I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 2018, a Japanese government survey found there were about 613,000 people in the country who had withdrawn from society and lived isolated lives alone. In 2019, the estimate was 1.15 million. Professor Saitō Tamaki, who studies the phenomenon, warns this number could rise to 10 million.
It’s called hikikomori and afflicts mostly men with 76 percent being between the ages of 15 and 64, and almost half of them say they have lived as recluses for at least seven years. They don’t work, study, or socialize and rely on their parents for support.
Causes of Withdrawal
Writing in The New York Times, Maggie Jones explains that “hikikomori is a culture-bound syndrome that thrives in one particular country during a particular moment in its history.”
The word hikikomori is a noun that describes the affliction as well as a person who has it. Those who exhibit the behaviour are about 80 percent male, some as young as 13, and may withdraw from their families, friends, and society in general for 15 or more years.
Phil Rees of the BBC wrote about the condition. He says, “The trigger is usually an event at school, such as bullying, an exam failure, or a broken romance.”
He goes on to describe one such case of a 17-year-old he called Yoshiko, not his real name. One day the young man shut himself in the family kitchen and refused to let anyone in. His parents had to create a makeshift kitchen and left his meals outside the door three times a day.
Yoshiko has access to a toilet and only bathes once every six months. His life as a hermit began when “a classmate taunted him with anonymous hate letters and scrawled abusive graffiti about him in the schoolyard.”
Journalist Masaki Ikegami has been writing about the hikikomori for a couple of decades. He says “The structure of Japanese society makes it difficult for people to get back on the rails once they have come off them. I think the majority of hikikomori are people who have had difficulty in their working life and have been scarred by their human relationships there.”
How Shutaways Spend Their Time
In his 2006 book Shutting Out the Sun Michael Zielenziger writes that the hikikomori “are as frightened as small children abandoned in a dark forest. Some spend their days playing video games. A few - an estimated 10 percent - surf the Internet. Many just pace, read books, or drink beer and shochu, a Japanese form of vodka. Others do nothing for weeks at a time.”
But, sometimes, hikikomori emerge from the self-imposed seclusion and act out violently. Phil Rees of the BBC reported that, “a 17 year old hikikomori sufferer left his isolation and hijacked a bus, killing a passenger. Another kidnapped a girl and held her captive in his bedroom for nine years.”
Many parents report that their withdrawn children occasionally assault them.
However, those who study the phenomenon, say there is no inherent connection between being a voluntary shut-in and violence or criminality.
Diagnosis of Hikikomori
Michael Zielenziger says that the standard manual for diagnosing mental disorders the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM IV is not much use to clinicians. Zielenziger notes that “their symptoms cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric ailment.”
After interviewing many hikikomori he came to the conclusion that the condition has some similarities to post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the phenomenon is an almost exclusively Japanese one, it seems the structure of the society itself plays a role.
Dr. Henry Grubb is a clinical psychologist at Maryland University and he’s studied hikikomori. In an interview, he noted that post-war family life in Japan involved a father who worked very long hours and rarely saw his children. This “stopped the father interacting with his child … and left the mother to cope with one child. Another issue … is that because of this one-child family, the child lacks the socialization of the group at home.”
This effect of Japanese social mores is echoed somewhat by James Roberson, a cultural anthropologist at Tokyo Jogakkan College. He is quoted by The New York Times as saying “Men start to feel the pressure in junior high school, and their success is largely defined in a couple of years. Hikikomori is a resistance to that pressure. Some of them are saying: ‘To hell with it. I don’t like it and I won’t do well.’ ”
Maika Elan has worked with hikikomori people and finds they operate in a negative feedback loop. The longer they remain in self-imposed seclusion the more their self esteem leaks away, making it increasingly frightening for them to leave their rooms where they can avoid any more painful experiences.
Professor Saitō Tamaki at Tsukuba University studies social withdrawal. He says the families of hikikomori are sometimes complicit in the behaviour: “When people realize that they have become hikikomori, they know that society will think less of them, and they then fear that. The family thinks the same way. When they realize that their child doesn’t leave the house and doesn’t work, they try to hide them from society.”
Helping the Hikikomori
A program called New Start works to integrate the social recluses back into society. Founder Futagami Noki explains in an article in The Japan Journal that he uses many retired people to mentor the young who have withdrawn from society.
The plan is to use the expertise of retired business people to set up commercial operations that employ recovering hikikomori.
In 2018, National Geographic wrote about Oguri Ayako, a social worker who tries to draw the reclusive men out of their isolation. It’s a long process that starts with writing letters that are slid under the door of the subject’s room. Then, come phone calls and talking through the door.
If she eventually gets access to the room she tries to persuade the hikikomori to move to a New Start dormitory so the re-socialization program can start. Eventually, the goal is employment and a normal life.
- Japan is facing what it calls the “8050 problem.” This is because thousands of hikikomori in their 50s are being looked after by parents in their 80s who will soon die leaving their children as burdens on the state.
- Some suggest that hikikomori is a reaction to karoshi, which is death by overwork. It’s common for many Japanese people to work 100 hours a week, a schedule that kills some of them. Because surface appearances matter greatly in Japanese society, hikikomori may be a muted protest against karoshi.
- A list of famous recluses includes: J.D. Sallinger, Emily Bronte, Greta Garbo, Harper Lee, Howard Hughes, and Glenn Gould.
- “Pictures Reveal the Isolated Lives of Japan’s Social Recluses.” Laurence Butet-Roch, National Geographic, February 14, 2018.
- “The Prison Inside: Japan’s Hikikomori Lack Relationships, not Physical Spaces.” Andrew McKirdy, Japan Times, June 1, 2019.
- “Japan: The Missing Million.” Phil Rees, BBC News, October 20, 2002.
- “Shutting Out the Sun.” Michael Zielenziger, Nan A. Talese, September 2006.
- “Hikikomori Violence.” Phil Rees, BBC News, October 18, 2002.
- “Transcript of Interview with Dr. Henry Grubb.” BBC News, October 20, 2002.
- “Second Lives.” Tony McNicol, The Japan Journal, June 2006.
- “Shutting Themselves In.” Maggie Jones, New York Times, January 15, 2006.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor