Jun, an eighteen-year-old student from a Tokyo suburb, was in despair. He had just failed the entrance examination for the national university where he had planned to study philosophy. Confidence shattered, he nonetheless spent six months studying hard to pass the test the following year. Slowly, however, he turned to reading philosophy instead, abandoning his remedial classes and shutting himself up in the home he shared with his parents. He began to sleep during the day and stay awake reading and watching television at night; his parents would leave him meals outside his bedroom. It would take over four years for him to emerge from this self-imposed exile.
Jun didn’t have any disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, like agoraphobia, schizophrenia, or even social anxiety. Instead, his behavior is archetypal of a decades-old social phenomenon in Japan: hikikomori. Literally translated as “pulling in and retiring,” the word refers to a pattern of acute social withdrawal experienced by young Japanese men and women who confine themselves to their rooms, abandoning schoolwork and employment, leaving only to eat or not at all. This self-quarantine typically begins in late adolescence but can last indefinitely, sometimes lasting into an adulthood that never fully arrives. These quasi-adults often become nocturnal, bathe rarely, hoard garbage, and lash out against their family members, often physically. Yet in spite of recent governmental efforts to address the phenomenon, it may take a shift in societal values to properly address its roots.
The hikikomori epidemic has been a major, yet often unspoken cause of concern in Japan. Though virtually all subjects journalist Michael Zielenziger interviewed for his book Shutting Out the Sun told him they knew at least one person with the condition, parents often refused to seek help, the perceived stigma replicating the same cycle of isolation afflicting their children. The Japanese government has yet to take concrete action on what’s become a national problem. It’s even unknown how widespread the problem is: estimates range from 50,000 to 1,200,000, though most articles simply refer to the number as “untold.” This problem could significantly impact the already-shrinking Japanese labor force, leading government agencies to scramble for solutions.
Though Saito Tamaki, one of the first psychiatrists to recognize this pattern of behavior as an epidemic, claims that hikikomori have been found in other places ranging from South Korea to Switzerland, the condition has been almost entirely uniquely Japanese. In addition, hikikomori is not a gender-equivocal affliction: approximately 60 to 80 percent of sufferers are male. Though the actual percentage may be lower, as parents are even less likely to report withdrawal for their daughters, many of whom are not expected to achieve the same educational or career goals as men and have a stronger claim to domesticity.
Given these unique factors for affliction, hikikomori can then be viewed as emblematic of the psychological and social challenges adolescent males face in Japan and the increasing inability to join a traditional salaryman lifestyle. As Japan entered an economic boom in the latter half of the 20th century, the economy transitioned from a low-tech industrial and agricultural economy to a high-tech industrial and service-based economy. The salaryman ideal, where men work long hours in the office at the same company for life, became ubiquitous by the 1950s. What we often think of as an archetypal American family structure—a nuclear family with a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother—is considered the common unit of modern Japan. Unfortunately, the “lost decade” of the 1990s, subsequent slow growth, and a variety of social changes have threatened this ideal. Phenomena like freeters, or under- and unemployed youth, and parasite singles, or unmarried young people, have manifested as some of the most obvious challenges to this order.
Hikikomori can also be viewed as a response to an unattainable goal. When young men fail to succeed on an important exam or become victims of bullying, their sense of masculinity is shattered. How can they possibly become salarymen and achieve the lifestyle emphasized by their parents and society? Faced with no alternate pathways, these men withdraw. To claim this phenomenon as unrelated to Japan’s economic woes and changing employment structure is to ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This connection, however, has led to troubling conclusions and rhetoric. For American Zielenziger, these young men’s condition comes not as a paralysis but as a kind of conscientious objector status to the conveyor belt from school to work; their behavior is progressive and rebellious in a world that prizes conformity. These men become carriers of sanity in a sick society. Never mind the psychic distress that those suffering from hikikomori seem trapped in; for Zielenziger, as well as a variety of Western researchers, to withdraw is a subversive, though tragic, chosen alternative to the demands of modern life.
This romanticization of hikikomori as a decision has also taken root in Japan. Manga and anime featuring hikikomori protagonists, most notably Welcome to the N.H.K., have emerged. Though this rise may be attributed to a growing recognition of the large numbers afflicted in society, it can also be viewed as a mounting popular resistance against conventional values. Even for healthy and employed Japanese, there has been a clear erosion of the traditional salaryman lifestyle and an assortment of individuality. What better way to transcend being a cog in the machine of university entrance exams and corporate employment than withdrawing altogether?
It may be this new hikikomori heroism that has led the government to act. Though it’s been a problem since the ‘90s, the Japanese government has only recently taken more substantive effort, requiring all prefectures to establish a support center, pushing vocational training for hikikomori and other economically marginalized groups, and pouring funds into rehabilitation programs. These sufferers represent a significant drain on an aging economy, and it’s in the government’s best interests to face the facts and get them back in the labor market.
Unfortunately, it appears that this push isn’t enough: Many of these government-mandated treatment centers are single rooms staffed with hotlines that hold occasional meetings. Researchers have generally supported more comprehensive programs like family therapy and inpatient rehabilitation, which would require hefty taxpayer support from a country already in significant debt. The most successful programs rely on partnering with local industry, apprenticing patients and teaching them vocations to break the cycle of unemployment. This is difficult to coordinate at a national level. The hikikomori problem is complex, drawing not only on Japan’s stagnant economy but also on engrained cultural values. It’ll take more than the government’s current half-hearted approach to fully address the problem.
Strangely, however, this emphasis on employment may push hikikomori further into isolation. By emphasizing the duty they owe society, these programs may cause those afflicted to feel guilt and shame. Though the government has been carefully neutral in its releases, avoiding terms like “lazy,” blame has been shifted to the individual. Western academia and media coverage cite causes like societal values while Japanese media are much more likely to pin the blame on parents and are doubly likely to attribute it to the individual.
Young people afflicted by hikikomori are thus placed between two conflicting narratives: a kind of passive resistance to Japanese society versus a selfish refusal to help out the country economically. Where cooperation and group dependence are common values, refusal to play can be seen as rebellion. Those trapped in this cycle of isolation become heroes to some while mainstream society continues to reject them. In failing to understand this pathology, the Japanese government can’t draw these young men back into society.