Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

Why does Japan drive some to remain secluded their entire lives? A look at Japan's "shut-ins" - and how professionals and volunteers are trying to help re-integrate them back into society. (Picture: Ushico / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Hikikomori: Is There a Path Forward for Japan's Social Recluses?

Essay   Posted on February 04, 2019 in mental health, psychology, society, culture • By Krys Suzuki • Read Related Articles

In Japan, where there is a strong focus on social status and career success, there is an equal amount of pressure and intimidation faced by the general society on how exactly to meet these overwhelming expectations. What happens to the ones who feel they can never measure up? What if you just don’t want to travel the path that your family (and society) has already laid out for you?

The unfortunate fact is that for many people who feel like they cannot do anything, end up doing just that. Nothing. And this is what has resulted in one of the most heartbreaking social phenomenon facing Japanese society today.

The Shut-In Phenomenon of Japan

According to a survey released by the government of Japan, nearly half a million young people have withdrawn from society in a phenomenon called hikikomori (引きこもり), or "shut-in." They lead reclusive lives, spent predominantly in their own bedroom in their family’s home.

The term hikikomori is defined by the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as those who "have not left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months." It surfaced as a phenomenon in Japan between the mid-1980s to 1990s, affecting mostly young men in their 20s, who locked themselves away from the outside world to focus on their own reclusive activities, such as playing games and reading comics, as an escape from the troubles of the outside world.

What makes this particular situation so severe is that in most cases, it is not just a temporary condition, or a passing phase. In almost all cases, hikikomori outright refuse to go to work and school, and in general cease all social activity with anyone outside of residing family. In some extreme cases, some don’t even talk to their own family, and may never even leave their rooms. They expect their parents to bring a tray of food and leave it outside their door, and come back later to pick it up, thereby removing any family interaction whatsoever.

This condition is believed to build up from pressure felt by young men, and recently young women as well, from as early as junior high school, in which success is largely defined by outside influences, such as parents and teachers. Withdrawing and becoming a hikikomori is, in a way, a resistance to that pressure, their way of rebelling and saying "just screw it." It’s their own voluntary way of protecting themselves from what they see as inevitable failure and social exclusion.

As of 2015, the Japanese census reported an estimated 541,000 people between age 15 and 39 who fit that description, with about 29% living in isolation for three to five years, and about 34% at seven or more. It is also estimated that approximately1.55 million people are on the verge of becoming hikikomori. (This data can be inaccurate, however, as it is difficult to account for every person in this situation as many choose to remain completely unnoticed, and families of hikikomori may not report due to the associated shame).

(JP) Link: What are the Causes of Withdrawal and How to Escape It? Communication with Family and Dealing with Aging

引きこもりの原因ってなに?どうしたら脱出できるの?家族の接し方、高齢化した場合の対応方法を解説します | LITALICO仕事ナビ
ひきこもりとは、仕事や学校に行かず、かつ家族以外の人との交流をほとんどせずに、6ヶ月以上続けて自宅にひきこもっている状態のことです。近年はひきこもった当事者の高齢化も社会問題になっています。この記事では、ひきこもりになる原因や脱出方法、家族の接し方に加えて、高齢化した場合の対応策などにも触れていきます。

Who Becomes a Hikikomori?

While the stresses that bring people to the decision to withdraw do not discriminate and could affect any single person, social withdrawal has been most commonly observed in young-to-middle aged, middle-class men (though the ages in which it is being seen more recently are increasing, as we will discuss below). This gave it the nickname of being a "middle-class problem," the primary reason being that because hikikomori do not leave their home, they usually have no source of income and therefore must rely on that of their parents, something that would be difficult if not impossible to do in a lower-class family.

With the recent developments in technology and availability of remote jobs online, it is not impossible to find hikikomori who live on their own and support themselves via online sources of income, such as programming, freelance work, and even hacking. However, they're still the minority, as hikikomori are generally unemployed and greatly rely on the income of their families. This has lead to the coinage of another term for this group of people, NEET (ニート), an acronym that stands for "Not in Education, Employment, or Training," and Freeter (フリーター), a term that also refers to the unemployed (excluding students and housewives), thereby fortifying the stereotype that the typical hikikomori is not involved in any sort of schooling or job whatsoever.

(JP) Link: Voice of a Hikikomori's Heart

ひきこもり・ニートの心の声

Why Do People Withdraw?

Woman shut up in her room
While most hikikomori are traditionally men, the lifestyle pattern is spreading to women as well. (Picture: Graphs / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

There's no single reason why people decide to withdraw completely from society, though there are common factors observed amongst the lives of those classified as recluses. Some withdraw because they have trouble handling the pressure of school and/or work, while still others feel inadequate against the expectations of society, and just don't know what to do with their lives in order to "fit in." Still others are triggered by very specific events such as a failure at school or work, tragedy, or heartbreak, leading to a depression which makes them unable to cope with daily life anymore.

A common trait seen in hikikomori is a deep sense of shame because they feel they cannot work at a job, maintain good grades, or hold regular friendships and relationships like "ordinary" people, causing them to feel both worthless and hopeless, for both personal reasons as well as regret and shame for failing to live up to their parents' expectations.

At the same time, it isn’t necessarily the case that these people withdraw because they don’t want to engage in society, or because they dislike society. Rather, it is often because they feel they no longer have a choice but to withdraw. Many of them internally wish to be able to interact and go out into the world again, but their inhibitions and internal conflicts hold them back, causing a seemingly endless cycle of wanting to go out, but never actually doing so for fear of what could happen if they do.

These fears can be as extreme as paranoia, as mild as a general fear of failure, or as seemingly insignificant as just not wanting to be seen by people because their lack of self confidence makes them feel as if they are being laughed at or looked down upon, even if that is not necessarily the case. However keep in mind that for many of those who participate in society as a part of the "normal" population, though these reasons may seem so trivial and insignificant, to the person facing them, they are very real and often frightening things.

Tamaki Saito, a leading researcher in the lives of hikikomori, said: "They are tormented in their heads. They want to go out in the world, they want to make friends or lovers, but they can't."

In accordance with this observance, another factor attributed to one of the causes of someone going into seclusion is the strict view of society itself that dictate what a person "should" do, such as graduate school, work at a company, marry and have children, etc. Of course, it is not to be expected that this is the dream lifestyle of every individual, and while most Japanese just grin and bear it for the sake of their social status and image, there are still some who cannot deal with the fact that society has this much control over their lives.

Many people become shut-ins for the very reason that they have something they want to do, but feel like they can’t in the eyes of society. So rather than give up their dream in order to live someone else’s, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer when they’d rather pursue art or music, they retreat in order to pursue their own hobbies at home instead. This is probably one reason why many people identified as hikikomori tend to also be skilled manga artists.

(JP) Link: People Won't Withdraw If Allowed to do What They Like

好きなことさせれば引きこもりにならない 高学歴でも"生きる術"ない人が多い | プレジデントオンライン
家庭や家計のことで悩んだときに、どんな解決策をとればいいのか。評論家の本田健氏とファイナンシャルプランナーの深野康彦氏。2人の達人…

The following article sums up 9 of the most common reasons given to why a person may withdraw from society:

  1. Home environment: A too strict or too neglectful upbringing can make it difficult for a child to learn how to "fit in" to society at a young age, causing struggles as they grow older in interpersonal relationships, leading to anxiety that pushes them to prefer staying home.
  2. Outside environment: A harsh outside environment, including but not limited to bullying, difficulty at school and work, and trouble with friendships and relationships, can lead to anxiety, fear of failure, etc., forcing a person to choose to withdraw to the home where they feel safe.
  3. Personal conditions: Personal conditions such as depression, social anxiety, self-confidence issues, and game addictions, can lead one to choose to stay indoors.
  4. Personality traits: People who tend to be shy, nervous, anxious, or feel "weak" may not feel like they fit into a society that demands they be strong, focused, and successful.
  5. Lack of options: Feeling too confined within the expectations of family/society, they are not free to pursue their own dreams and goals, and feel they have no choice but to conform or shut in, thereby opting for the latter.
  6. Failure: Some may have already experienced a difficult failure in the past, and becoming afraid to repeat that mistake, choose to withdraw.
  7. Trivial matters: Some issues that may seem trivial to others but carry great weight for them, usually for personal reasons. Often, feeling frustrated by others who can’t understand why these issues are so big to them, choose to withdraw because "the world will never understand;" also is the issue of many small things building up and leading to a deeper depression.
  8. Convenience: Some simply suffer from severe lethargy, and having no real motivation to leave the home when they don’t have to (ie, being spoiled by parents and not having to go to work), end up living at home indefinitely. Some who don’t want to go out because they don’t want to be seen by or interact with others may just go out late at night.
  9. No reason at all: Sometimes these feelings, just like depression, seem to hit for no identifiable reason at all. Some may unintentionally develop the bad habit of staying indoors so much to the point that it begins to feel irreversible, as if they’ve gone too deep and can no longer change, despite not having had the intention to become a shut-in in the first place.

(JP) Link: 9 Reasons People Socially Withdraw

引きこもりの原因となる9個の要素とは? | 生活百科
ここを見ている方の中には、実際自分自身が引きこもりであること、もしくは引きこもりになりそうな気がしている方、子供が引きこもりであるという親、などいろいろな立場の方がいると思います。 引きこもりと一言で表すには、実は様々な・・・

The 80-50 Problem

Originally, this was a problem associated with youth and younger Japanese men, for example students and recent graduates. However as time passes, hikikomori is becoming less of a youth problem, and more an issue seen in the aging percentage of the population that sparked the hikokomori phenomenon of the 80s and 90s. A recurring term in the media to show this age range is the "80-50 problem," referring to those hikikomori, now in or around their 50s, whose only means of support are their parents, who are in or around their 80s.

The reason this becomes an issue of even greater concern is because as both the hikikomori and their parent age, their ability to function and be supported diminishes even more. Parents, now retired and unable to work, only receive a pension, and yet must still provide for their 50 year old "children." Hikikomori in this age group are often called out as "pension parasites" for this reason.

And the greater issue is of course the mortality of those supporting parents. In most ordinary Japanese families, it is common for middle-aged children to become the caretakers of their aging parents, however in this case in which the child is unable to even support himself, the aging parents are left with nobody to take care of them in their later years. When it comes time for the elderly parent to pass away, that leaves many newer and greater issues. The hikikomori now loses all support.

Many of them have no way to get back into society. Most of them, having never married and had kids of their own, are now comletely alone with no other family or friends to turn to. In severe cases, when the parent passes away in the home, they may not know how to handle or care for their deceased parent, and unsure where to turn, sometimes just leave the body of the deceased lying in bed to rot. There have been tragic, extreme cases in which the child, unable to handle the death of the parent and not knowing what to do, wastes away side by side the corpse of that parent, until eventually both have passed and the bodies are discovered by the police due to reports from neighbors of the horrible smell.

(JP) Link: The 80-50 Problem and Anxieties Faced By Supporting Parents

「8050問題」支える親に募る不安 |ひきこもりクライシス“100万人”のサバイバル|NHK NEWS WEB
「80代の親と、ひきこもる50代の子どもに象徴される「8050問題」。ひきこもりの長期化、高齢化の問題です。 親の世代も…

More Than A Personal Issue

A recent report from the BBC (in English) on a "rent-a-sister" service (レンタルお姉さん), where families of hikikomori children hire women to befriend them and encourage them to leave their apartments.

One might wonder why an individual's personal choice to withdraw from society is any of our business. As long as we do our part to contribute to society, why should we worry about what others do with their time? But there are good reasons experts are concerned. . Let's look at what issues typically arise from the hikikomori phenomenon, both personal and societal.

Personal Issues

First and foremost, there are many reasons why withdrawal is a greater personal issue than simply the lack of socializing. Overdependence on parents, especially as the parents age and the child no longer has a means to support themselves, is one. Yet another is physical health. As a reclusive lifestyle doesn’t leave much room for exercise, healthy habits, and fresh air, it is quite common for such a person to become ill and unfit. Many are overweight, being sedentary and only eating either whatever their parents leave at the door, or quick foods like instant noodles and convenience store meals. Lack of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, such as vitamin D and C, also result in poor immunity, so it is easy to catch colds and other illnesses just from being so physically weak, and when they do get ill, it is very unlikely that they would be willing to leave the home to see a doctor, allowing the conditions to either grow worse, or just take an excessively long time to heal.

Another is mental health. Lack of social interaction results in not just extreme dependency, but other forms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, and even schizophrenia. Severe reactions can be triggered by the slightest offset such as having to change their routine, or needing to go out.

Lastly are personal issues faced by the family members who are responsible for caring for that "child," usually the parents. Stress related issues, including but not limited to depression, is also common amongst the caretakers. Financial burden is another, as the aging parents must fork over not just part of their income to support the child, but also their pension when they have retired. About 76% of families of hikikomori claim to provide financial assistance to the child, while about 25% of them report it as a heavy financial burden.

And when these parents reach the point that they are no longer able to care for themselves due to old age, with the child also unable to do so, many fall ill and pass away, some prematurely, due to inability to receive proper care, and the piling up of the stress on top of their age and health related issues.

Social/Economic Issues

The issues associated with social withdrawal continue to branch out into the outside world. The growth of the hikikomori population affects more than just the individual and their family, but society as a whole. First of all, having so many otherwise young, capable men who would normally enter the workforce opt out puts a heavy burden on the economy, contributing to a tighter labor market. Along with this, being unable to work on their own, there are also more people relying heavily on government assistance once their parents’ income decreases and is no longer sufficient, which puts the whole economic system out of balance.

As Professor Jeff Kingston of BBC said: "Japan already faces an aging population and massive labor market shortages. There are about one and a half job vacancies per applicant in Japan, the government reported in September— the highest for more than 40 years."

Finally, there is also the issue’s contribution to yet another grave issue, namely that of the declining birth rate. Japan is already seeing all time lows of babies being born, calling for worry about the future about the Japanese population. Having so many young men withdraw from society and choose not to marry or have kids does not help that issue, rather pushes the decline along even further.

Social Stigma Associated With Seeking Help

Unfortunately, Japan’s primitive views of mental health as something shameful rather than a condition to be treated accounts for the reason this issue of social reclusiveness is reaching near-crisis level. There are likely many hikikomori who would otherwise be able to seek help for themselves if it weren’t for the negative views attached to the condition and the stigma against even the associated medical terminology, such as clinical depression and other such mental conditions.

Hikikomori have even been perceived as a potential threat by "average" Japanese citizens, lumping them in with criminals, social burdens and the mentally ill. This makes it difficult for even those who do wish to get help to bother getting help at all, since doing so will still ultimately result in even more criticism and humiliation, the very thing they are trying to avoid by going into seclusion.

(JP) Link: Where is Support for the Hikikomori Issue of the Heisei Period Headed?

平成の社会問題「引きこもり」への支援はどこへ向かうのか
平成最後の年が終ろうとしている。振り返れば、平成は「引きこもり」という言葉が広く認知された時代でもあった。この30年間で、引きこもりへの支援の在り方も大きく変わってきた。「幸せな生き方」を模索する当事者たちの声は大きくなっている。

Help for the Helpless

Despite the aforementioned social stigma and the difficulty with seeking help for socially withdrawn individuals, there are still certain support groups which seek to provide aid and programs set in place to assist individuals in coming out of their shut-in lifestyles.

Volunteer Groups and Rental Sisters

Certain volunteer groups have been established as a way to help coax hikikomori out of their reclusive lifestyles and back into society. One such program is called New Start, which aims to get hikikomori to attend community centers, establish work experience, and learn or relearn how to socialize.

New Start also holds a program known as "Rental Sister," in which females volunteer to visit homes of hikikomori to attempt to open them up to conversation, and ease them back into socializing. It is estimated to take approximately one to two years to coax a hikikomori out of their rooms, and usually initiated by the parents of the child, can cost around $8,000. However considering the financial burden already placed on these families by supporting the hikikomori, this price may seem well worth it.

The most important thing however is the hope associated with the program. In fact, one specific story tells of a man who had been secluded in his room for 7 years ended up not just successfully transitioning, but even eventually marrying the woman formerly assigned as his rental sister.

(JP) Link: The Power of a Third Party When You Feel Like You Can't Do Anything on Your Own

訪問活動

Hikikomori in Anime

There was even an anime about a similar subject, in which a young girl spends time visiting a young hikikomori who suffers from paranoia and thinks the entire world is a conspiracy against him. Titled Welcome to the NHK, it received positive reviews from many viewers who felt they could understand and sympathize with the character a little more. However, the shows accuracy came into question by actual hikikomori. One such viewer said that while he understood the creator's attempt at fostering a better understanding, ultimately "fiction is fiction," and that the series was way too optimistic in depicting the number of people who'd come to one's aid:

現実には助けてくれる美少女も、理解のある親も、気楽に話せる友達も、頼りになる先輩もいない。無職になると、それまでの交友関係は消える。社会から切り離されて孤独になるのだ。特に、精神的な理由で無職になってしまった場合(僕やNHKにようこその主人公のように)リアルの人間関係を持続するのは極めて難しい。

In reality there are no beautiful women, understanding parents, friends who'll strike up casual conversation, or reliable mentors (senpai) to save you. If you become unemployed, you lose the relationships you've made up until that point. You're separated from society, and become isolated. If, like me and the protagonist in Welcome to the NHK, you become unemployed for mental health reasons, It's incredibly hard to maintain your real human relationships.

(JP) Link: Welcome to the NHK as Viewed by a Real Hikikomori

リアルひきこもりから見た『NHKにようこそ』
最近、NHK受信料の件でごちゃごちゃと世間は騒がしい。 だがそんなもの、テレビを持たぬ無職にはあずかり知らぬ事だ。 そう、この記事は放送局のNHKとはなんの関係もない 『NHKにようこそ』というのは、ひきこもり主人公がなんやかんやリア充するアニメである。な...

Hikikomori Support Newspaper

Also offering support for current and transitioning hikikomori is a special newspaper specifically geared towards such individuals, called the Hikikomori Shimbun (The Shut-In's Newspaper). They feature many articles that provide assistance and support, offer ideas, share others' personal experience, and advertise upcoming social events geared towards transition. You will find several of the articles referenced in this post come from their online paper.

Hikikomori-Friendly Jobs

While a full time job may be a big leap to expect from someone who has spent so much time in seclusion, there are still some who are able to acquire and hold down certain part time jobs with proper training and treatment. Of course, even part-time jobs can be stressful when it comes to interacting with people, but it can be a good way to re-familiarize one with the world, and more flexible to arrange in order to fit into the person’s life. For example, hikikomori can choose to work a slower shift such as the night shift when there aren’t many customers, and stick to more behind-the-scenes jobs, such as shelf stock, or even quiet jobs like a librarian.

There are welfare services available for those considering reentering the workforce, such as employment support, which helps to find and provide a workplace for those who struggle with working in large companies, and focuses on locations that employ supportive staff who have an understanding of the condition.

(JP) Link: A Place to Work and a Place to Belong: Work Transition Confidence Support

協働で作る居場所とはたらく場のあいだ(就労移行支援コンフィデンス)
(文・柳井) 本記事は、「当事者活動が仕事につながる日に向けて」の続編になります。 協働連絡会は、障害者就労移…

Communication is Key

Ultimately it seems that one of the biggest factors contributing to the perceived difficulty hikikomori face when even considering the option to rejoin society is poor communication, or total lack thereof.

It can be difficult to approach the topic of social isolation with both those affected by the condition and their families. Experts say it is important to first establish an environment that ensures "peace of mind" in which all parties feel comfortable expressing themselves, and know they will not be attacked or criticized for their choices. Make sure to avoid trying to convince, persuade, and discuss stereotypical views, which may put more unwanted pressure on the affected party and result in worsening withdrawal. 

With the implementation of support programs, a greater social awareness, and a better understanding and communication about and towards these individuals, a solution to the social issues as well as solace for the affected individuals may not be such a farfetched goal after all.

Other Sources

A psychological ailment called 'hikikomori' is imprisoning 500,000 Japanese people in their homes — and it's more of a threat than ever. https://www.businessinsider.com/hikikomori-worrying-mental-health-problem-traps-japanese-at-home-2018-1

Pictures Reveal the Isolated Lives of Japan’s Social Recluses. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2018/february/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society/

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.

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