As many as a million young people in Japan are thought to remain holed up in their homes, sometimes for decades at a time. Why?
For Hide, the problems started when he gave up 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 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Hide had become “withdrawn” or hikikomori.
In Japan, hikikomori, a term that’s also used to describe the young people who withdraw, is a word that everyone knows. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines 引き籠もりhikikomori as people who refuse to leave their house and, thus, isolate themselves from society in their homes for a period exceeding six months. The psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō defines hikikomori 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.”
More recently, researchers have suggested six specific criteria required to “diagnose” hikikomori:
- Spending most of the day and nearly every day confined to home.
- 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 at least six months.
- No other mental disorder that accounts for the social withdrawal and avoidance.
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 boy retreating to his 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 him there.
One such force is sekentei, a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels 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 also conscious of their social standing and frequently wait for months before seeking professional help.