Monday, October 22, 2007

The Age of Fear

A newspaper story in The New York Times caught my attention this weekend. Published in print on Friday, October 19th, this story shines light on the age of fear, and in particular the relationship between this concept and contemporary young adult literature.

Basically, the above report explains how Japanese
clothing designers are exploring new ways of creating outer wear that enables people to camouflage themselves in the event that they feel threatened by a perceived criminal. According to the report, these "elaborate defenses are coming at a time when crime rates are actually declining in Japan." However, according to the same report, the Japanese say "they feel growing anxiety about safety, fanned by sensationalist news media."

Like suicide rates, crime rates in Japan have increased significantly over the last decade or so. More recently, there has been a modest decline, mirroring declines that have been reported in the United States in recent years. Tracking crime and generating crime rates is a complicated endeavor; there are multiple kinds of crime, and numerous ways of generating statistics. I'll leave it to the criminologists to debate the exact specifics. What appears clear is that people today are highly sensitive to crime, perhaps because it is such a persistent problem, perhaps because the types of crimes committed and the reporting about them are so much more extreme than in the past, perhaps because significant populations of baby boomers are aging and therefore becoming more sensitive to crime in both the United States and Japan (according to more than one report, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world).

This rising tide of anxiety and fear that The New York Times is reporting (and taking advantage of or generating) is well represented in contemporary young adult literature. The novel Surrender, in particular, traces the contours of a fear of crime, and its impact on a community. Other novels look at fears having to do with cultural differences (American Born Chinese and The Trap), child abuse (The Rules of Survival), and war (Nightrise and Color of the Sea). Even though young adult writers are targeting a younger audience of readers than baby boomers, they appear to have a fascination with fear and the perception of fear, examining both causes and potential solutions to them.

As I have previously written, it is interesting that Japan is a country that is getting some attention these days, both in the press and in contemporary young adult literature, in relationship to this theme of fear. Its hard to say why this is happening; what we can infer from The New York Times article above is that the Japanese tend to have approaches to solving problems that are different from conventional American or Western approaches. So maybe Japan is getting attention because it provides readers and writers in the United States with creative and outside-of-the-box ways of thinking through persistent problems and their causes and solutions. And maybe this is why literature, too, is such a good resource for thinking about the contemporary world--it also provides a forum for entertaining ideas and concepts that might be hard to explore or give attention to in policy briefs or other nonfiction genres of writing and speaking.

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