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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #127: March 15, 2004

Japan's "dysfunctional" social behaviors, are they unique?

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

On March 8 2004, a Knight Ridder newspaper journalist and a long time resident of Japan, Michael Zielenziger, gave a talk at the Institute of East Asian Studies (UC Berkeley) entitled,"Social Withdrawal and Other Maladies: A New Paradigm for Understanding Japan's Contemporary Deadlock". In the course of his presentation, Zielenziger argued that by examining an"unusual" array of"dysfunctional social behaviors" now emerging in Japan, a new paradigm for understanding Japan's economic malaise could be considered. The new paradigm that Zielenziger was referring to incorporated three"dysfunctional social behaviors": falling birthrates, a rising number of suicides and depression, and the social withdrawal syndrome called hikikomori. His thesis was that one could explain Japan's resistance to change, inability to reform and prevailing social pessimism by uncovering the prevalence of these three behaviors.

What makes Mr. Zielenziger's presentation interesting for this forum is its tendency to paint Japan as"different" and utterly hopeless. Zielenziger's argument was that the three social maladies identified above are somehow unique to Japan. In his view, these problems were a result of Japan's"rigid" social system and were not related to larger, systemic social inequalities seen in other countries.

The presentation set out by introducing what he characterized as"The Japanese Disease". This disease, according to Zielenziger, prevented Japan from setting itself straight and from"unleashing the forces of creative destruction" that would breakdown Japan's rigid social structure, which was essentially the cause of its maladies.

Hikikomori was one of the main problems. Zielenziger claimed that approximately one million Japanese were affected by the need to withdrawal, eighty percent of whom were men. He further posited that these Hikikomori were not psychologically ill. Rather, Zielenziger made the case that Japan's"collective constraints" forced these individuals to retreat and prevented them from reintegration. He characterized the majority of individuals afflicted with this disease as being"universally intelligent" and"sensitive". The journalist claimed that he found no similar cases in other societies. As far as Zielenziger was concerned, Hikikomori was unique to Japan.

In terms of low fertility, Zielenziger also found something characteristically Japanese. After recognizing that low birth rates afflict European countries such as Italy and Spain, he insisted that Japan's case was unique. What made Japan different were low rates of cohabitation between partners, the lack of birth control, the low rate of child bearing out of wedlock and the strong correlation between a woman's level of education and income. Zielenziger's data indicated that only one percent of couples in Japan cohabitated, which he explained through the existence of love hotels, and only one percent of babies were born out of wedlock in Japan as compared to fifteen percent in Europe. What these statistics led Zielenziger to conclude was that low fertility was a result of Japan's rigid social structure, which does not allow women to have children outside of marriage. Complicating matters even further, Zielenziger argued that Japanese men and women had no"real means to meet each other". Ever since the demise of the arranged marriage, he said that it has become more difficult to find a partner. In these respects, he noted that Japan was unique and reproduced a structure that was discriminating against women.

Finally, Zielenziger contended that rising rates of suicide in Japan were evidence that"hopelessness captures the contemporary mood" in Japan. At the heart of the problem was Japan's lack of"universal ethics". According to Zielenziger, Japan is a society of goals and not principles, where right and wrong are not fixed but simply contextualized. He asserted that Japan had poorly equipped its people to deal with crises and as a result its people have lost direction, some of who turn to suicide.

The idea of"difference" is a common theme that runs through all of Zielenziger's arguments. Certainly, Japan's prevailing social system is rigid in that it does not recognize the full equality of women and is harsh on individuals who do not conform to the established"norm". Furthermore, Japan and its leaders have failed to reform the economic system and put Japan back on track. However, I find it difficult to believe that Japan is alone in any of these categories. More fundamentally, it is problematic to characterize the state of Japan as Zielenziger did, as essentially unhappy. There are many indications that Japanese are not unhappy. In fact, the Hakuhodo Life Style survey reports that Japanese have"never been happier". The recent boom in Japan's creative energy also indicates that there is more room for non-conventional ways of life. More young people are talking about"my-ism" and stressing the positive values of individualism. Japan is clearly in a period of transition, however, the signs are not all pessimistic. It is also hard to believe that hikikomori, gender discrimination, and suicide do not exist in similar forms outside of Japan. Zielenziger's thoughts are provoking in that they challenge us to search for explanations to these serious problems that Japan faces. However, to argue that these are somehow unique to Japan and are a result of Japan's rigid social structure is a contention that is potentially dangerous and is one that needs to be countered.

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