As many as over a million young people in Japan are thought to remain holed up in their homes, sometimes for decades at a time, a phenomena known as ‘hikikomori’. Why is that?
In Japan, hikikomori, a term that’s also used to describe the young people who withdraw, is a word that everyone knows. The psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō invented the term hikikomori in the 90s and defines it as “A state that has become a problem by the late twenties, that involves cooping oneself up in one’s own home and not participating in society for six months or longer, but that does not seem to have another psychological problem as its principal source.”
The term is defined by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as “someone who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work, and rarely interacts with people from outside their own immediate family”.
More recently, researchers have suggested six specific criteria required to “diagnose” hikikomori:
- Spending most of the day and nearly every day confined in one’s home/room.
- Marked and persistent avoidance of social situations.
- Symptoms interfering significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships.
- Perceiving the withdrawal as ego-syntonic.
- Duration of at least six months.
- No other mental disorder that accounts for the social withdrawal and avoidance.
Why and how is this happening?
Here is the personal testimony of Hide, a hikikomori for whom the problems started when he stopped going to school.
“I started to blame myself and my parents also blamed me for not going to school. The pressure started to build up,” he says. “Then, gradually, I became afraid to go out in general and fearful of meeting people. And then I couldn’t get out of my house.”
Gradually, Hide relinquished all communication with friends and eventually, his parents. To avoid seeing them he slept through the day and sat up all night, watching TV.
“I had all kinds of negative emotions inside me,” he says. “The desire to go outside, anger towards society and my parents, sadness about having this condition, fear about what would happen in the future, and jealousy towards the people who were leading normal lives.”
Hide had become “withdrawn” or hikikomori.
While the degree of the phenomenon varies on an individual basis, in the most extreme cases, some people remain in isolation for years or even decades. Often hikikomori start out as school refusals, or futōkō (不登校) in Japanese.
The trigger for a child to retreat to his or her bedroom might be comparatively slight – poor grades or a broken heart, for example – but the withdrawal itself can become a source of trauma. And powerful social forces can conspire to keep the person there.
One such force is sekentei, a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure they feel to impress others. The longer hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure. They lose whatever self-esteem and confidence they had and the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more terrifying. Parents are often also too worried about their social standing and image, and frequently wait for months before seeking professional help.
The majority of cases of hikikomori in Japan involve men, women representing fewer cases. Some anthropologists believe that this is because girls are often brought up to be more social or to express themselves. Another reason thought to be be that parents can push their daughters out of self-isolation more easily than their sons.
The hikikomori phenomenon is still being researched and compared to social withdrawals in other countries in order to measure if it’s truly endemic to Japan or a bigger global issue; and while hikikomori was already prevalent in Japan, there are fears that the COVID-19 pandemic could push even more people into isolation.
One of the most common theories is that the immense social pressures and rules imposed on the individual are a causation of the significant number of hikikomori in Japan.