Hikikomori: Who are Japan’s Modern Hermits?

One of modern Japan’s most pernicious social problems is largely invisible. Thousands of young adults, called hikikomori, are terrified of the outdoors, of face-to-face interaction and interpersonal mingling of any kind.

Many earn a living at online jobs or live off the generosity of relatives and friends. Every modern nation has its share of “urban hermits,” and agoraphobics, but the hikikomori population is estimated to be very large, and growing rapidly.

While Japan is known for its poets, writers, economists, hot springs, sushi and matcha tea; it also has a troubled underside. Recent news items about a declining birth rate, rising cyber crime, and now a de facto psychological problem among the urban hermits are part of the nation’s darker, non-tourist-friendly world.

Unique to Japan’s metropolitan centers, the hikikomori are hard to define, and even harder to explain. Here are some of the key observations about this troubling new dilemma that faces modern Japan:

    • What psychologists call “acute social withdrawal,” hikikomori syndrome is a problem that affects more than 1 million Japanese citizens, most of whom are males between the ages of 25 and 35.
    • The Japanese word is apt, because it literally means “to be confined,” or “to pull inward.” Sometimes derisively called urban hermits, recluses, shut-ins, or “the confined,” hikikomori adults actually suffer from a form of anxiety, the fear of going outside.
    • According to Japan’s government agencies in charge of national health problems, the hikikomori are those adults who have a grave fear of leaving their homes, and who stay cooped up for more than six months.
    • Compared with another sub-group of Japanese society, the otaku, hikikomoris actually suffer from a form of mental illness. Otakus, the younger techies who are only sometimes reclusive, are not social dropouts. Even the otakus who choose to stay inside the majority of the time tend to be employed, use the telephone, chat online and engage in all sorts of social interactions. Hikikomoris do no such thing. They are truly isolated, living in a world of their own.
    • Public health agencies in Japan use five specific traits to “diagnose” the hikikomori condition: Avoidance of all social situations, spending most of every day indoors, having no other major mental disorders, inability to conduct a normal life due to social withdrawal, and isolation that lasts more than six months.
    • There are degrees of severity of the disorder; and some hikikomori adults have been suffering for more than 20 years, according to some reports.
    • The onset of the syndrome is gradual and hardly noticeable at first. Some sufferers slowly lose their friends, become shy, venture outdoors less often, and then lose their jobs or take part-time work online or that can be done at home.
    • Estimates about the total number of hikikomori adults vary widely. Because of the inherent nature of the disorder, there are likely many unreported cases of urban hermits. Japanese families are very reluctant to speak about the problems that affect them, even to social welfare workers. As a result, things like reclusiveness, alcoholism and domestic abuse are much more “underground” in Japan than in Western cultures.
    • Recent research has discovered that a very similar problem, though with a few variants on the hikikomori template, exists in nations as diverse as South Korea, France, Oman, Spain, Italy, and the United States.
    • Some experts think that hikikomori syndrome is closely related to autism and perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder. Other medical professionals have hypothesised that hikikomori sufferers might have social anxiety disorder or a condition known as avoidant personality disorder.
    • The problem of socially withdrawn adults is especially persistent in Japan due to the unique structure of Japanese society. For centuries, the Japanese have had close-knit families; and problems of any kind were never discussed with outsiders. Some believe this social architecture is also to blame for the country’s burgeoning alcoholism rate, and high suicide rates. Both Japan and Korea share a social trait of reluctance to seek help from psychological professionals, which leads to a worsening of problems like social withdrawal and personality disorders of all types.
    • Hikikomori tend to be males from middle-class or affluent families. Poor families cannot afford to support adult children and simply throw them out of the home when they are old enough to work. This “tough love” approach is unthinkable to Japanese families who are able to support their older children.
    • Researchers and medical writers make a clear distinction between hikikomori adults and “adult children” who are merely undisciplined and don’t want to work. The so-called hikikomori syndrome is a real illness, with definable traits and a rather clear diagnosis. Laziness plays no part in the makeup of a true hikikomori sufferer, anymore than it does in the life of an autistic or severely depressed person.
    • Some point to Japan’s recently iffy economy as a precipitating environment for the worsening hikikomori problem. In addition, many of the country’s large corporations that once offered lifetime employment no longer do so. The secure financial future that college graduates looked forward to in previous generations is no longer operative.
    • Japan’s intensely competitive educational system is another common scapegoat for various social ills. Beginning in pre-school, Japanese students are put under pressure to perform year after year, right through college. When better grades and academic success don’t lead to a secure career, many young adults burn out and withdraw.
    • Social service agencies and charitable organisations have only recently begun to address the hikikomori dilemma in a comprehensive way. Parents are also becoming more willing to ask for a social worker “check-up visit” when they suspect that their children are slipping into a negative behaviour pattern. Current estimates put the number of hikikomori adults between 700,000 and 2 million.

Tourists who head to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in search of Japan’s romanticised history return home with memories of Kabuki plays, the Bullet Train, Yasukuni Shrine and matcha tea ceremonies. But the hidden realms of the nation’s culture cannot be denied, as Japanese government agencies and social scientists attempt to deal with the sad, underground existence of adults who are afraid to step into the open air.

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