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January 22, 2007

What can we learn from Japan?

I listened to a segment on Chicago Public Radio Jan. 16 about disturbing social trends in Japan, some of which stem from Japan's economic collapse in the early 1990s.

Michael Zielenziger, an American journalist who worked in Japan for eight years, and who wrote Shutting Out the Sun, a book about these trends, spoke about Japan’s high suicide rate (the highest of all industrialized countries), growth in untreated cases of depression, young people committing group suicide together, and “fine art” of bullying, which he said is deeply embedded in Japanese society.

Zielenziger described one young man who was bullied when he was in 6th grade, his classmates suddenly refusing to talk to him for reasons he could not explain. As the bullying/isolation continued, he became so traumatized that he quit school and stayed in his room for one year. When he finally got the courage to return to school, the mistreatment resumed. No longer able to cope, he quit school again and sat in his room for more than a decade.

Today there are more than 1 million young Japanese men who shut themselves in their rooms, withdrawn from society, called hikikomori. Many hikikomori are so afraid of the outside world that they isolate themselves for years, suffering from “social isolation syndrome,” a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, Zielenziger explained. The problem is not limited to men, though. There is a growing number of “parasite singles,” single women who refuse to leave home, marry or bear children.

Zielenziger said bullying in Japan occurs for a number of reasons, like failing a school entrance exam, being seen in public going to a clinic, or having a minor conflict with someone. In Japan it’s important to keep up appearances and to maintain a sense of pride. Ironically, the Japanese rarely discuss the topic of hikikomori because it would be impolite to do so.

How sad that so many Japanese needlessly suffer, resorting to suicide as a way to escape their pain. It’s also sad that they stigmatize getting psychiatric or psychological help (something Americans do, too). Although the hikikomori phenomenon seems limited to Japan, isolationism runs rampant around the globe.

Learning about all of this has me wondering how we, as a church, can better reach out to those who are suffering. How can we overcome stigmas? How can we stand up for those who are isolated, bullied or unjustly treated? Please feel free to share your comments below.

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