The Japanese term Hikikomori refers to a form of social phenomena principally found in Japan. The term — first coined by Saitō Tamaki, a psychiatrist — is used to describe the phenomena of the complete withdrawal of Japanese people from society. The term also generally describes the people suffering from said phenomenon, with an individual that has withdrawn from society for longer than six months at a time is deemed a ‘social recluse’ or Hikikomori. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese government, it is estimated that there are currently more than 1 million Hikikomori living in Japan. From the same survey conducted, the age can range from as low as 15 to as high as 64 years old, with men constituting approximately 76.6% from the survey’s total participants.
This article aims to shed some light on the Hikikomori world, starting with typical reasons as to why people may choose to live such a lifestyle. Furthermore, we take a deeper dive as we explore the reasons as to why this issue cannot be easily overcome, in addition to shedding some light on the current solutions that have been implemented so far.
Why do people become Hikikomori?
Most of the time, the impetus for this change is commonly attributed to a loss of hope in society — in other words, there is a betrayal of one’s trust in society. This stimulus can take many forms: bullying, domestic violence, social pressure, and/or alienation from others. This group of people may have been bullied back in their high school years and attempted to seek help from their teachers, only to be lambasted for not being able to stand up on their own two feet. As students are typically led to believe that teachers will always look out for them, such an event would understandably constitute a source of distress to the affected individual.
To make matters worse, with the world becoming more hypercompetitive in our current age, there are increased expectations and burdens weighing onto children from their respective parents. Amongst the Japanese community, a commonly drilled notion into people’s minds is that they must be the best in their endeavours or risk being unsuccessful in the future. Whilst most of these concerns may be genuine worries of the parents for their child’s future, it is not always easy to communicate these worries to their child. As a result, names may be called, or bouts of anger and frustration may be lashed onto the child in a state of temporary fury.
For adults, this inducement may appear in the form of being fired from their job and simply being unable to secure a new position in the aftermath. They may come to regard their situation as hopeless and unfair, which further supports their notion that society has failed them. Some adult Hikikomori may also feel isolated from society, unwilling to conform, or even repulsed by workplace culture norms in Japan. Hence, they may decide to escape from the pulverising pressure and seek sanctuary within the confines of their room instead. The fact of the matter is that both adolescents and adults possess unique circumstances that led them to this particular lifestyle.
What happens when one becomes a Hikikomori?
Regardless of the causes, the effects are mostly the same. The damage has already been done. The individual would harbour a sense of anger and hatred towards the other party (bullies, parents, teachers, etc.), society, and eventually the world itself. Frightened, they would often retreat into their little haven — their bedroom. For schoolgoing children, this would generally start with them expressing their wish to stop going to school. At first, the parents would generally attempt to dissuade the child from doing so, with eventual reluctant compliance after admitting defeat due to multiple failed attempts at convincing the child otherwise. As a form of solace, the parents would persuade themselves that this is just a temporary phase lasting only a month at most. However, soon, this number becomes two months, six months, one year, five years, and eventually even ten years or more. Some have even admitted to being Hikikomori for more than three decades.
In the adolescent’s case, the child may grow older without having graduated high school, making it harder for them to secure a job in the future. At first, parents may also feel ashamed of their child and themselves for letting this happen. The Hikikomori may grow to become highly nihilistic, believing life no longer contains any meaning or purpose for them. Space now only extended as far as their house, and time no longer perceptible.
Hikikomori often spends their leisure time indulging in their hobbies, with television and web surfing being the most popular activities to kill time. However, despite the abundant free time available to them, most mainly pass their time doing nothing. There is usually little to no interaction with their family, especially if familial strains were the leading cause of their new lifestyle. Typically, the mother would leave food outside the door of their Hikikomori child’s room, but there would rarely be any exchange between them. In more traditionalist families, the father may even refuse to acknowledge their Hikikomori child’s issues and worries; citing their child as just being “weak-spirited” until many years or even decades have passed.
Why don’t they just go outside / interact with society?
According to Saitō Tamaki, once the Hikikomori has entered a “Hikikomori system,” they become ensnared in a vicious cycle. The continued detachment from society makes it harder for them to “just go outside and stop.” As a result, the Hikikomori remains completely detached from society, as shown in the diagram above.
The longer the years these Hikikomori remain cooped up in their world, the harder it is to stop. They have become accustomed to their lifestyle and come to fear any changes to it. More importantly, it is no secret that Japan has a highly ruthless and harsh work culture. It is so intense that many have overworked themselves to death (過労死, Karōshi). There is a great emphasis placed on making yourself a contributing member of society. In return for a permanent job, it is expected that the employees will sacrifice their all for the company’s benefit.
So, what does this mean for these Hikikomori who are seemingly “not contributing” to society at all? Usually, these individuals and their families are subjected to shame by others. Hence, the primary gatekeeper that inhibits their reassimilation into society remains the chronic shame and guilt that they feel over their new lifestyle. They firmly believe that they have crossed the point of no return; society would no longer welcome them back but instead ridicule them as being worthless garbage. Thus, they continue to dwell in their room as if stuck in perpetual limbo. This has culminated in the 80-50 problem — it is common for elderly parents to live with their middle-aged Hikikomori children, feeling isolated from the rest.
It is not that these people do not wish to change, but more so that they do not know how to escape from their predicament.
However, not all hope is lost as it is possible for a Hikikomori to overcome their situation. Sometimes, all it takes is an incentive to push them to trudge through their anxieties and take the much-needed first step. Typically for Hikikomori who live with their ageing parents, some of them may dawn upon the realisation that it is unsustainable for the long-term to maintain their current lifestyle as their parents become more frail.
In recent years, this phenomenon has started becoming acknowledged as an actual problem by society. Several ‘Hikikomori support groups’ have been established to help facilitate the transition of former Hikikomori — both children and adults — back into society. These groups usually gather a band of interested Hikikomori to get together in a room, share their personal life stories and hopefully make new friends — perhaps their first in a long time. As these people have been disconnected from any social interaction for a prolonged period of time, these groups also aim to improve their social communication skills and aid in job searching. In the case of Seiko Goto — the mother of a Hikikomori — she has even taken up a blog and hosted a radio chat program to spread knowledge about the Hikikomori phenomena whilst advising other parents treading along similar journeys in overcoming this quandary.
Instead of being a wholly Japan problem, the Hikikomori issue has been growing in other parts of the world, such as South Korea — which has an estimated amount of 300,000 Hikikomori — and Italy, where a support group for such cases has also been established. As the world is becoming ever more perfervid, more pressure is placed on us to succeed more than ever before.
Thus, it can be understood why some people, fed up with society’s lofty expectations, resorted to becoming hermits instead. Hence, it is crucial for us to understand that there is no difference between you and me, them and us; we are all people living together in this same beautiful blue marble of ours. Sometimes, all they are waiting for is affirmation from us that we are ready to lend them a helping hand without prejudice.
By: Yun Jing