Hikikomori: Disappearing quietly

31 Jan 2022

Alone in the room: There are hundreds of thousands of them, people who withdraw from the world at a young age. Japanologist Evelyn Schulz on a phenomenon of social withdrawal

They sit in their tiny rooms, in front of their computers, spend their days lying on the bed. They venture outside only at night, and only if they can’t avoid it. Getting out into the world is the last thing that interests them. For these young people, life takes place in just a few square meters of floor space. It is a life of self-imposed isolation — for months, years, sometimes decades. Hikikomori is what they are called, from the Japanese word for ‘to withdraw.’ As a rule, they still live with their parents, but they even avoid contact with them. All it takes for any TV viewer to instantly recognize the situation when it’s played out in a Japanese movie is just a few images on the screen: the closed bedroom door, the mother setting down food in front of it. “It’s a known topos,” explains Evelyn Schulz.

Life takes place in just a few square meters of floor space: Hundreds of thousands are living in a self-imposed isolaton (symbolic images).

© Nazra Zahri/Getty Images

That alone, says the LMU Professor of Japanese Studies, shows how widespread the phenomenon is in Japan. Schulz recalls that back in the 1980s, the host family she was living with at the time reported such cases, “of people who were afraid of the world, possibly depressed, struggling with vague psychological abnormalities.” Now, experts estimate that in Japan alone there are between half a million and over a million people, mostly men, who withdraw from the world in this way. How many cases go unreported, no one knows.

Even though scientists now believe that similar phenomena may exist in other countries too, the sheer number of people affected in Japan is astounding. What drives young people into isolation? What is it that makes withdrawal a mass movement? What elements of Japan’s social structure have contributed to it? According to the official definition, someone is considered a hikikomori if they shut themselves off from the world for more than six months. But otherwise, the diagnostic criteria are far from uniform. The circumstances and life histories of those affected are varied and do not follow a standard pattern. Dysfunctional family structures, childhood traumas, experiences of bullying, failure in school, problematic romantic relationships — various different circumstances can trigger it. For many of those affected, their withdrawal is accompanied by mental health disorders. The list of comorbidities is long: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders. However, in most cases it is still not really clear whether these are the cause or the effect of social withdrawal.

The burden of doing well

“In Japanese society, there are very normative standards around what a person’s educational and employment path should look like,” says Evelyn Schulz. And with many parents having only one child, they like to focus all their desires for prosperity and advancement on this one child and overburden them with excessive expectations.

“The school system is very rigid,” says Schulz. “It is still very much like this in school today: Kids have a full day of classes, and then in the evening they go to another private cram school.” To get into one of the good high schools or a top university, young people have to pass a raft of tough tests. And unlike in countries like Germany, Schulz says, there are few fallback options in this system: Those who don’t make it have had it, usually.

“I saw that a lot when I was visiting. How do the children stand it, I wondered, with so little space for other activities?” And in places where the social biotope is a monoculture, anyone who doesn’t grow the way everyone else does has a hard time. “Often it’s not so much that they’re failing in school,” says Schulz. “It’s not uncommon for the young people to simply not fit into the system.”

The socially prescribed career paths are narrow. Even those who want to spend a year abroad after graduating from university risk not being able to conform to the standardized life path upon their return. For a long time, this way of functioning in line with rigid rules was genuinely considered promising: If you worked hard, they said, you would make it — a kind of turbo-powered version of the German economic miracle mindset. And still today, social recognition and status are more closely tied to a straight career path than in almost any other country of the world.

But this notional business model of the post-war era has long been on a wobbly footing in times of globalization and post-industrial transition. Even though Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy and the yen a very strong currency, the old promise of prosperity is no longer there. Japan has become a gap society with a widening social gap and crumbling middle class.

All of this does not make it easy for people to find their place in society. That said, more and more young people are turning away from the rigid collective performance ethic, from the patriarchal professional world, Schulz explains, and are striving to live and work in other ways. Some may start small startup companies, others may cut back on their working hours and seek a work-life balance. Schulz has noticed that, “parts of society are also more understanding now if someone says, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I don’t like it, I can’t keep up.’”

Scheitern am System - Hikikomori als Thema im Theater: Toshiki Okada inszenierte sein Stück „The Vacuum Cleaner“ 2019 an den Münchner Kammerspielen. Szene mit Thomas Hauser. Foto: Julian Baumann

Shadow existences in a culture of shame

The Japanese form of refusing to engage in society has nothing demonstrative about it; it is entirely inward looking. It is not about loudly protesting but about quietly disappearing from the world outside. Sufferers say they are considered ‘failures’ in the regular sense of the word and report having a guilty conscience for still being a financial burden on their parents. Most hikikomori, Schulz says, see their situation very clearly. They know that with each month, with each year, their chances of getting back on their feet dwindle further. But many have settled modestly into their existence in the shadows.

And the families? “There’s a lot of shame around the whole thing,” says Evelyn Schulz. “How are you supposed to deal with it when you have someone in the family who’s not how you imagined them?” There’s stigma, too. And yet Japan is “a society that allows space for deviance, even if it’s in private. They let the hikikomori be, it’s just the way it is. Of course there’s shame, of course there’s helplessness.”

The word hikikomori reflects this ambivalence, the Japanologist explains. With an almost ironic twist, it describes a massive social problem with a word that radiates something positive, even something homey: I’m withdrawing. And it protects against further questioning. “Everyone knows what that word means. You don’t probe any further.” That’s because people in Japan “don’t normally talk openly about mental health problems. I certainly only experienced it rarely, mostly just among close friends,” says Schulz. Going to a therapist is anything but a given. And so it takes a long time for sufferers or their families to seek help. Now, however, there are many places that offer advice and support to parents and try to get hikikomori out of isolation with low-threshold offers that they could take up.

The aging problem

Japan is now considered a super aged society. At 48.4 years, the country currently has the highest average age of any population in the world. Almost 30 percent of people are 65 or older. Evelyn Schulz recounts her last visit to the country: “A friend showed me one former elementary school after another that had been converted into homes for senior living. Mind you, this was in Greater Tokyo, in the megacity’s immediate catchment area, not in the outlying regions.” The aging of society, says the Japanologist, is the dominant social issue.

Along with society as a whole, hikikomori have also grown older. Surveys show that the number of hikikomori aged over 40 will soon be as large as those below 40. Some of them have lived in seclusion with their now elderly parents for decades, still supported by them financially. “Often it’s only when both parents have died that it becomes obvious that there’s someone else in the home.” But middle-aged hikikomori are also growing up. Surveys of 40- to 65-year-old sufferers have shown that many of them only became social recluses in later years, perhaps through mental health problems, other periods of illness, or job loss.

What role does the growing level of digitalization play in all this? The virtual world is believed to exacerbate the problem. Many hikikomori are in fact considered online addicts according to the common definition. The internet makes it easier for them to avoid real-world social contact, which is confusing and frightening for them. It is a way for them to communicate — on their terms: they evidently perceive the risk of failure to be lower.

But couldn’t the internet also be part of the solution? Evelyn Schulz explains that some hikikomori have successfully developed social activities online, in the self-help field or as bloggers, for example. At the very least it opens “a window into the closed world of hikikomori” — not least for therapists, doctors, and other members of the support system. And, however bizarre it may sound, even a game like Pokemon Go apparently brought some sufferers back onto the street because they suddenly had to collect points in the real world.

The fact that more and more young people everywhere are immersing themselves in digital worlds is actually one of the threads that links hikikomori syndrome to similar phenomena in other societies. A number of studies have found clusters of extreme social self-isolation in Spain, the US, South Korea, and India, among other countries. Some researchers are therefore now warning that hikikomori is a phenomenon that affects not only Japan, but could be linked to modern societies in general.

Prof. Dr. Evelyn Schulz conducts research and teaches at LMU Munich’s Japan Center. Born in 1963, Schulz studied at the University of Heidelberg and in Kyoto. She obtained her doctorate in Japanese Studies in 1995, and earned her habilitation in 2001. Between 1995 and 2002, she was a Research Associate and then Senior Research Associate at the University of Zurich’s Institute of East Asian Studies before being appointed to LMU in 2002.

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