Western religions give one a firm grasp of right and wrong, independent of the group. I leave you to think of your own most ironic example of that. Mine is Lloyd Bankfein’s infamous “We’re doing God’s work” quote.), and a total hippy re: Japan’s hikikomori, who is also a pro-business Wall Street cheerleader!
In fact I put down the book for a good year because the author was SO ready to lionize hikikomori, practically labeling them martyrs and revolutionaries against the Conformist Society, Man. But after some more reading, it turns out  he’s a Chicago-school dickweed who is seriously pissed that Japan is economically independent and not at the mercy of the IMF, the World Bank, or foreign speculators. How dare they! Fire redundant workers! Downsize everyone! Don’t resist globalism! Ship the jobs to the third world! Deregulate everything, man! But stop and give a mentally ill kid a hug.

Yeah, let’s spare no effort to get these kids into society – let’s change society so the kids prosper, even – and once they have a job, let’s fire them because a kid in Bangladesh can do it cheaper. After all, the shareholders need more dividends. Sorry, kid. Back to your room. Better luck next time!

SO weird.

Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE his schizophrenia. Even if I don’t agree with him, I have to respect how he is not toeing anyone’s party line.

The basic thesis of the book is, Japan (the whole country) is like one big hikikomori, withdrawing into itself instead of embracing foreign customs, particularly American-style economic liberalism
(confusingly, economic liberalism is the OPPOSITE of hippy liberalism. Economic liberalism refers to the very conservative ideas of: fire the Americans, move the jobs to third world countries where they agree to not make us pay any taxes, not enforce any rules about our toxic waste, and have their secret police gang-rape anyone who tries to unionize. Oh and dictators are better than democracies because they can sell us all their countries’ assets (water, diamond mines, power plants, natural resources, utilities etc.) without any pesky explaining it to the actual people who use those assets. Then we can charge people like 10 times the regular price since we now have a monopoly – and pass the profits on to shareholders! Rad! )

Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of economic liberalism.

However – even if you ARE a fan of it, you’d be hard-pressed to comprehend Zielenziger’s thesis.
The thesis is,  "NOT wanting to be a colonial vassal of Wall Street = mental illness."

He's all,
“Japan is full of mentally ill people – alcoholics, suicides, people who don’t want to foreigners to own their utilities, people scared to go outside, people who want to keep Japanese jobs in Japan, obsessive compulsive disorders like hoarding Yen instead of letting foreign speculators control the price of Yen, and other totally nuts crazies that make no sense!
People there don’t have the freedoms we take for granted in the West: freedom to be different from the group, to have a pluralistic society, freedom to get unemployed because Walmart drove their traditional store out of business, freedom to work in Dickensian factories so as to compete with the cheapest third-world sweatshops, and to have accountability/transparency like America does re: Wall Street!”

On the other hand – economic liberalism goes hand-in-hand with not just mental health but also democracy and touchy-feely humanism!
Japan should “undertake fundamental reforms and social adjustments to rejuvenate the economy, create a more vibrant and pluralistic society, empower the individual, encourage more risk-taking, flatten hierarchies, and induce its people to integrate more effectively with the outside world.”
(BTW that last quote was real)

Wow!  Don't you want  to be more like America? Deregulating the derivatives market in America resulted in a lot of individuals being empowered right out of their homes! And the recent supreme court decision re: “unlimited corporate donations = free speech” helped make us a more pluralistic society, don't you think! And risk-taking? We’re the capital! (If your pension fund gives Wall Street your life savings to play with) As for flattening hierarchies – wow! The Tea Party is taking care of that, right? Shaking things up in ol’ Washington! Awesome! U!S!A!

I’ll stop here.
It's easy to make fun of him for this sneaky conflation of 2 different things. But the fact is, EVERYONE  who talks about globalization is almost that nutty. Despite globalization being debated for 15 years, STILL no one has really come up with a good list of its bad effects vs. its good effects. The conservatives say, "More freedom! Lower prices! Multi-culturalism!" and the liberals retort, "McDonald's on every corner of the planet! Sweatshops in every basement!" and both sides like to stress "increased communication and understanding" and other such touchy-feely intangibles. And the two sides have spent over a decade basically talking  talk over each other, talking about totally different things, with nothing getting accomplished. Anyone know a good list of good-vs.-bad globalization effects?

As a way to structure the book, though, the “country-as-hikikomori” premise works pretty fine. Better than you’d think.

Also he busts out with the best explanation of tatemae/honnne (public face / private self) that  I have ever read.

Tatemae/honnne are like the first cultural buzzwords you learn when you get here, and at first I was – I ain’t going to lie – I was like, “Oh that is useful – it explains a lot about society and also it is terrible and Japan is bad.” The typical reaction of a noob gaijin. Then I was like, “Well no, every society has that. WTF. Just because Japan is the only country with the honesty to give that a NAME, why stereotype them as two-faced? That’s just a cheap way to feel fake-superior about your own country.” 

But Zielenziger actually explains it in a useful way: “OK, all countries have a concept of public-vs.-private self, but here are the specific ways that Japan does it differently.”

Specifically honne– the private self. I used to think honne was just private thoughts: “Fuck my boss! My mom’s such a bitch!” or whatever. Or I thought honne was a collection of private hobbies: “OK by day I am an insurance salesman, but by night, I am a cross-dressing gothic Lolita! And also a first-rate bass fisherman!”

But it turns out that – as Zielenziger conceives it- honne is more like the ability to be your own boss. To think critically, make tough decisions, take responsibility, to “think outside the box”, analyze data, sort truth from lies, be self-reliant, decision-making skills, conscience, get self-confidence based on you living up to your core values of right and wrong (rather than getting self-confidence based on what the group thinks of you), evaluate who is trustworthy or good based on your own instinct (rather than evaluating them based on if they’re in your group or out of it), to treat people as they treat you (rather than treat them based on the rank in the group hierarchy) . . .
. . . basically, honne is every part of the brain that is systematically neglected or bonsai-treed in infancy by the Japanese family, extra-curricular teams, and school! 

He gets all Freud with it: these cognitive faculties are never developed in Japan because the individual has their family make all the decisions for them (and later in life, the same pattern repeats with the school / team / job in the parent role). So even if the Japanese person is really pissed off at society’s rules, really suffering depression because of it, they still can’t rebel: their inner self is still 3 years old and literally can’t do anything on its own. It hasn’t been developed.

This explains the answer to the question that haunts a lot of foreigners: if Japanese people are pissed at the rules and obligations, why don’t they just quit their job / tell their in-laws to fuck off, or (more modestly) why don’t they just quit giving a fuck what the neighbors think? Why do even the rebels have rigid hierarchies? Zielenziger’s answer is, it’s NOT a failure of courage. It’s that they have been deprived of both the vocabulary and the consciousness to even THINK ABOUT rocking hard outside of a group. It’s like asking a 3-year old to do a bunch of pull-ups. They can, but they have to develop the muscles AND be exposed to real-life examples (by living in other countries) (notice I didn’t say, by living in America).

Whether this definition of honne actually corresponds to the Japanese definition – I can’t say. I would guess not. But even if it doesn’t, it’s still the best explanation I have found of specifically how Japanese tatemae/honne is different from tatemae/honne in other countries.
OK – I've finished outlining his book – the good and bad points. Now I'm going to go deeper, showing you examples of his thoughts. These thoughts fall into certain themes which repeat in every chapter.

Now, since the book was written in 2004, before our economy got wrecked, a lot of the “be more like America!” parts have become funny. Here’s a sample of the first reoccurring theme:


Here’s Zielenziger making fun of Japan for having factories instead of dot-com / speculative bubbles:

A new, mobile, global “knowledge economy” not only spawned whole new industries, but radically altered the definitions of economic value, relegating “metal bending” and basic industrial manufacturing to a lower tier than innovative design, supply-chain management, and systems integration. Mental labor supplanted physical exertion, software trumped hardware, and financial engineering and services flourished.”

Yeah, so how’d that work out for the USA?

If Japan wants to be ‘left alone,’ free to pursue policies that continue to leave its people trapped and oppressed and disconsolate, no one – not the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations or the OECD or the Pentagon – can readily interfere.

?!?!?!? Seriously??? You’re seriously bummed that we can’t invade or impose economic sanctions on a country just because you don’t like their attitude??? That’ll teach them for not liking foreigners! A starvation-level blockade and some neutron bombs. Hey, Tanaka – open-minded yet?

 Unique among great nations, it emerged an economic superpower in the 1970s without accumulating either the political responsibilities or the territorial dependencies of empire. 

Really? That’s the problem with imperialism? All the responsibilities??? And all the slaves you have to take care of??? Are you serious?

After a 1998 deregulatory change made it possible for Japanese to invest their savings abroad without fear of audit or need for government permission (!!!), American brokers Merill Lynch and Charles Schwab opened large Tokyo offices and a slew of retail branches in a bold effort to attract new customers. Yet most Japanese believed that investing in equities was like betting on horses at the track, and that sending investment money offshore was downright unpatriotic, if not excessively risky.

Yeah, that was really irrational and xenophobic of them. Americans know that what is good for Wall Street is good for America. After all, Wall Street would never – oops!!! Who looks dumb now, white man?!?

But seriously, though – Japanese regular citizens couldn’t even invest their own money in foreign companies until 1998? Jesus! That IS extreme. WTF Japan?

While Americans on average invest more than 40 percent of their savings in equities or mutual funds, Japanese gamble only 11 percent in equities, stashing the rest in low-yielding time deposits or insurance policies.  I once watched a prim, silver-haired Japanese widow dump ten thousand dollars worth of yen into a postal savings account that would yield her only $12 a year.  

Ok, that’s vivid. Good point. But why? What benefit did the state have by not paying good interest to people? And why would people save more than their American counterparts if they couldn’t get decent interest on it???

When I first moved to Japan in 1996, most government agencies and businesses still didn’t use desktop computers. Statistics showed that even though Japanese firms like Toshiba and NEC were major computer manufacturers, Japanese didn’t rely on computers and didn’t trust email.


The Japanese office long resisted the invasion of PCs and the Internet because by empowering the individual, these devices undermined traditional levers of centralized control.

Ha! Turns out that since 9-11, the American government – in particular the NSA – HAS been spying on our mail, like, all the time! Warrantless wiretapping, the decline of FISA controls, data-mining of credit-card information, and the co-optation of American telecom industry, that all actually happened. So, again – who looks dumb now, white man?

For example, long after email became ubiquitous in US corporations, documents in Japan are still routinely hand-routed from branch to branch. In a typical medium-sized firm, each department manager fixes his red hanko, or personal seal, on a document before it can be passed on, and there’s no way to stamp an email. Information is not broadly shared among divisions of a corporation, but parsed out and brokered among divisions, so that some factions can gain advantage on rivals. In government, appropriations for even the smallest items in a municipal budget still have to be checked, stamped, and approved by bureaucrats in Tokyo.
 One business executive, a retailer who rented office furniture, described how she had begun using email to do business, quoting prices and confirming transactions through her own desktop PC. One day, her boss furiously confronted her. “He told me it was completely improper to do business through email,” she said. “He suggested that somehow my use of the internet might be costing the company some money, but in fact he was upset that I was leasing furniture and equipment directly without his putting his own hanko on the agreement.”

Change is also obstructed through Japan’s lack of a policy of “one man, one vote.” Although the Japanese people have largely abandoned the countryside for the cities and suburbs, the courts have upheld the electoral inequality that allows rural voters to hold three times the influence as urbanites casting ballots in metropolitan Tokyo or Osaka. Thus, politicians representing declining rural districts vociferously protect the agricultural subsidies, construction projects, and high-tariff barriers that keep their local constituents prosperous and protected. Its rural bias also allows the ruling party to continue to favor older rural residents over younger city dwellers.

First of all, tariffs? Within one country?

And doesn’t America have the Senate, where small rural states with ignorant beliefs about Evolution and slavery have as many votes as big states that actually contribute to the economy? How is the Japanese system different? He doesn’t say.

An ‘us and them’ mentality characterizes Japan’s giant conglomerates. . in the world of the ’octopus pot’, subordinates are responsible to their superiors, not to the wider society.

What is this I don’t even!?! Yeah, AMERICAN conglomerates would never, ever, I don’t know – systematically bribe every legislator  with “campaign contributions” or pollute the fuck out of the country, or fire all the American workers so we could buy plastic crap for three cents cheaper. No, the USA companies all support “the wider society.” *coughGoldmancough*.

More recently, even after massive government public works spending failed to lift the domestic economy out of its long stagnation in the mid-1990s, Japan’s leading politicians instead on digging even deeper and spending more. Their strategy wasn’t flawed, they insisted; it was that the amount appropriated had been far too modest!

Ha! This proves Japan’s bureaucracy is out of touch and needs to be reformed by international sanctions! Not like USA, where the unelected and unaccountable Treasury department’s response to the subprime mortgage crisis was to issue trillions in TARP funds . . .TO THE PERPETRATORS rather than the victims, then tell Congress to fuck off when Congress asked specifically where that money was going, and then – when it didn’t work – issue MORE TARPs and THEN issue trillions more in so-called “quantitative easing”?

He spends two chapters comparing Japan to Korea – a refreshing and informative change from the “Japan vs. the West” rhetoric.

He begins by explaining how Japan and Korea are very similar, so a lot can be learned by comparing them:

Latecomers to modernization and intensely xenophobic, both nations relied on strong state power to inculcate industrial might. Both developed coherent, coordinated strategies to stoke export-led growth. Both created strong state systems to guide investment decisions, set prices, protect cartels, and stabilize markets. Close cooperation between government and large corporate networks managed both economies in ways that boldly challenged the Anglo-Saxon convention that “arms length” transactions conducted by “free markets” are the most efficient way to organize an economy. . . In truth, South Korea had appropriated wholesale from Tokyo most of its ideas on how to create an advanced industrial economy during the administration of strongman Park Chung-hee.

OK! So, – long story short – two countries, similar systems, both faced big economic crises in the ‘90s. But only Korea adapted and solved the problems by changing its system in a fast, efficient manner.

Also: Japan’s crisis: the bubble economy bursting.

Korea’s crisis: having its currency attacked by blue-eyed “speculators” and financial vultures. Korea was playing by the West’s rules – allowing foreign investment, deregulation, etc. They weren’t in debt to other nations. They had a rad economy. . .And they still got raped. Factories that were making hella successful products got shut down, workers unemployed, people starving in the streets, just so four or five white billionaires could get even more fucking money by wrecking Korea’s economy.

In the hands-down most frightening moment of the book, Zielenziger basically acknowledges the role of Western capitalists in wrecking Korea, then shrugs his shoulders like Omar in the Wire and says, “It’s all in the game though.”

Basically, his take is: yeah, we wrecked their country. . . . but LOOK HOW FAST THEY RECOVERED. Yeah, that’s it! We did them a favor! You’re welcome, Lee!

In the six years since its crisis, South Korea has . . . become more transparent and accountable. Large corporations now had to install independent outside directors. Cross-ownership. . .had been banned. Restrictions on foreign ownership were abandoned and the rights of minority shareholders had been enhanced. Even small shareholders could file class-action lawsuits if they believed stock prices or accounting principles had been manipulated.

If Korea’s crisis was sudden and sharp, Japan – after its bubble economy burst – entered a longer period of rolling blackouts, slow or negative growth, relentless economic deterioration. Nonetheless, only a handful of banks, brokerages, and factories shut down; nor were many workers tossed into the streets; blessings perhaps, but ones that indefinitely postponed a necessary retooling.

This – while attempting to explain how the Korean system is SUPERIOR to Japan’s. WTF!

He goes on to say how Korea’s allowing foreign investment meant that after their crash, those investors could demand Korea’s companies change. That’s supposed to convince Japanese to be more like Korea?

It’s funny because throughout the book, Zielenziger keeps talking about
How Japan’s insular system prevents the “economic crises” that are “painful” but “necessary” to shake things up in the “creative destruction” of capitalism:

The economic turbulence sometimes needed to coerce change is usually precluded through the complex design of the so-called Iron Triangle, the arrangement of Japan’s corporations, politicians and government bureaucrats – often orchestrated by the nation’s main banks – which dispenses the funds essential to keep the system running.

Does he think the USA should have let our big banks fail too? Hahahaha…. No that’s too creative of destruction. It’s only helpful if it happens to other countries.


Theme #2!! Zielenziger is fond of dropping bombs like this, without any explanation:

“Experts in macroeconomics, for example, are frequently stunned that the models they devise for “normal” market economies simply don’t work in Japan.”

Huh? That sounds totally fascinating, like it could potentially explain a decade’s worth of vague hunches I’ve had about Japan being a socialist-capitalist hybrid (rant HERE). But that’s the end of the paragraph.


 There’s not even a footnote or a citation. Don’t tease me like that! WTF.

Zielenziger comes back to this point only once more, 50 chapters later:

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. 

And he doesn’t follow up on it THIS time, either! Dude! Even Glenn Beck is able to articulate specific reasons when he accuses Obama’s America of being socialist! And he’s WRONG! How hard can it be for a Stanford grad to give specific reasons of something that’s RIGHT?

Aside from the single sentence, “Companies are essentially protected from failure, as long as they follow the dictates of regulators and their main bankers.” Zielenziger gives no examples of the specific regulations or control mechanisms to back up this bombshell of a claim. Instead he goes on to drop a new bomb:

“In . . an ideal Marxist state, everything would be the same and affordable for all. . . In Japan, however, everything seems the same and is made exorbitantly expensive so that only a very few could have the ability to pursue their own passions.” 

Huh? What makes it expensive?

High costs rigorously engineered into everyday life.

Huh???? Instead of answering my question, you just repeated your original comment.

Japan exported far too much and at home consumed far too little in part because the government kept prices so high.


No wonder Japan’s trade barriers remain high, and that consumers are gouged by relatively high prices and meager choices.


In all the 100 times he talks about artificially high prices, the sentence above is the ONLY time he even comes CLOSE to actually saying WHY. I think it’s 300 pages in. Basically – if I can use my analytical Western skills to try to pry the meaning loose – this is his way of saying that prices would be lower if they’d let Walmart in. If that’s what he means, why not just say it? Maybe because the reader would be outraged by the thought of all the mom-and-pops being put out of business, the workers’ salaries being slashed to the point where they couldn’t even afford to SHOP at Walmart, and all the profits going overseas.

But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe there are OTHER factors keeping prices high. Like the electricity and utilities are too expensive? Or what? Again, Zielenziger doesn’t tell us. He just keeps repeating the mantra as if that will make it true.

Sorry if I keep flogging that dead horse. I get frustrated not because I disagree with him – but because I really WANT to believe him! A lot of his claims would really explain a lot of vague feelings I have. But if you’re going to condemn a whole culture in such strong terms, you’d better have some good examples.

. . .
“a person who seeks to circumvent society or who becomes too independent finds himself almost totally alienated.”

He keeps saying things like that. After “Things are too damn expensive,” it’s like the OTHER chorus of the book:

“Society keeps them from expressing themselves . . . 
They are unable to suck in their sensibilities for greater national goals. . . .
(maintaining a public persona) Suppresses the patient’s authentic, individual personality, hindering a patient’s healthy emotional development.”  

Not to be mean – but if you’re going to bash a whole culture so hard, you need examples. Exactly what IS it that they want to express? Which sensibilities are we talking about? “I want to turn purple! I want a pony! I want to get married to Frankenstein! My individual personality is a complete jerk who likes to call everyone a faggot if they don’t like Dragonball.”

I don’t want to harsh on Japanese – of course they have dreams like everyone else. But how do dreams get crushed in Japan, as opposed to other countries? If it’s going to be the main theme of your book, I’m gonna need some Oprah stories up in here.

Actually, there ARE some Oprah stories about the bullying (and the authority figures always taking the bullies’ side!) that drives kids to become hikikomori. And they are the most moving parts of the book.

But in every one of those stories it seems like the kids are being punished just for living, not because they have unique hobbies, “sensibilities,” or opinions. Proving one doesn’t prove the other.

. . . .
Lacking any social mechanism that would allow them to rebel, all too many of the young, who should be helping Japan readjust and realign its society to the realities of the information age – are finding ultimately self-destructive ways to detach from that society.

Huh? A social mechanism for rebellion? 1) since when do rebels need a socially approved outlet? I thought transgression was the whole point, and 2) how is that different from America? We have misfits, but we don’t have a misfit machine  – far as I can tell, we have a  big business co-optation machine that converts rebellion into a commodity.

. . .
Government-guided capital and then rising militarism dictated consumer behavior, organized family relations, and regulated life from kindergarten through retirement.  Its people accepted limits on their personal liberty in the service of this higher calling, as if newly conscripted soldiers.

Wow, that’s a serious conspiracy! How did they accomplish it? Hey wait, come back . . .! You haven’t told me where Tupac is living!

The well-defined split of gender roles was orchestrated by corporations, endorsed by educators, and reinforced by bureaucrats – a way for the powerful Iron Triangle to impose itself into the nation’s social spaces during Japan’s industrial catch-up.

This served to boost social efficiency and reassure working men that their home life would be stable in their absence. “The so-called corporate warrior, even of the blue collar ranks, was able and willing to make his professional commitment at work because his wife was secure in a homemaker’s role, then defined as a modern, scientific contributor to building up a new Japan,” one sociologist explained.

That explains the motive, but not HOW they did or even THAT they did. Come on, Stanford. It’s like you’re just uncritically accepting anything a so-called expert says as long as it confirms your thesis.

. . .
The Japanese system, and overpowering and idiosyncratic mechanism of social control – the “crass group” , as the psychiatrist Hisako Watanabe once characterized it to me – proves ruthlessly efficient at insulating its people from those pernicious influences that seem to invade from beyond the oceans. In fact, the nation can be seen as employing an array of cunning tactics – bullying being the most pronounced- t o preserve its unusual sense of collective self , security, and well-being.

First of all, he doesn’t bother to say what Watanabe meant by “crass group”, or give any examples. Nor does he say how this mechanism works. Why even bother bringing it up?

“Hey, here’s this guy who spent decades making this theory that explains exactly how Japanese repress deviance, and gave it a name with a reversed ‘r’ and ‘l’ and everything! OK! This theory is everything you ever wanted to know, and – oh, look! That dog has a puffy tail! C’mere little doggie!! Hee hee hee. Hee hee heeeeeee.”

. . .
 Many ambitious young Japanese find themselves as suffocated by the system as their American counterparts, so thousands of the best and most talented flee to the breathing room more open societies offer.. . . these Japanese find that, after living outside Japan for just three or four years, it is nearly impossible for them to return and readjust to Japan’s narrow strictures.   They say they censor their own thoughts and monitor their own behavior in order not to stick out. They often report having trouble fitting back into the rigid systems of their companies, which insist that they “wipe clean” their memories or being abroad so as not to differentiate themselves from, and cause friction within, the workgroup. Some Japanese expatriates conclude they simply can’t go home again; the chasm is just too wide. American law and CPA firms are today full of talented Japanese who came to the West to study and realized they could never go back. The organizations they abandoned tend to remain impermeable, uninterested in profiting from the skills and knowledge their former employees have acquired.

This is part of a re-occurring theme: abandonment.

Japanese companies that don’t even try to woo back their people they sent overseas for training (since those trainees are infected with foreign management styles)

Japanese teachers that don’t even try to woo back students that have dropped out or been bullied out of school.

School administrators and unnamed "officials" who don't try to help new school principals "learn the ropes" – and then the principal hangs himself.
Japanese people who move to other countries and – unlike most immigrants – soon lose all interest in the politics and culture of their birth country.

Moving on, Zielenziger is not ALL about unsubstantiated bombs. He also quotes a lot of academics on specific Feudal customs that still influence today’s society!


Some anthropologists attribute Japan’s collective coercion to a primordial dependence on and spiritual connection to rice. In the pre-modern era, rice was the source of all wealth, and rice cultivation demanded both intense orchestrated labor and the pooling of a critical resource, water, to irrigate the crops and guarantee a bountiful return. A single peasant’s refusal to adopt the irrigation schedule favored by others, or a reluctance to keep his own sluices operating properly, could endanger the communal harvest and the survival of and entire village. Achieving consensus and ensuring that agreements were implemented had for centuries been matters of life and death.

Sakoku –  (literally ‘closed country’) : the Tokugawa shogunate’s seventeenth-century policy of “systematic seclusion.” i.e. no foreigners allowed!

Japan… traveled at breakneck speed from feudalism to industrialization, to war, and then reconstruction, without ever experiencing the Enlightenment. In other words, neither the power of the individual separate from the state, nor a self separate from society, nor the validity of an individual conscience separate from group sensibilities, ever gained a toehold.

The rigid in-group, out-group system (and the distrust of out-groupers – even other Japanese) dates back to the
…closed, suspicious culture of control instituted within traditional village society during the Tokugawa period. The newly centralized government divided each village into five-family units of mutual surveillance, or gonin-gumi, to assure loyalty and conformity. If any individual within the five-family unit broke the rules, all members were held accountable. This system created strong mutual dependency and trust, but also sowed distrust of those outside the village’s boundaries. Where mutual surveillance – not trust- constrains behavior, strangers are not welcomed. When context guides propriety , it is difficult to ascertain whether an outsider shares the same code book.

Masao Miyamoto traces the history of Japan’s “overwork psychosis” to the Tokugawa period, when each provincial warlord was commanded to appear in Edo, the capital, every second year, along with a vast entourage of advisers, samurai, horsemen and other members of his court. . . .Provincial leaders competed with one another in order to display their wealth and lordly authority. Yet preparing for and then completing these arduous biennial expeditions became so time-consuming that potential rivals never had sufficient energy to plot a coup. Miyamoto’s radical view- that overwork was consciously engineered into the Japanese system to displace or discourage resistance – was too extreme for most workplace counselors.

Japan’s embrace of alcohol dates to feudal times, Mizusawa said. “Only the super-rich and those of high status could make and drink sake.” In that era, since one needed a coveted allotment of rice to brew the liquor. “To have a chance to drink sake was a rare honor, and you could never refuse a glass when it was offered.”

The vast majority of Japanese lacked a family name until the 1870s.

!??!? Seriously? Why not? What was the benefit to the feudal shogunate of not having names? Where did the family names come from in the end?!?

Psychiatrist Kosuke Yamazaki on teachers’ acceptance of bullying:
As the Japanese people share racial, clan, and cultural dies, their national dogma suggests that everyone is the same and shares identical thoughts and values. This ideology makes it easier to rationalize punishing the deviant.

Moving on, Zielenziger gives some specific

(After the war) the nation was effectively forced to accept the postwar constitution General Douglas MacArthurand the American occupiers drafted. The Japanese could not demand what they did not know, and never engaged in the demonstrations, public protest, struggled and confrontation, the painful learning process through which democratic government is usually forged – as, indeed, later occurred in South Korea.

As (historian) Sheldon Garon describes, the U.S. occupation could never eliminate the prewar block clubs and neighborhood associations that often compelled household membership and constrained individual choice, not unlike the gonin-gumi of the feudal period.

Just like Hisako Watanabe’s “crass groups”, Zielenziger makes no effort to explain what the block clubs did or how they did it, or how this was controlled by the government.
Schools not only wear military-based uniforms, but every school in the country reads from the same page of the same book on the same day. (different books according to different grades, one would hope!).

But after ragging on schools for being too strict – he doesn’t mention that teachers are not allowed to expel students and it’s almost impossible to even flunk a student , so kids who want to act out verbally or violently in class are free to do so all they want.
In modern Japanese marriage, the law demands that one party, usually the bride, abandon her maiden name and any claim to her own household (家,ie) to join the groom’s household. Hiroko Mizushima, a member of the national parliament, has been divorced at least six times since she first married Satoshi Hasegawa in 1992 and bore him two children. Because her husband agreed to join Mizushima’s legal household but to keep his own name, the couple must formally divorce every time his driver’s license or passport expires, he relocates his business address, or needs any other official document from a government agency.

The economic disincentives to motherhood are even stitched into the fabric of the nation’s tax and welfare systems. A married woman who returns to work after having a baby can effectively earn only about 1 million yen per year before she has to pay separate taxes on her income. If she earns more than 1.4 million yen, she can no longer be included in her husband’s pension benefits, but has to start making her own individual contributions. These rules tend to consign mothers to part-time labor when they return to the workforce, and employers take full advantage. They create job categories suitable only for mid-career part-timers.   So there’s a large gap between what a woman might earn in a full-time job and what she can earn as a part-timer with child.
Suzuki, a demographer for the ad firm Dentsu, says “We have a double standard about giving birth to a child when unmarried. As long as you don’t have an illegitimate child, you can do whatever you want, whether it’s enjo kosai, divorce, or becoming a parasite single.” (to which I might add, abortion).
In Japan there is neither moral taboo against, nor political opposition to, abortion. It has been accepted in society since feudal times and remains, along with the condom, the most popular form of contraception along with the “rhythm method.” (about 340,000 abortions are reported each year in Japan, about 30 percent of the number of births) Yet the Pill itself was legalized only in 1999 after a vigorous nine-year campaign waged by foreign drug-makers, and today fewer than 5 percent of Japanese women rely on it. Doctors warn their female patients that oral contraceptives are “unnatural” and pose health dangers. Instead, Japanese doctors enthusiastically recommend abortion, because the procedure earns them larger profits from the national health care system than does dispensing the Pill.
Yasuhide Furusawa, a Health Ministry official said, “There is a significant concern that permitting use of the Pill will accelerate the spread of HIV,” and encourage sexual promiscuity.

Viagra, on the other hand,  was famously put on the fast track to legalization and introduced just six months after Pfizer asked for permission.
In a nation where even uttering the word “depression” remains taboo, and where almost all advanced antidepressant medications like Prozac an Zoloft remain illegal and unavailable, more than 660 Japanese commit suicide every week – 94 persons per day.
Life insurance companies . . actually give them incentive. They usually pay out premiums to the families of suicide deaths.
Only 10,000 psychiatrists for a nation of 120,000,000. More than any other nation, Japan warehouses its mentally ill patients in hospitals, usually private, profit-making facilities, rather than find ways to place them back into society. The average stay at mental institutions is also the longest in the world, 406 days.
“If the father goes to a psychiatric clinic for treatment of depression, do you really think his daughter will not encounter any problems before marriage?” Mizusawa asked, referring to the likelihood that the parents of a potential husband might hire a private investigator to check up on the potential in-laws.
The medical establishment remains remarkably resistant to calls for expanded counseling services and psychotherapy. Unlike the United States, where clinical social workers and psychologists as well as psychiatrists receive state licenses, the Japanese government does not officially recognize non-physicians in the mental health field. To get reimbursement for patient care, a clinical psychologist must work “under the supervision” of a licensed M.D., and usually is required to give that physician a percentage of his fees.
Until the late 1990s, a clinical psychologist did not even need a college degree to practice. Hayao Kawai, president of the Association of Japanese Clinical Psychology says, “The medical doctors have a great deal of money, very strong contact with politicians and the ruling party, and they are strongly opposed to psychologists. They don’t want to lose any of their patients.” The payment schedule of the national health insurance system also aids drug-makers since a psychiatrist gets no more reimbursement for a fifty-minute counseling session. . .than for a quick, three-minute drive-by to fill a prescription.

And of course, there’s the requisite chapter on

Zielenziger is much more full of facts/examples when on his home turf of Big Business reporting:

These efficient exporters (Toyota, Nissan, Sony, etc) make an enormous contribution to Japan’s economy, yet represent only 10 percent of Japan’s annual GDP. In effect, they subsidize the vast majority of a Japanese economy that remains remarkably lame and unproductive. . . . OECD estimates that Japan’s overall labor productivity remains 30 percent below that of the United States and is the lowest among the world’s seven largest economies. In Japan, just the food-processing sector alone employs more workers than the combined total of those making steel and building cars, machine tools, and computers; they comprise nearly 11 percent of all manufacturing jobs. Needless to say, this sector was only 39 percent as productive as the US industry. No wonder Japan’s trade barriers remain high, and that consumers are gouged by relatively high prices and meager choices.

Now the tables are turned!

Zielenziger gives lots of useful facts, but ME, I have no idea what the business-speak even means!

How do the Toyotas and Nissans  “subsidize the rest of economy”? How does that process work and where does the money go?
How do you calculate labor productivity?
Is “labor productivity” a reliable measure of worker happiness and human rights anyway ?!?
In an average country, what percent of jobs are food-processing?

Heads up: When I ask questions in this section, it's not sarcasm. I actually DON'T KNOW the answer and I'm hoping one of you readers can help me out. I'm not going to be snarky about some economic things I don't know shit about.
. . .
America’s financial system is propped up by its consumers, whose spending constitutes two-thirds of our economic activity.
(is that a lot compared to Japan? Other first-world countries?).
The only way for (USA) to continue to run up a mammoth. . .trade deficit, spending far more than it earns, is for someone to play banker and loan us the difference. Japan’s phenomenal savings allows it to fill the gap and to keep plowing funds into U.S. Treasury notes and other instruments. As the Bank of Japan buys up American debt, it artificially depresses the value of its own currency, ensuring that Japanese manufactures stay competitive in U.S. markets. Akio Mikuni and R. Taggart Murphy argue that it is Japan’s deep dependency on its massive stock of U.S. dollar reserves – a product of its traditional mercantilist policy of blocking imports and subsidizing exports –that set off Japan’s . . .deflationary spiral of falling prices and declining wages in the 19990s.

By accumulating so much . . . factories, machine tools, and robots, and so many claims on the assets of foreign countries through its massive dollar-denominated portfolio, the Japanese have deliberately undertaken policies that reduce the uncertainty and danger of dealing with outsiders. This giant portfolio of rainy day funds makes it easier for Japan to cut its ties with the rest of the world, should it choose to. “The building of an industrial structure that would reduce reliance on foreigners to the bare minimum.” (quoted from JAPAN’S POLICY TRAP by Mikuni and Murphy).

Oh horrors! How dare they!

Today imports and exports account for only 18 percent of Japan’s economic output, compared to 73 percent for South Korea or 202 percent for Malaysia. Only 1.36 percent of Japanese workers are employed in foreign-affiliated firms, while some 11 percent of America’s workforce is employed for foreign capital. In a single year, more foreign money poured into mainland China (an estimated $52 billion) than has been cumulatively invested in Japan.


Using regulatory and well as informal barriers, the government has maintained hallowed sanctuaries in sectors ranging from agriculture services and transportation to health care and education. And since shareholders have few legal rights, the hostile takeover strategies often employed in the West to force mergers of inefficient or debt-laden firms seldom succeed.

First of all – how do these regulatory barriers actually work? Where are the examples?
Second of all – corporate takeovers are for assholes.  Fuck those cigar-chompers.

Japan’s traditional “main bank” network, which uses personnel and cross-shareholding ties to assert control, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for any pressure to be exerted from outside this network to improve profitability, was a major culprit in Japan’s underperformance.

AHA! This time, there IS an example!

 For example, Kanebo Ltd. – a hoary, 117-year-old cosmetics and pharmaceutical giant, with 14,000 employees and 500 billion yen in annual sales –was taken over by the Japanese government in March 2004 because its board of directors could never shut its debt-ridden textile and housing divisions, even though its better-known and profit-generating cosmetics division was flourishing. Kanebo operated a synthetic-fiber plant employing more than four hundred workers in rural Yamaguchi prefecture; yet, even though it had long ago stopped contributing profits, the board could not make the decision to close the plant in order to save the company. Kanebo was torn between the demands from (creditor banks and labor unions), and governance by shareholders failed to function adequately.

So THIS is the “inefficiency” that is subsidized by the government.

In most market economies, major banks aren’t the only ones to decide whether a corporation obtains the money it needs to do business

(don’t corporations usually MAKE money, not need it? To me, one of the most shocking revelations in the wake of the American collapse of ’08 was the reasons that a lot of people were out of work / a lot of businesses shut down. The reason was NOT foreclosure or that they invested their life savings/pension plan in junk mortgages. The reason was that since the banks were in trouble they weren’t loaning, and EVEN HEALTHY BUSINESSES NEED TO BORROW MONEY LIKE EVERY SINGLE WEEK TO MAKE PAYROLL. I was like, Huh??? That goes against every single thing I ever learned about capitalism and economics, and here’s this TV commentator saying it like it was the most obvious thing. WTF? I felt three years old.

Can anyone explain that? Is that even true? If so, doesn’t that mean that all businesses ever are constantly losing money all the time? What is this I don’t even.)

Anyway. In Japan, the only way to start a company is by getting a bank loan. In regular countries,

A company can raise funds directly through a relatively transparent capital market, selling bonds or issuing stock to a diverse set of clients, in addition to taking loan. An individual’s brainstorm can win backing from venture capitalists. In these companies, decisions tend to be quick and opportunistic, profits crucial and efficiency prized.

Entrepreneurship is among lowest in the developed word
(because Japanese aren’t self-starters, and even those who are, can’t get a loan from a bank because they’re not in the old-boys network)

In the years leading up to its unrivaled prosperity in the 1980s, Japan’s giant banks orchestrated most corporate decisions- from behind the scenes, not center stage. Acting as syndicates, city banks, trust banks, and insurance companies offered loans to favored industries while at the same time purchasing stock in the companies with whom they dealt. Corporate borrowers also used some of their profits to buy shares in the banks that were, in turn, their main lenders. It was as if Citibank made loans to GM while GM used its profits to buys large chunks of Citi stock rather than pay cash dividends to shareholders. Imagine further that all Citibank employees drove GM cars, and that all GM paychecks were deposited in Citibank branches.

According to James Fallows, (author of Looking At the Sun), in this bank-centric system, the central government held powerful leverage to determine investment decisions and to stimulate industries it considered strategic. The government, “Deliberately chose to emasculate the stock and bond markets,” to ensure that these banks and insurers – firms over which the bureaucrats could maintain complete control- were kept firmly in the driver’s seat.

(i.e. as opposed to stockholders)

 Domestic competitors were restricted. Foreign investors were kept away. Small shareholders had no right to demand that independent boards protect their interests or ensure efficient management of the firm.

No examples. How were domestic competitors restricted?!?

 In the mid-‘80s, Japan’s powerful continued to govern as if theirs was still a poor agricultural nation, bereft of resources, where everyone needed to pitch in and sacrifice to harvest the rice fields. The Japanese people remained unusually frugal long after the nation had matured economically, because the system repressed consumption in order to recycle the funds back to government and to business who were encouraged to indulge. With prices kept stubbornly high through regulations, the nation’s household savings still measured 13 percent of disposable income in 1990, some 50 percent higher than in European nations, while the share of government spending on fixed investment like bridges and buildings, at 8 percent of economic output, was more than double the ratio of comparable US spending.

How did regulations keep prices high? And why?
And if – as he says elsewhere – Japan is unusual in the GDP being almost all from in-country sales and not foreign trade – if the natives are also frugal, then who the fuck is buying anything??? How did the system repress consumption? And how does that recycle the funds? What funds? AAAAArrghhh!!!!

Yet to keep the system from choking on these excess savings (What?!?!?!? What does that even mean???) the funds had to be redeployed, somehow. Japanese corporations used the surplus capital to load up on . . . new factories, construction equipment and robots, even as growth declined. Throughout the 1990s, the nation’s corporations consistently invested more than 15 percent of the nation’s annual output to generate barely 1 percent of growth.

The inefficiencies  seemed obvious to outsiders, but the Iron Triangle feared that giving its citizens the liberty to indulge might jeopardize the bedrock values of the collective, the resolute self-sacrifice that had propelled the nation’s renaissance.

(giving the citizens the liberty to indulge? What does that mean? Demand the companies give everyone a huge raise?  Right – just like the good old USA where we love giving workers raises like all the time because it’s good for the economy).

 Japan exported far too much and at home consumed far too little in part because the government kept prices so high.

How , again, did they keep prices high? And to what end? And what is the harm in exporting a lot and consuming a little? Who says that’s bad?

The nation’s big brands (Sony, Toyota, Canon) continued to prosper because they had learned how to successfully compete in a growing global market. But the nation’s inefficient domestic industries – food processing, construction companies, distributors, and textile manufacturers – remained coddled by government regulations that systematically kept foreign rivals away. Rather than force “old Japan” to streamline and adapt to an advancing era of relentless global competition, a dual economy emerged, one in which winners subsidized losers, even as the interests of both grew increasingly antagonistic.

The unfortunate reality . . . . is that the (big brands like Honda, Toyota, etc.) contribute only 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The other 90 percent is produced by obscure ‘me-too’ firms which sell only within a highly regulated domestic market. The arcane rules that once helped Japan create new industries from scratch now block potential upstarts from offering better services at lower prices. When a Japanese entrepreneur founded a Jet Blue-like airline to provide low-cost service to the northern island of Hokkaido, government policy helped ensure its swift demise. When Toys “R” Us decided to invest in Japan and open giant new stores, it discovered arcane rules severely limiting how big its outlets could be.
He goes on to quote Richard Katz as saying, “The essence of Japan’s malaise is that it gradually shifted from promoting winners to protecting losers.”

OK, now I feel *really* dumb. First he says that the big, export-driven brands basically subsidize the smaller domestic-only brands who lose money. But then he says the big, export-driven brands “contribute only 10 percent of GDP.” To me that seems like a contradiction. Just to be sure, I checked the internet, and internet says GDP includes exports. In the first place, how can 10% subsidize 90%??? In the second place, if the crappy businesses are making 90% of the money, doesn’t that make them healthy?? I mean, huh?

By protecting small and beaten-down domestic firms, the government helped guarantee that workers still were paid. But the support artificially boosted prices for land, labor, and materials so high that . . . . the best firms had to send more and more of their factories to Malaysia, China, and Mexico.

As all-but-defunct corporations (Schultzzz’s note: unprofitable, huge debts that the banks don’t bother ever collecting as a matter of official policy) kept producing, their existence continued to distort the market by keeping wages higher and prices lower than they might otherwise become.

First, – how is that BAD?? High wages and low prices?? Second, how DOES this so-called distortion work, exactly? And third, didn’t you just say a second ago that the Iron Triangle interference in the free market made things too expensive, not too cheap?


In March 2002, the official figure for nonperforming commercial loans still totaled more than 10 percent of the nation’s output, or some $422 billion. Many experts estimated that the real amount of distressed debt – including loans being paid on time by corporate customers who still remained wobbly – totaled more than twice that, perhaps as much as one trillion dollars, or some 30 percent of GDP. . . .at least twice as severe as the savings and loan crisis that crippled the USA banking system in the early 1980s. Never in world history had so many owed so much for so long.

The response to the bubble collapsing?

(the government) injected massive amounts of government money into the construction industry to boost the macroeconomic blood flow and maintain a stranglehold on power.

Huh??? What does that even mean?

And –given that all this wasted money was taken out of everyone’s personal savings accounts (average Japanese put their savings in the government-run Post Office Bank, where bureaucrats can loot it at will), did people just not know about it? Is that legal or not? In what case can the gov’t just raid the bank? Why didn’t people take their money out of the bank if they knew the gov’t was throwing it away on 500 billion dollar bridges to nowhere?

Did the money come back into the bank at some point? Or what?

One in every six Japanese jobholders worked in construction.

Jesus!  In what year?? And why – aside from that – does Zielenziger pretend as if every single Japanese worker is a salarimen?

I know it’s unfair to single SHUTTING OUT THE SUN for this, because 99% of all western books on Japan do it – he talks about the “conveyor belt that carries young boys from preschool through college, then deposits them directly into the workplace.”

Walk around Tokyo, and most of the men you see are working construction, or at 7-11. In the countryside, where most of the farms and factories are, I imagine the percentage of salarimen is even less. 

I guess that stereotype (all workers are suit-and-tie conformists) started during the ‘80s, when the burgeoning Japanese economy prompted 100 American how-to-get-rich-quick-book authors to write books on “Management Secrets of The Wily Japanese.” But the Japanese economy has been kind of crap for almost 15 years now, and Western authors STILL write as if average citizen=salarimen. Hey gaijin – who’s slow to adapt NOW???

I’m fuckin’ sick of it.


When faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans tend to INFLUENCE others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to ADJUST their own behavior.

Zielenziger quotes Hayao Kawai, one of Japan’s most prominent Jungian therapists (I don’t know which is more bizarre – that a Jungian therapist is included in this book at all, or that there seems to be a contest for “most prominent”!!) as saying, “If you apologize for a mistake, you are admitting fault and will accept responsibility to compensate the injured. But in Japan, when a wrongdoer bows and apologizes to his victim, the act creates “common ground” between the two. The victim is not allowed to request compensation, as it might destroy that common ground.”
(in other words , as I understand it – eating your cake is bad on me, but if you refuse to accept my sincere apology, you’re even worse, AND you have no cake). 

Kawai goes on to say, “Good or evil is not part of the equation, belonging to the same social field is the bigger concern. . As long as you are a member of the field, you will somehow be rescued. But once you are out of the field, then you will become a total stranger.”

(so it looks like successful apologies have the effect of making the drunken brawler and his bruised victim part of the social field, and the victim demanding the cops actually arrest the brawler is seen as “You’re fucking with the newest member of your social field. Harmony-disrupting asshole!”)

Zielenziger then goes on a lecture about how Westerners are more analytical and Japanese are more holistic because they focus more on the context of a person or thing rather than on the immutable properties of the thing in itself. But – as anyone who has tried to understand Japanese grammar knows – trying to parse the context of a sentence takes a fuckload of analysis!!! So I’m not buying it. It’s kind of a racistly narrow definition of analysis. If he meant Aristotelian-ism he should just of said Aristotelian-ism.

Japanese are not taught that they have a duty to help those outside their own kin; they seldom exercise altruism. The homeless men and women camping rough in Ueno Park are usually fed hot soup by Korean Christians, not by native Japanese.
In the West, a woman or man often chooses from among a wide assortment of fashion possibilities to express their own distinctive self-image, possibilities they can mix and match, according to individual taste and changing sensibilities. In Japan, however, the process seems to work in reverse; a young person a claims a persona by first selecting the uniform of the group to which she aspires, and then hopes that her style of dress will determine her affect and how others regard her. This again reflects the self-denial and self-sacrifice that is at the center of creating a context-based identity.

Yamada says, In Japan, we don’t have self-esteem. We only have the identity of groups. We have group-esteem.”
While alcohol consumption is decreasing in most of the rest of the industrial world, it is still rising in Japan. Over the past three decades, per capita alcohol consumption has risen 20 percent in Japan, according to OECD statistics, while it has fallen in Italy, France, Canada and the United States.

Among married couples, physical contact I so infrequent that some of Japan’s leading homebuilders now report that more than one in three custom homes is built with separate bedrooms for husband and wife. “It’s hard for Americans to believe,” said Takao Sano of Mitsui Homes, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders. “But forty percent of our customers ask us to separate the bedrooms” Often the couple is in their late forties, Sano said, and usually the wife asks for her own room.

Until recently, the “best and brightest” of Japan’s elite college graduates sought jobs not in commerce or in universities , but among the ranks of the all-powerful civil service, whose senior officials, rather than those elected by the voters, actually run the country.

In a nation where children are raised to . . .meld themselves into harmonious purposeful groups, bullying remains a distinctive and brutally effective means of behavior modification. Educators believe that young children left to themselves eventually master the skills they need to form cohesive social units and hierarchical relationships. . . .Rarely, therefore, does a teacher mediate within this organic, group-forming process or intervene to prevent a nonconforming student from being ostracized or bullied. Such intervention might disrupt the whole process. More rarely still does a Japanese mother insinuate herself or get involved. A Japanese parent tends to accept the supremacy of the more powerful group imposes on her child. Instead of confronting the school, she would more likely ask her son or daughter, “What have you done in school to get yourself bullied?”


Masao Horiba, a 'pony-tailed entrepreneur': He told me he classified Japan a "deduction universe" where as long as you don’t make a mistake, there are no points taken off. ”As long as you never do anything wrong, you never lose points, and if you never lose points you are guaranteed a promotion every year as well as a pay raise, " he said. “So no one takes a risk for fear of making that mistake.”
Mechanical engineer Yotaro Hatamura, professor at Kogakuin University. (Founder of the Mistake Society, which looks at blunders and tries to understand why they have occurred). Hatamura was closely monitoring American officials’ response to the disaster of the space shuttle Columbia, which had blown up over the big blue Texas skies in February 2003. .. . He was impressed with the way American forensic scientists were systematically determining the precise cause of the mishap, gathering as many pieces of the doomed vessel as possible in order to reconstruct the fuselage, sifting through telemetry data and compiling hundreds of eyewitness accounts. The American system demanded such strict accountability, he marveled. There would be lawsuits and independent inquiries, and even newspapers and TV networks would conduct their own analyses of what went wrong. A diverse group of players with competing interests would struggle to establish the truth.

In similar circumstances in Japan, however, officials “would simply apologize to the country and that would be it,” he said. “We don’t search for deeper causes and therefore we don’t go out and look for design flaws. This doesn’t lead us anywhere , of course, so we tend to make the same mistakes again and again.”
When a vacancy arises in a US college, the dean must conduct a wide search, interview a diverse array of candidates, and follow affirmative action criteria to ensure full consideration of such underrepresented groups as minorities and women. The candidates’ achievements are thoroughly reviewed, as is their potential to have a lasting impact on scholarship. If he fails to conduct a sufficiently “open” search, his university, theoretically, could be challenged with a lawsuit.
In Japan, however, where academic departments are usually headed by a long-tenured professor who surrounds himself with a flock of sycophantic disciples, only a strong loyalist who is a member of the in-group is likely to be offered a promotion. The candidate’s obedience, not his achievements, is likely to be scrutinized. To behave in any other manner, Yamagishi argues, only weakens the chairman’s hold on the devotion of his staff. Should he hire someone from outside the network, the network will soon wither away, since its very rationale – protection and mutual support –has been undermined. 
The fact that real debate and intellectual exchange are systematically de-emphasized, while loyalty . . . is re-enforced, goes far toward explaining both the lack of rigorous intellectual debate within most Japanese universities and the tendency of Japanese researchers to fall behind their foreign counterparts. Since achievement does not necessarily lead to a higher salary or greater recognition, and the young must always defer to their elders, a bright or gifted researcher has little incentive to move to an other , more prestigious , institution.


Although it’s never properly articulated, the lack of a public sphere is a recurring theme in the book:

Hikikomori and their parents:
 What are they doing to help their suffering sons? Are they protesting to the schools, demanding help from the government, or working with professional therapists?
Unlike Americans, Japanese don’t naturally organize themselves into health-related pressure groups to. . . In contrast to the nation’s dense and intense economic networks, its social networks- its tentacles of charitable and civic organizations – are far less robust and efficacious. Only within the past half decade, since 1998, has Japan enacted new rules permitting nonprofit organizations to incorporate without formal government approval, but contributions are still not tax deductible.

THIS is journalism! Giving examples of a phenomenon – lack of non-government, grass-roots advocacy groups and special-interest groups in the public sphere, along with a specific policy decision (the tax code) which helped “socially engineer” the situation.

He also explains that even when special-interest groups DO exist, they are all hooked on government patronage (i.e. tax money) and thus they don’t really Stick It To The Man.

My impression – based on the rest of the book – is that since Japanese generally have their social groups chosen FOR them (family, school, university, work), they are poor at joining groups that a) they have no people in common with, and b) groups that don’t have the backing of some official organization. And that contributes to the lack of/ lack of interest in a) starting their own business b) grass-roots political activism, and c)  forming of off-line social groups of any kind. Well that, and how everyone has sake and playstation. I mean, who has the time? Have you seen the new Final Fantasy? It’s awesome!

Also, there is this bedrock idea that It’s Not My Place. The public sphere, like the public streets, is a place that doesn’t belong to the public. (see my rant on the subject)


The final theme is how Japan is sort of a spiritual malaise because they've industrialized enough to have the shitty, alienating aspects of modernity but not enough to get the good freedom-bits.
Families used to be sprawling, multi-generational, and loud, and worked together in farms.  The very opposite of the quiet, with-holding, unemotional families we think of as traditional Japanese. Nowadays they are tiny and quiet and cut off, because everyone moved to the crowded industrial cities. Moreover,  all  the family members are off working in different places: Dad's at work until midnight, Mom's got her cult meetings, and the kids have cram school 'til 11.

“The Americans thought the ie (traditional extended family system)  too feudal, so they tried to destroy the system,” Kawai said. Rather than abandon the concept of ie, however, the Japanese displaced these sentiments, projecting them instead onto corporate life. 

For example? I keep hearing that theory but no evidence is given. OK, he says people introduce themselves company name first, but that (to me) doesn’t equal the entire transplanting of a damn family structure with its 1,000 rules and customs.

OK, next on the list: sex!
Kids used to be arranged-married, but now want to be free to marry for love. But they lack the centuries / millennia of experience that other cultures have to search for mates on their own. Or, as Zielenziger puts it,

“As a once-rigid marriage system falls into disuse, however, young adults encounter great difficulty meeting others, much less finding appropriate mates. They lack a wide network of casual acquaintances, the skills to acquire them, and the casual forms of social trust needed to maintain such a network. The new, more ‘open’ marriage market creates more competition . . . while the rate of failure is climbing for those deemed unappealing”

Same thing with freedom: younger Japanese want to be free, but have no idea about the responsibility that comes from that. They don’t want to be told by the group what to do, but lack any Western notion of absolute morality (i.e. it’s wrong to do xyz even if no one sees it, God sees it, or I know what I did and that’s enough to stop me doing it).

So that’s why Japanese associate individualism with selfishness. 

Takahashi says, “A Japanese individualist is far more of an egoist, someone who keeps to himself or herself and has no relationship wit others. They tend to be more egocentric and self-reliant and that ends up causing more problems for our society.”

They have never had any role-models for the areas in between total group devotion and assholedom. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three in-between ways to live your life: 1) treating others as they treat you, 2)or being a dick to people at the job but working for a charity on the weekends, 3) making your own surrogate family out of close friends to which you have no institutional ties (university sports team, etc.).

These free-but-not-selfish ways of living would never occur to Japanese because they lack the faculties to do lateral thinking (lateral thinking =  analyze things all sideways, and contemplate all possible outcomes, even really silly ones) 

The way lateral thinking is discouraged in Japan is a whole ‘nother rant.

And that's not even touching the normal, cliche, "Japanese have lost trust in their government and are bummed about the economy" malaise-talk.
“We lost our own narrative,” Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most prominent contemporary novelists told me one day. .. when the bubble collapsed, “what we lost was confidence. Confidence in ourselves- socially and economically.”

Oh please! Does it take a literary genius to figure that out? That’s just sad. You got to interview this very smart famous guy about basically anything, and your only quote was something that a 7-11 clerk could have said???

Zielenziger’s Conclusions:

As Japan embraces its own hikikomori behavior as the most comfortable means to cope with its bounded future, this stratagem can succeed only if the United States plays along and continues to embrace its role as the enabling, codependent parent. For just as an isolated child needs a parent’s protection, Japan can survive in its course o renewed isolation only if we Americans agree to act as the guardian who gallantly commands Japan’s national defense while allowing Japan’s export industries unfettered access to USS Markets.

As it gets economically eclipsed by other developing Asian countries who embrace foreign investors and deregulation etc, “Japan could well bury any lingering dreams of global, or even regional superiority and choose instead to turn itself into an Asian model of Switzerland, a peaceful , relatively prosperous, insulated, and increasingly irrelevant nation, a quiet and stable second-rank power. Could the Japanese vote on it, I have little doubt that a majority would choose such gradual decline over any radical, destabilizing change.

Appendix 1:  CULTURAL WORDS I learned from this book

Sekentei – how one appears to others ; appearances (as in, keeping up)

“put a lid on stinky things” – folk saying (Japanese translation not included!)

Kasumigaseki – “the Tokyo neighborhood where all of Japan’s public agencies have their offices”

Shigarami – the entangling vines of obligation

The octopus pot – the closed world of corporations??? Not sure what this Japanese is or what it means.

Akuru-hara – alcohol harassment

Futoko – young person who refuses to go to school

Gaiatsu – pressure from other countries

appendix 2:  DISSIDENTS INTERVIEWED (in case you want to read more of their opinions)

Hisako Watanabe – psychiatrist, talks about “crass group”

Satoru Saito, a “prominent psychiatrist”

Masahisa Okuyama – head of the hikikomori parents’ advocacy / support group called KHJ (again, Japanese translation not included)

Kosuke Yamazaki of Tokai U. – interviewed about bullying.

Psychiatrist Masao Miyamoto , author of STRAIGHTJACKET SOCIETY (Japanese title is ???)

Takeo Doi – author of ANATOMY OF DEPENDENCE (1971) – inventor of the word amae

Chie Kanagawa – cultural psychologist. Talks about nothing major.

Tamaki Saito (psychiatrist of hikikomori):

Masao Horiba – entrepreneur.

Hayao Kawai – “most eminent clinical psychologist” – interidwed about family.

Three people running non-profit faux high-schools for hikikomori only:
Nobuyuki Minami.

Yuichi Hattori – clinical psychologist. 
Few of his hikikomri teenagers could recall ever being held or embraced by their own parents, and grew up emotionally starved.
That’s terrible, of course, but as a freaking Stanford graduate, Zielenziger should have asked – compared to what percent of non-hikikomori kids? How big is the gap? Come on, man. Where’s that Western critical-thinking spirit?

Sadatsugu Kudo. 

Kudo studied sociology in college, not child development, and has neither clinical training nor an advanced degree in adolescent development or psychology. He receives no government support, and his facility is not subject to any government supervision.

Political scientist Yukio Noguchi of Tokyo U. refers to this as the 1940s system, to suggest that the wartime mobilization orchestrated during a fascist era continued with little change during postwar reconstruction. Economic conquest replaced territorial imperialism as the object of the battle.

Shizue Kato – the first woman elected to Japan’s parliament, where she championed workers’ rights and the environment. Mrs. Kato had been jailed by the Japanese Imperial Army for advocating birth control in an era when the government sought ever larger families to support its military ambitions.

Taiichi Sakaiya – “renowned social thinker”, former cabinet minister – is quoted as saying that Japanese have a “relative belief system” (i.e. looking at morals based on what the group or hierarchy thinks, and your opinions of right and wrong change based on which group you are addressing presently), and

 this relativist belief system allows Japanese to go through life without ever developing either a conviction about absolute, inviolable, or divine teachings, or a fixed road map of ethical principles. “What’s morally right today is what a majority of Japanese people say is right today, . . of course, if tomorrow the majority changes its mind, then the same behavior becomes immoral and wrong.” A Japanese must cast his gaze outside, not within, to discern right and wrong.

However, the only example of this is how Japan embraced Western values after losing to Perry’s black ships, and then to MacArthur. But come on, at least half of people who are conquered do that – just as a survival trick. I mean, French housewives were sucking GI dick for some nylons and a candy bar. Does that mean French people have no belief in conscience or God, that they worship Buddha or something?!?

Sakaiya – author of the book “what is japan?”

Masao Maruyama “Japan’s most important postwar historian” says, in his book  “Thought and behavior of modern Japanese politics,” individual conscience never became a significant fact.

Political scientist Takashi Inoguchi

Hayao Kawai – influential therapist and president of clinical psychologists’ association

Yukio Saito – suicide researcher

Masao Miyamoto – psychiatrist re: overwork

Kagoshima – one of Japan’s most fiercely conservative prefectures.

Mechanical engineer Yotaro Hatamura, professor at Kogakuin Univeristy. Founder of the Mistake Society

Iwao Nakatani – economics professor.

9 comments Tags:

9 Comments so far

  1. Steve February 3rd, 2011 10:45 pm

    Woah, this was great, I really appreciate these book reviews.
    One of the standout things for me was the "in the west, a man or woman often chooses from among a wide assortment of fashion possibilities…." passage that suggests whitey can bring out his inner-self through clothing while the Japanese only wear what they think their group wants them to wear. Obviously that's hooey, because if it were true, I'd see a lot more people on the street wearing like, glowing space rings and aquarium platforms. Even the most 'individual' of individuals seems to have an innate sense of how 'individuals' like themselves should dress.
    Also, this is off topic, but I didn't even know amae was a relatively new term, and that people actually know who coined it. The last thing I remember is some professor talking for a half hour about how it was a really important term, and how my feeble western mind would never understand what it meant. I just wanted to know what it had to do with a non-Asian focused women's studies class.

  2. François February 3rd, 2011 11:49 pm

    Shite! Now that's quite a long analysis for a book that sounds quite badly conceived/written.

    Let me try to give my two cents:

    No family names until the 1870s: That is correct. Only the upper class had family names. The rest (百姓、町人)got names when Edo jidai went down, and received names according to their habitat(長沢、岸本、田中・・・), place of living(金沢、盛岡、大阪), or the name of their lord(斉藤、鈴木・・・). From their trades probably too, but no example comes to mind right now. Not much different from other countries, it happening kinda lately being the biggest difference.

    About group cohesion: Don’t remember the whole theory, but to form group cohesion, the easiest way is “all against one”. If everybody agrees to hit on one guy, it forms instant bonding. That works with every human being, not just the Japanese of course.

    “Japanese doctors enthusiastically recommend abortion”: what ? Abortion can be pretty destructive for the psyche of the patient, and I don’t think Japanese doctors, as remote from their patients as they can be, do put any enthusiasm in there. Especially as as with all old geezers throughout the world, most have a conservative bias on abortion. And there’s a lot of old doctor geezers here, gynecology included. (for the detail, apparently they never touch their patients in gynecology either)

    “How do the Toyotas and Nissans  “subsidize the rest of economy”? How does that process work and where does the money go?”: Concept would be that a couple of business are very profitable, create a lot of growth and it allows the country to prosper even if the rest of it is wobbly. I don’t buy it.

    “How do you calculate labor productivity?” Usually comparing the output (turnover or margin or number of product X manufactured) to the number of hours spent by the employees, I’d say

    “Is “labor productivity” a reliable measure of worker happiness and human rights anyway ?!?” Fuck no. I remember watching this French business man on TV boasting that by forbidding employees to talk (at all!) in his Thai sweatshop, he could gain 3sec per product on his assembly line. Very productive. What about worker’s working standards (and humanity, for fuck sakes), asked the anchor? ”We are working in a very competitive environment” answered the guy. For the record, the activity in question was matchbox cars.

    “how do these regulatory barriers actually work? “ They can be formal (laws) or informal (we don’t want to work with you smelly gaijins). Look on google for “Porter’s forces, barriers to entry"

    “don’t corporations usually MAKE money, not need it?” As you wrote a bit after, even healthy companies need cash all the time. For investment, for instance, but sometimes although just to be able to pay everybody on the last day of the month, when your customers pay their bills with a wide array of amounts and dates. Cashflow is a big dangerous thing that has to be taken care of very carefully. A cashflow-limited company can go under even if they sell a shit load: before the customer pays them back, there’s a big window of time where its survival depends on loans.

    “keep the system from choking on these excess savings…” That depends which economic school you’re catering to, but the usual consensus is that money that sleeps doesn’t create value. So if too much of the country's economic mass stays immobile, there’s no growth and the country chokes on it. Of course, this money is not under the mattress but in banks, and banks don’t let the money sleep, they use it to create value of course (investments). But a lot of economic theories state that consuming drives the economy, and thus people have to spend, spend, spend. As the last crisis showed, a bit of saving and fiscal responsibility can also be a good idea.

    “at least twice as severe as the savings and loan crisis that crippled the USA banking system in the early 1980s. Never in world history had so many owed so much for so long.”: The thing is that contrary to most other countries, the enormous Japanese debt (about 200% of its enormous GDP) is mostly local, whereas the US debt is mostly external (China likes to lend a lot to the US lately). When foreign countries can put pressure on you through your debt, you can get fucked pretty fast (see: Africa). But when the only pressure is from your citizens, you’re cool to make it balloon even more (not only an advantage). For more figures:

    On family and the kaisha: traditionally speaking (and I’m talking Showa tradition here), the company is more important than your family anyway. But there’s a lot of parallels. Older brothers (senpai), paternal figure (shacho), daily greetings (okaeri-fucking-nasai)…

    About absolute morality, right or wrong: those concepts are so local, I wonder if there’s any interest in digging further. People from the same country, town, congregation don’t even all agree on what’s supposed to be good or bad. Plus, the “good vs evil” concept is definitely more Judeo-Christian to start with. Less Manichaeism sounds good to me (ha ha)

    And for the record, French housewives were sucking GI dick for nylons & bottles of Coke, get your facts straight!

  3. Ryan February 4th, 2011 9:41 am

    How do the Toyotas and Nissans  “subsidize the rest of economy”? How does that process work and where does the money go?
    This means that Toyota and Nissan and similar companies make a lot of profit and are taxed accordingly, whereas other areas of the economy such as food production make very little, and in fact would not be able to function without generous government subsidies (this is a common practice in many countries including the United States, but is generally regarded as Bad by economists because the money would be better spent buying food from other countries with money that we could earn more of by investing more in the profitable industries). So money comes into the government from those successful companies, and is spent by the government propping up the low-profit rice farmers.
    How do you calculate labor productivity?
    It's basically what the value of your labor, so what you get for what you spend. This is calculated in various clever and complicated ways, accounting for such factors as the age of workers, their training and education, and compensation and benefits, and a lot more things in addition to hours worked. I've heard this before, that Japan has very low labor productivity, which makes sense if you think about how many old people are doing stupid jobs like 3 geezers watching over 1 guy install a stop-sign on the side of a road. 
    Is “labor productivity” a reliable measure of worker happiness and human rights anyway ?!?
    No, it's definitely not. Higher labor productivity does not necessarily equal worker happiness… I haven't thought of it in those terms myself, because I wasn't thinking of factories and that kind of thing, but I work in a Japanese office where a lot of men and women work 14 hour-days and don't get very much done, and I am always comparing their "labor productivity" to an American office which I think of as much more efficient, AND a happier place, because Americans are so much happier to get their work done if they can get the hell outta there!
    In an average country, what percent of jobs are food-processing?
    Good question, but maybe misdirected, since ideally Japan nor any other country shouldn't match the global average number of workers for any one industry. It depends on their resources (natural and artificial, ie. not just what the land is suited for but what the people historically have done and have prepared themselves to do by building factories or training workers). Japan has a LOT of capital in the form of machinery, factories, universities, laboratories, etc. that are all more productive than slowly making rice on fields. Basically, the theory is that Japan would be better off "spending its resources" (WORKERS) on more profitable stuff and using the extra money to just buy imported rice from China (horrific as that would sound to many Japanese people). That's globalism.
    I love your blog and have loved reading this. I'm only halfway through but before I went to bed I thought I would answer these questions posed in the middle since I thought I knew something about them. Goodnight and thanks!

  4. Ryan February 4th, 2011 9:41 am

    I apologize for accidentally formatting that super ugly…

  5. Ryan February 4th, 2011 9:48 am

    Can anyone explain that? Is that even true? If so, doesn’t that mean that all businesses ever are constantly losing money all the time? What is this I don’t even.)
    It was surprising for me to learn that, too, but it makes a lot of sense. A lot of business operate in the red for 9 months out of the year but makes a ton of money in the holiday season, enough to make up for the rest. Or a lot of business operate on 2-week cycles. As far as banks are usually concerned, there is nothing wrong with that if they consistently borrow and pay their loans. The problem during the financial crisis is that nobody would give anybody loans because they were afraid that the people backing the loans (twice removed from the companies who are doing the buying and selling and profitting bi-weekly) would croak, so all of the sudden these companies in the middle of their 2-week or 9-month cycle were up shit creek until Black Friday. 

  6. admin February 4th, 2011 6:15 pm

    @ryan: thanks!! It’s crazy that I’m 41 and still don’t know this stuff.

    IThanks to you and francois, I get why holiday-themed businesses would need loans for payday. But you wrote, “Or a lot of business operate on 2-week cycles.” OK, that I don’t get. How does a 2-week cycle = need loans to pay workers? Don’t they have money left over from the profits of 2 weeks ago?


    In an average country, what percent of jobs are food-processing?
    Good question, but maybe misdirected, since ideally Japan nor any other country shouldn’t match the global average number of workers for any one industry.

    The reason I asked the question is because the author of the book said, “Japan has XXX number of workers doing food processing WTF!!!”
    Like he expected us to be surprised/scandalized by that, without bothering to state what he thought an average/reasonable number would be. To me, that’s like saying, “Can you believe Sally has a brother?!!??”

  7. admin February 4th, 2011 6:27 pm


    sorry for not getting my facts straight! Je suis désolé de Cokes!

    Seriously though thanks for your taking the time to explain this stuff.

    “bout group cohesion: Don’t remember the whole theory, but to form group cohesion, the easiest way is “all against one”. If everybody agrees to hit on one guy, it forms instant bonding. That works with every human being, not just the Japanese of course.”

    actually – that’s the motto of the Hells Angels: “all for one and all ON one.”

    “When foreign countries can put pressure on you through your debt, you can get fucked pretty fast (see: Africa). But when the only pressure is from your citizens, you’re cool to make it balloon even more (not only an advantage).”

    Yeah, exactly! In Japan, even billions of national debt is passive-aggressive.
    Seriously though – Japan’s genius at keeping all the debt local is part of what makes it seem like a communist country. I think I put a link in the book report to my rant about japan’s economy being the “Worst parts of communism and capitalism combined” .
    I wish someone more educated than me would write a book (in plain English) explaining how Japan is socialist.
    Hopefully with an easy-to-read list and examples of how the policies affect average working people, shop-owners and etc.

    Also: interestingly, a LOT of the people encouraging state planning of the economy and socialism in the 20s and 30s were right-wingers. Particularly Kita Ikki, whose theories were put into practice during WWII, and who remains the “brains” of modern uyoku.
    Unfortunately the main English book about Ikki is a hundred and fifty fucking dollars USED on amazon, so that book report is gonna have to wait until never.

  8. Dave February 13th, 2011 4:53 am

    I think you've hit the nail on the head. Whilst I've only lived in Japan since April last year, when I read this book (I think back in August last year), I had the same sort of feelings and thoughts that you've expressed. Whilst he brings up some points that definitely require exploration, he really fails to bring together any overall thesis other than a "bashing-angle", culturally biased "Japan is fucked" conclusion. Now, whilst I've witnessed many things that are "fucked" in Japan, it's a bit of a reach to conclude that ALL of Japan is fucked. 
    Also, the book is very poorly written. It jumps all over the place – hardly the work of a scholar. It made me wonder how much time he has spent with Japanese people. I know some people in Japan that fit some of his descriptions in the book word for word. But I also know plenty who don't. Among some of my Japanese friends are wordly artists, teachers who've travelled to other countries and can converse about their own culture's perceived "shortcomings" as well as the other cultures they've encountered and people I have an affinity with because we're into the same sort of things – they don't have any trouble expressing their individuality. This book is trying to put forth a particular angle about Japanese culture, but it fails because it's written by a western author who seems to have made his conclusions before doing any concrete research or giving concrete examples or evidence of his central thesis. It reads like it was written by a frustrated traveller who is pissed of because not everyone in this country saw things the way he did.
    This type of critique needs to be written by a Japanese person. Yes, there are very big problems that are plaguing modern Japan. But as you rightly point out, there are problems that are just as big in any other country or culture as well. While I'm not a post-modernist, I do think Foucault's simple point about letting people speak for themselves ought to be heeded as much as possible, particularly when you're trying to write a book that is essentially condemning an entire culture simply because it's different than yours.

  9. steve December 19th, 2014 5:05 pm

    I’m glad I’m not alone in my feelings regarding this book. Well put!

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