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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Nerd culture, as it's known in Japan, has opened up new business opportunities. And as Louisa Lim mentioned just a few minutes ago, it has also opened up an avenue of expression for Japanese young people who aren't happy with traditional society. But there is a much darker side to that unease. Many young people have become hermits, retreating into worlds that consist of little more than their bedrooms, and that's difficult for families.

Mr. MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER (Author, Shutting Out the Sun): They don't have Oprah Winfrey, they don't have Dr. Phil. It's much more difficult for Japanese to discuss these problems, and in small town Japan, there are families where the son or daughter has shut themselves in his room for years at a time, and because of the social press of the outside world, what the Japanese call (foreign language), the keeping up appearances, as we might call it, the mother or father is too ashamed to go to a local health clinic and say you know, I'm having this trouble with my son. Can you help? To be seen going into a doctor's office would trigger all kinds of malicious gossip that can paralyze a parent.

NORRIS: That's Michael Zielenziger, author of a book called “Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation,” and he's talking about young people known as hikikomori. They're mostly young and male, and they number, he says, over a million. Worried that they don't measure up to society's expectations, they lock themselves away in their rooms in their parents' houses.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Many of them actually reverse day and night. They get up in the evening and go to bed in the morning. If they go out, it's in the middle of the night. I describe one young man who rides his bicycle at 2:00 in the morning to work off his adolescent energy.

They do a variety of things. Only a few of them, about 10 percent, surf the Internet. Most read books, drink. One boy paces his room staring at a 10,000 yen note - a variety of activities, mostly about being along with their thoughts. But they can occasionally turn violent. Hikikomori are probably the major source of domestic violence in Japan.

NORRIS: Violence against their parents.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Correct. In America, when we think of domestic violence, we think of child abuse or wife beating, but a Japanese therapist's first default analysis is that domestic violence is when a 22-year-old hikikomori beats up his mother with a baseball bat.

These are usually young men who are different, who have been subjected to terrible bullying in school, or they've been shut out by classmates or have failed an entrance examination. I would argue that in American society, Steve Wozniak would have been a hikikomori. These are very creative, very self-aware young adults. They want to be different than their parents and different from their peers, but Japan is so collectively engineered that it's very difficult, if not impossible, for them to really express themselves.

NORRIS: Now you mentioned Steve Wozniak. You're talking about the computer guru.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: The man who changed the world, really, by helping to create the personal computer revolution, who will tell you that he was a nerd in grade school and very unpopular with his classmates.

NORRIS: You could probably say the same of Bill Gates.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Exactly. But in our society, they found another way to express themselves and be different, and we want to encourage difference among our children in America today. In Japan, this is still very tough. Those who are different end up having to stay in their rooms or fleeing.

NORRIS: Now looking at this from an American point of view, it might be difficult to understand. There's one young man you talk about in particular who stays in his room for months at a time, and he finally emerges and speaks to his mother, the first conversation they've had in a long time, and he says I never see dad. And she says it's because he's gone when you wake up, and you're already asleep by the time he comes home, and he says I don't want any part of that, and he goes back in his room again for months.

How is that different from the sons of people who work in steel mills and coal mines and factories or even the sons of executives who seem to work around the clock. What's the difference?

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Well, this is definitely a disease born of prosperity. In fact, a standard response I get from elderly Japanese is that these young adults are parasitic. They are lazy and indifferent and are just trying to wangle the next meal out of their folks. What I was surprised is how many of them, when you actually sit and talk to them, have a very detailed critique of Japanese society and really feel like they want to be different but find no place.

The reason I think they can be very successful is that the Japanese who do leave, the hikikomori who go to Thailand or go to Vancouver or go to New York suddenly discover a very different world.

I tell a story about one hikikomori who went to Thailand and sat on a bus that was supposed to leave at 11:00. And it was 11:05, and the bus didn't leave. It was 11:10, the bus didn't leave. And the kid began to say to himself you know, I could live in a country like this that's a little bit more relaxed.

Because if you've been in Japan, you know that the 10:58 bullet train leaves at 10:57 and 48 seconds, and if you're not on it, you're dead meat.

NORRIS: Now you've been talking about the hikikomori, the men. You note that the malaise that is experienced throughout the country is also evident among the women, the women who refuse to marry, large numbers of women who stay at home, live with their parents well into their 40s, and there is a most unfortunate label attached to these women.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: That's parasito. It's a little bit unfair to the women because again, like the hikikomori, I argue that these parasite singles are doing what's logically in their best interest. They don't need a husband anymore, and they certainly don't want a husband that won't share in child rearing. Today's Japanese woman can have a full time job, get a nice salary and fly off to Paris or London or New York every year to go shopping - much rather do that than marry a man, be forced to stay home, raise the single child and basically never see her husband.

NORRIS: These women are called parasite singles.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Right, parasite singles because they take their salary. They don't add to the society by making babies, and they live often with their parents until their mid-30s. Fifty percent of educated women in Tokyo age 35 have never been married. And so they've abandoned it. And the parasito, the parasite status, is the notion that instead of having a family and buying refrigerators and putting my kid through college, I'm going to buy a Louis Vuitton purse.

And this is a problem. You know, Japan went from a society in which marriages were arranged to a society where men and women believe in this love marriage that they learned about from Hollywood movies and TV. But Japanese society is so, in a sense, rigid and inflexible that in the open market, so to speak, it's very hard for men and women to meet because they live in different worlds.

NORRIS: So these women who are rebelling against cultural norms and expectations, they're engaged in something that you call a womb strike.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Right.

NORRIS: They're refusing to have children.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Right. Japanese fertility rate is now 1.2. In 2020, one of every nine Japanese will be over the age of 80. That's going to make South Florida look like a youth hostel. This is a terrible burden for a country that's getting very old very quickly and where the workforce is collapsing. And en masse, women are saying no. I don't want to be a part of a society that imprisons me.

NORRIS: So if there were an individual or an institution that would step forward and try to address these problems, who or what would it be?

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Well, the state of mental health care in Japan is very much behind the curve. I expect that foreigners are going to have to work with the Japanese to kind of deal with some of these - the agencies in Japan that would do it would be the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry, to start. But bureaucrats, like bureaucrats in any country, are very resistant to change, very risk averse. So it's very hard to get them to get them to focus on it. It took a long time for the Japanese government to acknowledge that there was a suicide problem, even though 30,000 adults, mostly men, are taking their lives.

So there isn't one thing that has to be done, there are a number of things that have to be done, and it's not clear who's going to lead the charge unless there's actually real conversation.

NORRIS: Michael, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. ZIELENZIGER: Thanks so much.

NORRIS: Michael Zielenziger's book is called “Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation,” and you can read an excerpt at our Web site, NPR.org.

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