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  • Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose
  • Daniel A. Metraux
Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose. By John Nathan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Immediately after my return from an eight-day visit to Japan in late March 2004, I happened upon a long article in the New York Times (March 27, 2004, p. A4) featuring Hitomi Kanehara, a twenty-year-old author of a novel about her post-bubble generation. Her portrait of a radically changing society in Japan reflects what I learned from two dozen interviews with Japanese friends and colleagues over the course of my visit.

The Times article praised Kanehara for the portrait of young people in Japan since the 1990 collapse of Japan's "bubble economy" of the 1970s and 1980s:

It is a world of "freeters," young Japanese surviving on part-time jobs and unconcerned with their future; of unsentimental sex and a profound inability to communicate verbally; a world in which a killing is viewed with amorality. The institutions that built postwar Japan—the family, school and companies—are noticeable by their absence. In a nation known for its social cohesion, the characters have no interest in playing a role in society, but only in finding personal satisfaction among themselves. Unlike Japanese in, say, their 30s, the characters in the novel are not disillusioned at Japanese society, since they had few expectations to begin with. "There are many people who don't expect anything from society," Ms. Kanehara says. "That's precisely why they are looking inward or to people [End Page 678] closest to them. I never knew the bubble era, so my way of looking at things can't help being different. Since I was born, I've never experienced a time of prosperity. Without my being aware, it's possible that my writing reflects the era."

The Japan that I observed ever so briefly in March 2004 after a four-year absence is a society that is undergoing revolutionary changes in values and behavior in every sphere of life from education and popular culture to business and government. The result is a process that is radically changing the Japanese cultural landscape, making it a place vastly different from its traditional and even recent past.

This view of Japan is carefully chronicled in John Nathan's most recent work, Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose. Nathan, the Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of highly praised books on Mishima Yukio and Sony, explores many facets of contemporary Japanese society ranging from education and families to business, politics, and foreign relations.

Nathan analyzes a nation experiencing dramatic change as Japan moves away from many of its traditional values toward a very uncertain future. A long and demeaning recession has weakened the foundations of the traditional family system and has contributed to the rapid rise of divorce and an increase in the physical abuse of children by their families. The recession has contributed to the weakening of the bond between Japan's corporations and their employees, who are losing their right to lifetime employment. More and more Japanese are growing skeptical of their nation's dependant relationship of over a half-century with the United States, and nationalistic and xenophobic books are climbing up the best-seller list.

One matter that Nathan discusses brilliantly is the traumatic breakdown of order and cohesion in Japan's primary and secondary schools and the increasingly rebellious nature of Japanese youth. He writes about riotous conditions in classrooms in a country once famous for respectful children. His best chapter depicts chaos in the classroom, where teachers across the country have simply lost control of their students. Disruptive students rule the roost, bringing intolerable disorder and engaging in physical attacks on other students as well as teachers and administrators. Nathan writes:

Classroom breakdown is only part of a larger crisis of anger and withdrawal that has bewildered parents and educators. . . . In the United States, suspension is a legal option; in Japan suspension and expulsion are taboo under any circumstances. Promotion is based...


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