Thursday, March 17, 2005

Hidden Children Of Japan - The Hikikomori

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There's a growing epidemic in Japan. Few are willing to talk about it. Most will go to extreme lengths to hide it from family, friends, and neighbors. The secret lives right in their homes and may have a devastating effect on Japan's fragile economy. Worse, it has already led to crazed acts of kidnapping and violence.

A Bizarre Existence

(Source: The BBC)

I knew him only as the boy in the kitchen.

His mother, Yoshiko, wouldn't tell me his name, fearful that neighbors in this Tokyo suburb might discover her secret.

Her son is 17 years old. Three years ago he was unhappy in school...

Then one day, he walked into the family's kitchen, shut the door and refused to leave...

Since then, he hasn't left the room or allowed anyone in.

The family have since built a new kitchen - at first they had to cook on a makeshift stove or eat take away food.

His mother takes meals to his door three times a day.

The toilet is adjacent to the kitchen, but he only bath(e)s once every six months.

Yoshiko showed me pictures of her son before his retreat into isolation; he was a plump, cheerful young teenager, with no symptoms of mental illness.

Sounds like an unusual situation, doesn't it? Maybe a rare disorder or some kind of severe mental illness. Certainly not something that would be relatively commonplace. That's why it's so shocking to hear that this condition afflicts one in ten Japanese youths.

Haven't heard of hikikomori? You're not alone. Even in Japan the subject is not widely talked about...

The Hikikomori

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Hikikomori means 'withdrawn' or 'social withdrawal'. It describes a condition where people will refuse to leave their parent's house, usually locking themselves in a room for years at a time. They sleep during the day and play video games, watch tv, or wander the internet at night.

Often there will be no communication with the outside world whatsoever. Many even stop talking to their parents and live in perpetual silence.

What causes this?

Frankly, Japanese society exerts an extreme amount of pressure on young people as a way to get them to succeed. I'm not saying that in a rude way. This pressure was an essential part of rebuilding the country after WWII.

Study constantly during childhood, get into a top university, get a good job, work long hours, and before you die...have children that do the same. This isn't something to strive for, it's expected. Anything less is shameful (for males anyway).

This is what the youth of Japan are taught. Group conformity (or wa) is considered essential. The only good way to stand out is to have superior grades to your peers. It's normal for children to attend special cram schools (Juku schools) during evenings, weekends, and school holidays, sometimes starting as early as pre-school.

This is probably not the healthiest environment for children and young adults (*understatement alert*) it isn't a big surprise that many just snap one day and retreat into the safety of a self-created world. Some have already spent more than 30 years hiding in their parent's homes. Which brings us to the next question...

Why don't the parents just kick them out?

There is no single answer to this question. Some of it is that parents of hikikomori want to keep their problems hidden. Japan's 'culture of shame' plays a big part in this. They live in fear of being revealed.

This sounds insane to many non-Japanese: You mean you just let your kid sponge off you and play video games all day? It's hard to understand what a motivating factor fear of public humiliation is in that culture. People will do almost anything to avoid it.


Sometimes solitude is not enough to quiet the anguish that the hikikomori feels. They will start having other odd symptoms. Compulsive hand washing. Not being able to throw away something that they have touched. Refusing to wear clothes.

A few turn to violence: One left his isolation, hijacked a bus, and ended up killing a passenger. One kidnapped a girl and held her captive in his bedroom for nine years.

But most take their anger out on their parents (go figure!). Many of these parents live in fear of their kid and end up staying in hotels or sleeping in their cars. Yes I'm serious! Domestic violence in the U.S. is usually a man abusing his wife, but in Japan it's generally a "child" abusing his parents.

Ok, so what does this have to do with the Japanese economy?

One in ten Japanese youths have long-term hikikomori. That translates to about a million individuals and the problem is getting worse, so that number will only rise. Japan already has a troubled economy and overburdened welfare system. This is a time bomb waiting to go off.

What can be done?

I don't live there, so obviously I can't give definitive answers. That said, it seems to me that the first and maybe most important step is for the Japanese public to have an open and honest discussion about hikikomori (and related problems), on a national level. Make it ok for parents and kids to talk about it, so that problems can be taken care of early on...before they get out of hand.

Yes, I know that this is much easier said than done. But one million young people 'lost' is already too much in my opinion.

More on hikikomori (UPDATED):

A website about hikikomori.

A book on Japanese Pop Culture.

'The Japanese Have A Word For It'

The BBC reports on hikikomori (transcript).

Hikikomori and otaku.

Some hikikomori get help.

'Hikikomori Are Not Violent! Part 1'

'Hikikomori Are Not Violent! Part 2'

'Family Hermits Turn Killer'

Some people discuss hikikomori and Japanese society.

Youth Support Center (Translated To English)

'Staying In And Tuning Out'

'Deep Pessimism Infecting Many Aspects Of Japanese Society'


Blogger Ms Elle said...

This is an awesome post. I'm certainly going to look into it more. We have a lot of Japanese exchange students here and most of them really go wild when they're here - the fetters are off and the expectations and pressure are less when they're on the other side of the world. (And thanks for posting Flashface!)

5:26 PM  
Blogger whosthere said...

Thanks :-). Yah, I feel bad for them missing out on the best part of childhood...being a child!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, I want to say thank you for posting an article on the hikikomori. It’s always good in my opinion to get the word out and encourage discussion and thought on this topic. Your analysis of the causes and behavior patterns of hikikomori, due in part to Japanese cultural influences, are pretty accurate based upon my own ten months of field research in Japan on this topic.

However, I have to disagree with the violence part as well as the million strong hikikomori army you read about in the various articles online. For the violence, you provided links to my site, Japan’s Lost Generation , to my articles ‘Hikikomori are not violent’ where I argue the opposite. In my interviews of support staff at a hikikomori rehab center in Tokyo, they firmly state that hikikomori violence appears to be rare. In the cases that it does occur, the hikikomori is often ALSO afflicted with mental illness. What I found in the field is that most hikikomori are socially crippled rather than mentally ill; contrary to what the BBC was reporting in 2000 with the ‘Japan’s Missing Million’ article. I would say that 80% of the hikikomori at the rehab center where I worked were re-socialized and functional within six months to one year of admittance.

On the one million hikikomori— I found that that estimate actually came originally from Doctor Saito Tamaki, the man who coined the word ‘hikikomori’ and subsequently published a dozen books on the subject since the mid 1990s. From there, that one million figure was quoted, re-quoted, and spread through the various media treatments on hikikomori reportage as it makes great headlines.

I think it's suspect.

The Japanese Ministry of Health, in a survey done in 2000 on hikikomori, estimates the number is closer to 50,000 individuals; that is still quite a lot, but not 20% of the entire nation’s 13-18 year old Japanese male population that the one million figure would account for (see my paper on my blog for more depth on this).

Your economic look at the effect of one million people missing from the workforce is prescient and I came to the same conclusion in my literary review I wrote on hikikomori back in 2002. For IF the one million Japanese people were NOT to join the workforce in the next ten years, and considering the graying of the Japanese population…well you’re right on that time bomb. But maybe for different reasons.

I’ve found that the hikikomori are actually the most extreme subset of a larger group called freeta (which also includes a group called ‘parasite singles’); young people who live at home well into their thirties and refuse to work in demanding career path jobs at corporations, but instead prefer low-pay positions as clerks in convenience stores and the like. So your worry about the Japanese economy may be right, but because of the growing numbers of freeta (of which the hikikomori is a very small percentage).

Sorry to be so long-winded but this is a topic very near and dear to my heart.

Again, great post!

Michael Dziesinski

7:24 AM  
Blogger whosthere said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for all the great feedback :-).

Yes I do agree that public dialogue on this and related topics is very important. (From what I've seen, it seems to be the only hope so far of any large scale action being taken in Japan to treat these problems.)

As to the level of violence and million strong hikikomori population I can't definitively argue one way or another. Their description in my post represents the majority of what I saw while researching the topic via the internet. So is this another case of 'meme' becoming fact in the media? It surely wouldn't be the first time it's happened, but again I can't say for sure.

Anyway, thanks again for the feedback and let me know if ya ever want to guest blog along this or similar lines. Personally I never get tired of this topic, it being a mix of two fav subjects of mine, psychology and Japanese culture!

2:39 PM  
Blogger Karin-chan said...

Wow. Poor children in Japan! Makes me realize how America is a lot more open for the children to talk how they feel towards their children. What makes me wonder is this happening to only male children or is it also for female children as well? Do you know how this problem started? Thank you for posting this article. It's very interesting and something I never realized.

6:44 PM  

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