Hikikomori… A Western perspective on Asia Missing Millions

Hikikomori... A Western perspective on Asia Missing Millions

They don’t go out. They don’t speak or interact with others. They are similar but not identical to agoraphobics. They are hikikomori.

They don’t attend school. They don’t have a job. They don’t go out. They don’t speak, see or attempt to interact with others except to take the meals left outside their bedroom door by worried mothers. They are hikikomori, and they exist to the world beyond their bedroom door merely as an unreliable statistic; it’s believed that these young people – mostly male – represent 1 per cent of the entire Japanese population, although for various cultural and social reasons those who are counted probably show only a small portion of Japan’s shut-in youth.

Photo: Schmetterling Nihonjin

But why has this currently exclusively Eastern phenemenon come about, and how does modern, industrialised culture specifically seem to facilitate it as a feasible – if unhealthy – life option?

First, we must define what hikikomori is: the word is used to refer both to the condition generally and to a specific sufferer as well as a descriptor, similar in that to the word ‘alcoholic’ in typical Western language. Hikikomori means in literal translation ‘shut in’ – a person who, for whatever reason, has decided to disengage totally from society. The phrase was coined by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito, who defines the condition as “a state that has become a problem by the late twenties, that involves cooping oneself up in one’s own home and not participating in society for six months or longer, but that does not seem to have another psychological problem as its principal source.” Often, however, hikikomori can develop their symptoms as young as fourteen or fifteen, and can continue for an entire lifetime if facilitated.

Photo: World of Japan

Similar, but not identical, conditions in the Western sphere include agoraphobia; however, hikikomori is notable in that sufferers can and do leave the house under certain circumstances – to buy foodstuffs, for example, or to visit a certain shop once a month. They are often painfully shy, socially inept and loathe to interact with other human beings in face-to-face encounters.

Why does this occur? How can this continue to occur? Why is so little done about it?

Credit: Nekoguchi

The answer perhaps lies in the foundations of Japanese society, particularly in cultural concepts of reality and the individual as part of a whole. Honne and tatamae are social concepts innate to Japanese life; honne being a referal to a person’s true emotions and opinions, which are expected as such to be kept hidden, and tatamae, literally translating as the ‘façade’, the behaviour and feelings one appears under in the majority of public situations. Psychologists argue that the dichotomy of current youth facing this split and finding themselves unable to reconcile it with themselves as a person can be a contributing factor to the mental state associated with hikikomori.

The importance of conformity, or wa, is incredibly high in Japan, where those beyond the norm are ostracised; the schooling system is notoriously pressurised, with ranking systems deeming students failures or successess based on academic prowess. In South Korea, an Asian country that has reported similar instances of the phenemona, hagwons, or private after-school schools that focus in depth on particular topic areas such as Maths or English Language, have recently been subject to legislation forbidding them to continue after eleven o’clock in the evening – brought into law after it was discovered overworked students were frequently being kept at these elite tutoring sessions until the early hours of the morning. In systems such as this, some reject the pressure for achievement by simply opting out of the education and work ethic society stands for entirely – coined in the UK by the phrase ‘school refusals’.

Photo: James Whitlow Delano

In a society with the highest suicide rate in young males in a developed country that does not allow for social, academic or personal failure, and in which severe bullying is encouraged in the case of outsiders, acute social withdrawal may arguably be seen as an unsurprising output. Often, hikikomori claim the failure of an entrance exam, a period of severe bullying, or social rejection as the trigger leading to their desire to remain reclused. In every society, adjustment disorders have outlets in the form of rebellious subcultures – such as the Punk movement of early Sixties Britain. Not so in Japan, leaving disengagement, in some eyes, the only available option.

Society itself engenders and facilitates the issue: the development of technology and the Internet mean isolation is not total, whilst 24/7 convenience stores mean hikikomori can provide for themselves at unsociable hours of the night, therefore avoiding conversation. Vending machines are widely present on the general streets. Hikikomori can buy snacks and drinks without ever having to encounter another human face. Japanese societal views – that the family is responsible for a hikikomori’s welfare, and the shame associated with seeking assistance – mean they do not react as Western societies might. Whilst a British family might contact a psychiatrist, Japanese parents will go to great lengths to hide the extent of the disorder from non-family members. This links back to the lack of progression in the mental health sector, which in certain parts of Asia is arguably half a century behind America. Mothers expect children, particularly sons, to be dependent on their parents into their thirties or forties, perhaps even living in the home without contributing, as a ‘parasite single’; the mother-son relationship is notably held so dear that mothers will often inadvertently assist hikikomori in their lifestyle – by leaving meals at the bedroom door, for example.

Cases of violence in hikikomori are extremely rare, but some minority cases – where hikikomori have attacked parents, for example – have sparked widespread fear in a country with traditionally notably low violent crime rates among young people when compared to Europe. Fear of what is essentially an unknown condition – due to lack of open discussion about the topic – and a welfare system that fails to recognise the entirety of the psychological issues hikikomori face – leads to very little help for these tragically lonely shut-ins.

Hikikomori are, however, capable of recovery. New Start NPO is a program which aims to help reintroduce hikikomori into recovery and the outside world, finding them dormitories to stay in and jobs to take. Relapse into the condition is common, like any kind of illness. Hikikomori are often depicted as anti-social, obsessive freaks, but perhaps the most poignant thing of all is that they no longer have the courage to speak up in their defence.

Behind the bedroom doors of Asia’s Missing Million, everything seems silent.

If you’re interested in finding out more, read Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger. It offers a very vivid look at hikikomori, in addition to some other social issues of Japan.