The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

Mystery of the Missing Million from Phil Rees on Vimeo.

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

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 And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 thoughts on “The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

  1. I’m looking forward to reading your book. Seriously, I’ll buy it. An outsider’s perspective is appreciated, but usually these texts fall into one of two categories: (i) Someone reads one book, flies in for a fortnight, and then thinks he’s seen it all (I’m looking at you, Michael Lewis); (ii) “funny” stuff in the Bratwurst-and-Lederhosen mould.


  2. Let’s just say that Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis wouldn’t have unraveled in the way it did if not for some German peculiarities when it comes to attitudes and politics. Like the dominance of the Green Party Worldview in polite discussions…

    I’m always amazed that what Germany finally did in 2015 is something that for example the Socialist Government of France wouldn’t even have considered to do. Hollande’s government, which signed a bill legalising gay marriage and adoption rights for gay couples, can hardly be said to be right-wing. And yet they wouldn’t even think about doing what Germany did. That alone speaks volumes…


  3. @Thomas

    The Netherlands’ government legalized same-sex marriage and adoption out of their tradition of liberalism and self-determination. Germany didn’t do that, in fact Merkel said she had some “bad feelings” about exactly that and didn’t legalize it.

    But this is no matter of liberalism or not. It’s a matter of common sense, and the lack of such is exactly what has always made Germany what it is.This accounts for the euphoria at the beginning of WWI aswell as for the collective behaviour during the NS-regime and now for the refugee craze. Germany is an open-air psychiatric asylum, and although I hope some insights from foreigners might help, I won’t hold my breath.


  4. Andrew,
    please write this book, we need it desperately. Maybe you’ll be invited to some TV-Shows and finally some politicians (perhaps in the regional government in Duesseldorf, they wouldn’t even paying expenses …) could listen to your insights.


  5. Not to put too fine a point on it, but usually when you throw the doors to a psychiatric asylum open, people try to get out, not in…
    Your historical insight is fantastic though. The next time I get asked about my opinion on the reasons for WW2 I’ll just say that it was a lack of common sense.Love it.


  6. So, we have here an ethnically streamlined country of ~ 130 million, where ~ 0,5-1% of, mostly, single young males drop out of society, reclude themselves, only to roam the home town streets at night, but harm no-one, and do no further damage?

    And they get dissed for it?

    Au contraire, mes amis!

    I applaud, I laud them, and I wish so many, millions, of others would follow their example!

    Because of this mutual tolerance, Japan and the Japanese will still be around in 50, 100 years, when Germany has long been renamed, and Germans will have disappeared from history, except as a faint, and fading, immigrant heritage myth in the USA, and a few other countries of choice.

    That’s how you solve your problems at home, while keeping a redundancy, instead of trying to adapt and streamline yourself to oblivion.

    The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve -through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay- carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities“, and all the rest cited from that book is a perfect description of what the Germans are trying to achieve at this very moment in time – and they will fail. They are not, and never will be, homogeneous enough.

    Y’see, olde Adolphe sure knew what he was doing, when he called the Japanese “Honorary Aryans” – namely covering up the fact that it was exactly the other way round; the Germans he was trying to rule were an attempt at being Honorary Japanese, as opposed to the true, but unique, honorable Japanese.



  7. You might call this over-simplified, but as a matter of fact, common sense as a mere concept has always been criticized throughout the intellectual history. The main starting point for that is Martin Luther, whose main idea was that man could only achieve salvation sola fide, through faith alone, i.e. that believing in something had more importance than reflecting or acting upon it.
    It’s not astonishing that this seed has led to a philosophy that rejects common sense:

    Der Deutsche Idealismus ist kein Freund des gesunden Menschenverstandes. Fichte und Schelling, vor allem aber Hegel äußern sich überaus ablehnend. Der gesunde Menschenverstand gebe nur triviale Wahrheiten zum Besten. Hegel identifiziert die Ausdrücke „Eingebung, Offenbarung des Herzens, … gesunder Menschenverstand, common sense, Gemeinsinn“ und sieht darin eine Abneigung der Vernunft gegen sich selbst (Misologie).

    Noch polemischer urteilt Karl Marx: Der gesunde Menschenverstand sei eine Form historischer Dummheit und ein Instrument der herrschenden Klasse.

    Auch Arthur Schopenhauer und Friedrich Nietzsche äußern sich ablehnend
    ( )

    So, yes, indeed, Germany is a place where common sense is if not non-existent, yet declared as non-relevant or futile, and the tendency of the German nation to Gleichschaltung, i.e. the inconscious insertion into the mainstream, even if it’s characterized by nothing else but hysteria, is exactly a consequence of this.


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