Hikikomori – Japan’s Social Ghosts
You’re on the couch, watching a movie with the lights off, cuddled up with a blanket and your favorite person. The funniest part of the movie you’re watching comes on and you both laugh and laugh until it hurts. The dog growls at something outside, but then rests his head back on the pillow. A breeze blows through the window and ruffles the leaves of the plant that sits on the sill. A sweet fragrance escapes across the room and flies into the atmosphere, and you’re happy.
Now replace the perfumed breeze with the stench of rotting food. It’s everywhere, and it hangs in the air because there’s no breeze to carry it outside – the window is shut, like it always is. There’s no dog on the pillow, no growling, just the rustle of convenience store bags as you adjust to find the next available position in your shrinking cocoon of used soup cups. The funny part comes on the TV and you laugh, alone, with the lights off on the couch. But you’re content, and you’re safe, and there’s no need to challenge it.
Not every case matches this scenario, but for a large part of Japan’s growing population of recluses called hikikomori (Japanese: 引き籠もり or more commonly 引きこもり), a lonely existence of apathy is the everyday, and for them, that’s OK.
Years of speculation and research have gone into discovering what it is that causes Japan’s socially withdrawn youth to begin shunning society and friends. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has found no underlying psychological disease that causes young people to hide away, but speculation abounds that it could be the terrifying implosion of societal pressure to be Japanese.
Whatever the cause, the result is an army of young men and women in Japan who relish spending their free time inside a world of their design constructed entirely within the walls of their rooms. Here, they watch movies, play games, read books, and pursue other solitary activities all outside of the reach of the long arm of society, often at night, and always alone.
Origin of the Name Hikikomori and What It Means
The name hikikomori is no accident. It’s a logical portmanteau that tells the story of the condition in a single word.
Hikikomori is a compound of 2 Japanese words: hiku 引く and komoru 籠もる. Both are verbs.
- Hiku is to pull, and can be taken abstractly or at face value.
- Komoru is to be secluded or confined, and has other similar meanings.
Preserving the meaning, many have translated the phrase as pulling in or withdrawal.
Tamaki Saito is often credited as the originator of the term. He was the first to include it in the title of his book Shakaiteki Hikikomori: Owaranai Shishunki 社会的ひきこもり―終わらない思春期, translated as Social Withdrawal: A Neverending Adolescence. It has since entered Japanese vocabulary and dictionaries and is used by major news agencies such as NHK when addressing the condition.
You can’t just walk around Japan and look into crowds to find hikikomori. They’re often appear the same as any other member of Japan’s youth. You won’t find them wearing suits, dress shirts, or slacks very often, but you may be surprised to find that the person standing next to you at the convenience store is going home to shut him or herself inside for the rest of the night.
Various agencies have set in motion the creation of standards to help define who or what hikikomori is. It became important to bring the mystery of hikikomori to public attention after a series of violent outbursts were perpetrated by individuals identified by the media as hikikomori.
Neomugicha and Hikikomori Violence
The Neomugicha Incident, as it is now known, was a bus hijacking conducted between May 4 and 5th in the year 2000. A 2chan user calling himself Neomugicha (neo barley tea) posting a threat on the forum hinting at his plan to take over the Wakakusu bus in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. The 17 year old boy stabbed a passenger to death before he was detained by special forces. After a background investigation, the media determined that the boy fit the description of hikikomori.
Following the incident, other parents and Japanese citizens concerned about the consequences of hikikomori began to come forward. Masayuki Okuyama’s shared his story about his hikikomori son, Yoicihi, with BBC News correspondent Phil Rees in 2002. Masayuki forced his son from his home after Yoichi attacked his mother seemingly without reason.
The events grabbed media and public attention, and an aura of fear began to haunt the hikikomori who had been quietly laying roots in the dense structures of Japan’s residential forests. The ordinary citizens of Japan were about to create a diagnosis for a inexplicable condition of the mind.
The Tamaki Saito Definition of Hikikomori
Tamaki Saito had been conducting therapy for psychologically troubled individuals in Funabashi and noticed a large number of confrontations from parents concerning children who had shut themselves in and refused to participate in society. He was on the brink of discovering a psychological mystery that would soon become the focus of media attention in Japan.
In his book, Saito laid out a rough definition of hikikomori as:
Those who withdraw entirely from society and stay in their own homes for more than six months, with onset by the latter half of their twenties, and for whom other psychiatric disorders do not better explain the primary causes of this condition.
As Saito puts it, becoming hikikomori seems to be a refusal to accept and participate in adulthood as defined by Japanese society. But his definition is loose, and the aching fear in the hearts of the Japanese demanded a more thorough definition and a decisive explanation.
The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare Definition of Hikikomori
Of course, the ever-vigilant Ministry answered the call. They created a more specific take on what defines a hikikomori. According to the official standard, hikikomori is:
The condition of withdrawing into one’s own home for a period of 6 months or more without attending school or work and hardly interacting with anyone outside of one’s own family. ‘Hikikomori’ also includes those who occasionally go out to do things such as grocery shopping.
The Ministry definition, of course, does not state a particular gender in their definition. A Tokyo Univeristy report stated that of the 2.4% of young Japanese who confirmed they had experienced hikikomori, there were 4 times as many males as females. An NHK Internet survey in 2005 reported that about 76.4% of hikikomori were men. The hard data varies greatly between studies and surveys, but they all show that the hikikomori lifestyle affects both men and women in Japan.
However, the number of females may be skewed by virtue of hikikomori’s definition. Living at home with parents and running only errands is fairly common for women even in modern Japan. Some women keep the home all day and don’t leave unless accompanied by their husbands. Most of these women, whether or not they fit into the definition of hikikomori, are not likely to be counted or even surveyed.
In modern society, even those who are introverted and shun their culture’s societal structure must participate in errands that allow them the comforts of living in a developed country. Though the majority of their time is spent indoors and away from human contact, hikikomori have the necessary skills to participate in the necessary parts of society to sustain life. Most modern Japanese accept the Ministry’s definition, but still wonder about how it comes to be.
What Actually Causes the Hikikomori Condition?
It’s the biggest mystery of all. Hikikomori is a condition, not a disease, of the mind, though it has been labeled as a disease and disorder by experts. Human trials on hikikomori are too few to draw narrow conclusions. The nature of hikikomori means that those who suffer are introverted and not incredibly articulate, so most are unable to explain their thoughts or feelings. The good news is, we have some clues.
Japan’s National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP) Mental Health Research Institute Rehabilitation Unit conducted a study of 66 men and 14 women who met the conditions of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s definition of hikikomori in 2003. Participants ranged in age from 13 to 37, with an average age of 21.8, and did not suffer from schizophrenia, manic depression, or any other organic mental disorders. The study determined the following about the participants:
- ‘Hikikomori’ is not a solitary disease or disorder
- The actual condition of ‘hikikomori’ is multidimensional
- There are cases in which biological factors are involved
- There are cases in which ‘hikikomori’ cannot be considered a clear disease or disorder
- Long-term ‘hikikomori’ is one of its characteristics
- The shift to long-term hikikomori lifestyle can be understood to originate from various issues such as the following:
- Biological causes
- Psychological issues
- Societal issues
- ‘Hikikomori’ is a subject of mental health and welfare
The cause is still unclear. The conclusions made by the NCNP have helped to solidify what the condition of hikikomori is not, but it remains untold if unexplored psychological conditions are triggering the hikikomori way of thinking or if adopting a hikikomori lifestyle leads to depressive disorders.
Just as adamantly as Saito believes that hikikomori is a state of suspended adolescence, psychological experts in Japan believe otherwise. A team of researchers at Kyoto University led by Tuukka Toivonen is convinced that incredible societal pressure to be a unit of success in Japanese society drives stress to push the brain into mental instability. They believe it to be especially true as globalization increases even within a conformist society like Japan’s.
When youth are unable to accept or rebel against the societal structure intended for them, they find little else to do than to abandon purpose and silently enjoy the comforts of the developed world.
Is There Treatment Available?
Though it’s difficult to classify hikikomori as a disease, it remains a concern for the future of Japan and its shrinking population. Treatments are being developed by interested parties through trial and error type experimentation.
Therapists, including Saito, have experimented with therapies that mirror those of sessions with sufferers of depression and mania. Asking questions and attempting to dive into the minds of hikikomori and provide comfort and trust spark inspiration to participate in social meetings and the restoration of what is viewed as a normal life in Japan.
Organizations like Hikikomori Therapy encourage hikikomori to reclaim their emotions and find their true selves through therapeutic care and research. Learning is ongoing, but few strides have been made toward a blanket solution to the hikikomori condition.
Rental Brothers and Sisters
Some parents of hikikomori or other concerned parties look toward a more direct approach to treatment. Those looking to help hikikomori can hire social caretakers to have conversations with the afflicted and encourage pro-social behaviors. Companies like New Start are helping Japan’s shut-ins rebuild self-confidence through real interactions with people who understand and study the condition.
There’s also a bit of an underground business that revolves around forcing hikikomori out of parents’ homes. Often, parents struggle with the morality of physically pushing their children out of the house, but because so little information is available on treatment, they sometimes believe that there is no other way to reinsert their children into society.
The proposed solutions get more strange and questionable. Parents and hikikomori seeking help have an additional option that requires only a bit of self-discipline. The Miteru Dake ミテルだけ or Just Looking series of videos asks hikikomori to make eye contact with young girls and women for an extended period. Through forcing eye contact, the company believes that hikikomori will learn to deal with the social discomfort that keeps them trapped inside their rooms. Some videos include women who bear cleavage to give the predominantly male hikikomori population a sexual incentive to overcome their inhibitions.
It remains undetermined exactly how long the hikikomori lifestyle typically lasts. While it has the potential to continue into old age, it usually subsides at least by middle age if not sooner. Men age 30-39 make up about 46% of hikikomori, but the number spikes quickly downward from 40 and on.
Are Hikikomori Exclusively Japanese?
Those who fall under the definition of hikikomori can be found all over the world. After a documentary about hikikomori in Japan aired on BBC in 2009, men and women in England began to comment online that they had experienced a similar lifestyle.
Italy has run its own articles outlining definitions of hikikomori within the country and stating its prevalence. It appears that the highest incidences of the condition are recorded in developed countries such as America, Australia, England, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Recognizing its rapid growth, editors of the Oxford English Dictionary added the word ‘hikikomori’ in August of 2010. Awareness continues to grow worldwide, and more people from more countries are self-identifying as hikikomori.
What Can We Do?
The most productive approach to hikikomori is attempting to understand individual underlying causes rather than a general psychological problem. Learning what keeps each hikikomori inside may be the key to laying the groundwork for reclaiming the self-confidence and motivation of those who live a hermit-style life.
There are still more questions than answers that surround the mysterious, ousted, and oppressed hikikomori. Indeed, they seem to know as little about themselves as those who study them. The lack of connections between the minds of those who have chosen the lifestyle leaves gaping cracks in the foundation of our understanding of hikikomori.
One thing is clear to both Japanese and non-Japanese – the pressure on parents to raise members of society draws those raising children to encourage overwork from their kids even starting at elementary school age. Japanese children are expected to make near-perfect grades, participate in many extracurricular activities, and give their lives to the greater good the entire time their brains are developing. Their high-stress lives may help explain what seems to be a remarkably higher incidence of hikikomori, but it does not bring us closer to understanding the condition itself.
Developing countries may be able to head off growing hikikomori populations by exploring the psychological effects of working toward a singular definition of success and how it narrows the path of life. But, like many of the other studies conducted on hikikomori, societal pressure’s impact on youth is only part of a hypothesis that has yet to be truly tested.