Nearly 700,000 young Japanese people are missing. They have seemed to drop from the face of the earth. They do not work, they do not engage socially, and they are gone for years at a time. These tend to be largely young men between the age of 15 to 34. These young people will suddenly drop out of school, college, or a promising career, in some cases, never to be heard from again.
Sounds like a big problem, right? You are probably thinking, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” Well, you might have. But it goes by a different name. This disappearance is often known by the Japanese term “hikikomori (引きこもり)” or “shut-in.” These youths didn’t really disappear, they have just locked themselves away in their rooms.
Oldboy is one of the best international movies I have seen. In the movie, an average office worker is locked up in a small apartment for nearly 20 years and is suddenly let loose in the world. He has mostly gone insane, and mad with revenge. This idea of the effects of social isolation has always intrigued me.
Another movie to come out recently with this same subject was 2015’s Room where a woman and her son are held in a shack for over 10 years. But in Western movies, this type of isolation is always inflicted by some outside force. Humans are naturally social creatures, so it is nearly impossible for us to imagine someone willfully cutting themselves off from society.
While I am sure it does happen occasionally, The Catcher in the Rye author J. D. Salinger for example, it is rather uncommon. Nonetheless, if you ask any Japanese person about hikikomori, most will tell you that they either know someone who suffered from it directly, or that they know someone who knows someone.
Why is hikikomori such a big problem in Japan, specifically? And how could hikikomori lead Japan to a disastrous future? What are the true costs of hikikomori that no one is talking about?
Sun Tzu in his works counseled readers to know their enemies if they wanted to defeat them. This leads us to one of the most maddeningly difficult parts when discussing hikikomori, no one really knows what it is.
Hikikomori is not a diagnosis, just the name of a social problem. One of the areas that Japan really lags when compared to many Western countries is psychology. Mental health is considered a rather taboo subject. Many Japanese people have a real hesitance with discussing their problems with others. I had a friend who seemed to be struggling with depression. I told this person to talk to a doctor, and this person vehemently refused. I discussed the topic with this person’s parents, and they seemed angry at me for even suggesting such a thing. I tried explaining that depression is a common problem and that there is no shame in it. Even Mother Teresa suffered from bouts of sometimes crippling depression. Despite that, they had the attitude that this friend just had to “gamann suru (我慢する)” or “endure it.”
This seems like a common reaction to many mental health problems in Japan. For that reason, most cases of hikikomori largely go unreported. One poll conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare estimates nearly 200,000 to 500,000 cases of hikikomori, but all the experts in this field scoff at that figure. They estimate figures on the low end of 700,000 and I have seen several researchers who suggest as many as 2,000,000 people suffer from hikikomori. Some researchers note that because of the reticence of many people to get their children professional help, a good portion of people who have shut themselves in might be suffering psychological problems or developmental disorders, like Asperger syndrome, schizophrenia, manic depression, or other such problems.
Several years ago, I was at my in-laws’ house. I was helping my mother-in-law do some gardening outside when she saw one of her neighbors. This was my wife’s childhood home so they have been living there for nearly 20 years by that point. My mother-in-law was a former president of the PTA and knew everyone. So, she began that most common activity of bored housewives – gossiping about the neighbors.
The neighbor looked around slyly and said in a low tone, “Did you hear about the ___’s son?”
“___-chan? No, what is it?” My mother-in-law replied.
“Well, I heard that he failed his college entrance exams, and now he has locked himself in his room. He hasn’t come out for over 3 months!”
This is a rather typical case of hikikomori. A young person, almost always a man, suffered some sort of failure, bullying, or other strong social pressure, and locks themselves away. They will spend months or years locked away. In many cases, the mother will have to bring food to his or her door because they won’t even join the family for dinner. The typical stereotype is that they stay in their room surfing the web, playing games, or reading comics.
In the best case scenario, after a few days of cooling off, the young person will come out again and return to normal life. In more severe cases, this return to society will take months or even years. I saw one news program recently where one man went hikikomori in his 20s and still lives isolated, and today, he is in his 50s!
Like I mentioned before, the stereotypical case of hikikomori is of a high school or college-aged student suffering a major test failure, or bullying, and then withdrawing from society. But this is a gross oversimplification. Hikikomori can be sudden, but it is more often subtle. The youth slowly draws away from the world, step by step, until they have isolated themselves entirely from it. I heard of one case where a 10-year-old girl slowly, over a period of some years, drew away from everyone and everything because of what a friend said to her when she was 10!!!
Most psychologists believe that one of the root causes of hikikomori is the Japanese idea of “sekentei (世間体)” which is basically your reputation in the community and the pressure one feels to impress others. This is an immensely important social construct in Japanese society.
After World War II, the post-war generation worked feverishly hard to rebuild Japan which had been nearly flattened by the worst war in the history of mankind. Through their efforts, they turned Japan into an economic powerhouse, creating a bar which could never be surpassed by future generations. You might say they were too successful. Due to the Japanese economy falling to stagnation in the 1980s, no commencing generation could ever hope to aspire to the achievements of their parents or grandparents. Yet, there was still the expectation on them from their parents and grandparents to “build a better future.”
While most young Japanese people deal with this pressure in varying levels of acceptance, there is a large minority that cannot. And when they fail, they feel like total failures and begin to pull away. Yet, by pulling away from society, that feeling of losing sekentei becomes stronger and the urge to pull away more increases. Thus, begins a vicious repeating cycle.
Liken it to someone who is morbidly obese. They begin to eat because they are stressed, or unhappy. They then begin to gain weight. They begin to become more stressed or unhappy because of their weight gain, and they eat more, which causes them to gain more weight. And so on, and so on.
However, this idea of one’s reputation is not the only factor in hikikomori. There is another issue. When you read anything on hikikomori, you will come across the term “amae (甘え).” This is the idea of wanting to be taken care of by someone you love, to be treated softly. Often with hikikomori, we see subjects revert to a form of childishness. They don’t clean, they have no desire for independence. They will get very aggressive if they are not provided for in a matter to their liking. They act a lot like my 2-year-old.
There is an interesting relationship between mothers and sons in Japan, especially the eldest son. I feel in America, parents tend to be overly strict with their first child, while in Japan, the opposite seems to be true. I have seen young boys straight on punch their moms in the face, and the mom will respond with a weak, “Hey, don’t do that.” Many mothers of young people who shut themselves out of the world will constantly make excuses for their child. They will help them to hide from the consequences of hikikomori. They will even keep it a secret from friends, family, and even spouses.
I think that in this case, the amae is reciprocal in nature. The young man wants to be taken care of, and mothers have the natural instinct to nurture. They feel if they are too strong or strict, they will lose that relationship with their child. I think that many Japanese women who are strictly housewives depend, somewhat, on their children for recognition and legitimacy. In many ways, they want to be depended on. They want to feel desired and loved. So for these women, as troublesome as hikikomori can be, it gives them purpose and motivation. They feed into their children’s desire for attention because they desire to be needed. Thus, the cycle is continuous. This is far from the common case, and it is mostly my own theory from observations I have made.
So obviously, these hikikomori youth are a serious social problem for Japan, but they could pose an even greater socio-economic threat. If the higher numbers are to be believed, then there are around 2,000,000 youths that are not taking part in society. And according to some researchers, that number is actually growing quickly. These youths are not getting jobs, they are not paying into social programs, they are not getting married or having children. In a different article, I discussed, at length, the many demographic problems Japan is facing. These youths are only adding fuel to that fire.
The average Japanese salary is about 3.5 million yen a year (about US $29,000). In Japan, you will often pay over 70,000 yen of your monthly pay in health insurance, taxes, and retirement. So if the average monthly salary is 290,000 yen and you pay 70,000 yen to the government, that is 840,000 yen a year. If all those hikikomori youths are of working age and are not paying into the system, that is 1,680,000,000,000 yen the government is missing out on each year! That is money Japan is seriously going to need soon when the parents of all those hikikomori youths retire.
And when the hand that feeds them is no longer there, what will these youths that have isolated themselves from the world do?
Every society in the world has different carrots and sticks that it uses to create its own version of the perfect society. Yet, these different carrots and sticks can have unintended consequences. For example, capitalism makes it possible for a person of almost any background to, by the sweat of his or her own brow, make a living for themselves, but in such a system you will always have people who lose out and are poor.
Japan is no different than any other society in the world. It uses certain carrots and sticks to get the maximum out of its citizens and maintain order in the country, but those same tools make hikikomori a threat to the society as a whole. What will the future hold for them? What can we do to help them? What can we do to help parents with hikikomori children? These are questions that Japan will have to tackle sooner or later.