Art: What is it good for?

 

Tatsuhiro Satou surrounded by his contemporaries (calling them friends would be too much).

Recently, I’ve been reading a Japanese comic book series called NHK ni Youkoso, or Welcome to the NHK (thank you Evil_Genius). The main character, Tatsuhiro Satou, is what is called in Japan a hikikomori, which is essentially a person who has withdrawn from the rest of society. The term can be glossed as “social withdrawal.” Hikikomori are shut-ins who not only refuse to venture out of their houses, they also refuse to leave their rooms. Most live with their parents or other family, who support their recalcitrant sons (and hikikomori are mostly young men, often the eldest son). “Hikikoomori” is not an absolute category, but rather a catch-all term encompassing many young men who are socially withdrawn to varying degrees. In fact, it seems to be a culture-bound syndrome unique to Japan, in the same way that anorexia is mostly confined to “Western” societies. For more on this, see this article from The New York Times.

The existence of hikikomori has been treated as a crisis in Japan, but no one seems to be entirely sure what it is a crisis of. Are hikikomori men who have lost faith in Japan Inc.? Are they “social parasites” leeching off their suffering parents? In the comic book itself, the reason given for Satou’s social withdrawal is unsatisfactory, and in fact the psychological motivations behind becoming hikokomori are inadequately explained. There are many commentators who are willing to give their own opinions on the appearance of hikokomori. Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki Murakami), for example, discusses some of the emic or insider views of the hikikomori phenomenon from a certain Japanese perspective.

It’s all very well and good to say that Japanese culture contains within it the potential for social withdrawal, but I think the hikikomori phenomenon is a historically contingent one. I don’t think the hikikomori could have appeared at any time other than now. Certainly, anomie has long been recognized as one of the effects of modern industrialized life. Hikomori are like Grigor Samsa, the gray everyman who ate, slept, and worked every gray day of his gray life, and who eventually turned into a twisted version of himself, or rather became the person he really was, and was supported by his family until his death, “And thank God for that!” as his father said.

But hikikomori and Grigor Samsa are different in several ways. Hikikomori obviously don’t turn into vermin, though they’re certainly spoken of that way by a lot of people. More to the point, Grigor Samsa turned into a bug because that was what he already was — living to work, eating, sleeping, and sacrificing just to work some more. Doesn’t that sound more like a worker ant’s life than a human being’s? Industrialism and the wage labour system transform people into insects, reducing them to brute labour and ignoring the many ways that they are unique. However, hikomori, unlike Grigor Samsa, refuse to participate in this system in the first place, or perhaps it is better to say that they are unable to participate.

Hikikomori could have only appeared now because it is only now that Japan has slowed its industrial growth. Industrial growth is not infinite, cannot be infinite, but that is not how it is presented in the rhetoric of capitalism. Onwards! Upwards! To the stars! The increasing penetration of the popular media and the greater sophistication of its mesmerizing consumerist promises are the propaganda for this ideology. But where is this golden land of plenty to be found? Not in Japan today. Faced with a world where the dazzling promises of consumerist capitalism can never be realized, where people are taught to desire what can never exist, is it any wonder when so many refuse to become the bugs they were destined to be? “I never signed up for this” might be the motto of the hikikomori, could they but articulate the malaise they feel.

I think it’s telling that hikomori are mostly young men, because for men, in many ways a loss of power is also a loss of masculinity. Men are supposed to be powerful, but how can one accept a world where one has no power and therefore one is not a man? Japanese women, on the other hand, already live in a world where power belongs to other people. Furthermore, while Japanese parents might gladly support a son they see as suffering through a phase in their development, would they accept as easily a daughter who did nothing all day but eat, sleep, and watch tv?

There is an incident in Welcome to the NHK which I find rather interesting. Satou, the main character, meets by chance a former high school classmate on the street. She invites him to join what is apparently some kind of motivational group, but which turns out to be a pyramid scheme. Not having been born yesterday, Satou tells her that he’s seen through her plan to recruit the idiot classmate she met on the street just to meet her quota. She snaps and tells him that yes, she was planning to squeeze him for money. She had been working for tuition money since graduating from high school, but had it all squeezed out of her by people above her. She asks Satou,

How do you feel about being socially withdrawn for the rest of your life? I know you understand . . . in the end this world boils down to those who take and those who are taken, a zero-sum game! You’re being used by everyone. Your unemployment and withdrawal from society is a result of the demands of society! It’s because society needs people to look down on. You’re smart . . . you should have noticed the ridicule of the people around you. Society’s gears are greased by the existence of slaves . . . But you’re different! You want to take such corrupt relationships and turn them into money! This time, we will be on the squeezing side!!

Certainly it’s a bleak philosophy, but what stands out for me is that this statement is a rejection of the ideology of modernity. Progress? Development? Sentimental hooey. Society cannot be improved, it can only be exploited. Though she reject’s the propaganda of capitalist modernism, Satou’s classmate has learned its ultimate lesson: what is valuable is what is profitable, and to hell with everyone who gets in the way.

The above is not an isolated incident. Welcome to the NHK‘s characters are very aware of their exact role in Japanese society. They even state it explicitly: confronting Satou for his unproductivity and petty theft of food, his business partner tells him, “In a capitalist country, money is the ultimate value! You’re not going to end this with a simple ‘I’m broke’. On the other hand, when you turn a profit, anything is permitted! What a wonderful world!!” This is telling when one considers that neither Satou nor his business partner actually have money. If money indexes value in a capitalist society, then those who don’t have it are worthless.

It is, in fact, their marginality that the comic’s characters are always conscious of. Welcome to the NHK is about the people who reject mainstream Japanese society. The main character, Satou, has isolated himself entirely from other people. His former classmate, Iincho, is the one who has given herself over to the pursuit of profit. His other schoolmate, who he calls Senpai (upperclassman), is depressed, harbours suicidal thoughts, and medicates herself constantly to allay the effects of the sexism, jealousy, and utter grinding work she experiences at her job. His stalker/female friend, Misaki, apparently dropped out of high school because of bullying. Finally, his business partner, Yamazaki, has given himself over to the pursuit of representations of underage pornography (see Sharon Kinsella’s analysis of Japanese “cute” as a rejection of adulthood and Japanese society in general).

So is Welcome to the NHK is a critique of Japanese society? Not as such. It’s not really a drama per se, it’s actually more of a zany comedy: Look at the antics Satou gets into this week! Humour, of course, can give biting critiques of the society it (p)resents. However, being humour, what it shows can just be waved off as a joke. Further, look at the picture above. Satou is the guy in the centre wearing the “H”, but notice that he’s surrounded by other people. This is mirrored by the comic’s plots, where Satou is always getting into trouble with some person or another. For a shut-in, Satou seems to have a lot of friends.

That is perhaps my greatest criticism of the comic. While it explores different rejections of Japanese modernity, it doesn’t go far enough in examining them. The pain that the characters feel is masked behind the hijinks they get into. Too much happens for anyone to stop and think about what exactly is going on. Even suicide attempts are presented comically and actually manage not to seem grim and depressing. Being a hikokomori actually looks like fun, judging from Satou’s experience at any rate.

However, Welcome to the NHK is a fascinating peek into how some Japanese see themselves and their own native Others. What is it to be young and Japanese today? More importantly, what is it to be young and Japanese, and yet not Japanese at the same time? How does it feel to be on the outside looking in? Welcome to the NHK‘s answer, though unsatisfactory, at least confronts these questions.