Tune-out, drop-out, shut-in

The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon has struck a cultural consciousness

The unnamed protagonist in Shaking Tokyo (the third segment of the anthology film, Tokyo! directed by Bong Joon-Ho) is an utter slob. His small room is piled high with pizza boxes, discarded toilet paper rolls and stacks of old books. We learn that he has not set foot outside of his apartment in a decade and that he uses his phone – his only connection to society – to order pizza and all other necessities from delivery services. But this shut-in differs from other cinematic characterizations of recluses (read Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Chuck Noland in Castaway) because he is a representative character that hundreds of thousands of Japanese adolescents identify with. In fact, the pizza-eating main character of Shaking Tokyo represents a member of what international news headlines and documentary films have referred to as Japan’s “lost generation,” the hikikomori.

Hikikomori – a Japanese translation of the English phrase “social withdrawal syndrome” – refers to both the social phenomenon of adolescents who have chosen to withdraw from all forms of social life for protracted periods of time as well as the individuals belonging to this group. Like the character in Shaking Tokyo, many hikikomori often spend almost all of their time at home in their rooms. As permanent shut-ins, hikikomori do not attend school, do not have jobs, and do not socialize with friends or even interact with their family members for long periods of time, anywhere from six months to decades in some exceptional cases, according to a report by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.

Brian Bergstrom, a visiting lecturer at McGill in the East Asian Studies department since 2006, explained that many of these youth operate on nocturnal schedules, allowing them to come into as little contact with other people as possible; Bergstrom is currently writing his dissertation on representations and cultural constructions of deviant and delinquent youth in Japan.

It’s difficult to grasp the size of the problem. The leading Japanese expert on hikikomori, psychologist Tamaki Saito, has estimated the numbers of hikikomori to be close to one million. However, statistics on the condition’s prevalence vary incredibly, and most studies’ results fall well below the million mark. Such variation can be attributed to the lack of a strict definition of the syndrome and the underreporting of cases, says Bergstrom. But what remains undisputed is that the sheer numbers of young people dropping out and retreating to their bedrooms have forced Japan to recognize hikikomori as a serious social issue.

But what is hikikomori? A mental illness? A social phenomenon? A youth revolt? And should it be examined through a medical lens? While the term has existed for over two decades, it only came into popular use in the mid-90s. Characterizing the finer details still remains a source of discord among experts, the general population, and in the media. The relatively recent emergence of this mass acute withdrawal among adolescents and its virtual nonexistence outside of Japan makes hikikomori’s etiology very puzzling. Though isolated cases have been documented in other Asian-Pacific countries, and social anxiety problems such as agoraphobia (fear of crowded public places) are certainly found in the West, some have defined hikikomori as a uniquely Japanese problem. Psychologists like Saito have insisted on categorizing Japanese youth’s mass social withdrawal as a diagnosable psychological disorder, warranting treatment through drugs, psychotherapy, or a combination thereof.

Many Japanese consider hikikomori to be more of a social than medical problem, often blaming parents for poor child rearing rather than a chemical imbalance in the brain. The public has criticized the parents of hikikomori for enabling their children’s withdrawal by serving them three meals a day (often leaving the food outside their locked bedroom doors) and supporting them with weekly allowances they can use for pizza delivery and to buy video games and CDs – entertainment that doesn’t require any social interaction. The negative portrayal of hikikomori has also been fostered by Japanese news sources that have characterized these “shut-ins” as dangerous angry youths because of two highly-publicized stories of violent crimes: a kidnapper that held a girl hostage for nineteen years and a bus hijacking by a 17-year-old teenager in 2000. Perhaps the enabling habits of parents may be more indicative of families’ underlying fears of stigmatization than poor parenting skills. Most hikikomori belong to Japan’s large middle class, but may also be impacted by a variety of other social factors.

Media has also focused on blaming internet culture for hikikomori because of its tendency to nurture alienating behavior. However, according to Bergstrom, since most youth in advanced states of hikikomori avoid the internet as well, “an interest in the internet can actually be a way out of hikikomori” by slowly reintegrating individuals into society, beginning with the formation of online relationships.

Social scientists have alternatively deemed societal pressures fostered by the rigid school system, and a weakening labour market combined with the gradual erosion of traditional Japanese values to be responsible for the country’s burgeoning numbers of withdrawn adolescents. In a highly-cited sociological article on hikikomori, Andy Furlong of the University of Glasgow argues that Japan’s economic recession in the 1990s stimulated a reorganization of the traditional labour market, making fewer jobs available to young people. This, coupled with pressures placed on youth by families and educational institutions to reach high levels of academic achievement and build successful careers, leaves many school-aged Japanese without direction, guidance, or state support when doubting their ability to make it to the top. In a society where dropping out of school to work in a cafe or travel for a year may not be considered reputable options, quietly retreating into one’s room may be the most desirable way to deal with feelings of isolation and uncertainty without being publicly stigmatized. According to Bergstrom, the popular Japanese conception of hikikomori incorporates both medical and sociological perspectives into a view of the issue as a social syndrome – a mental disease produced by the general conditions of society.

Recently, with increased general awareness of hikikomori in Japan, avenues of support are emerging. These take the form of self-help groups and family-based therapy, that offer resources such as “rental big sisters” (who provide isolated adolescents with an initial social contact) to the work of job-training programs within the Japanese hikikomori-aid organization New Start. The government has focused more on preventive measures designed to set the social deviant on the right track. One step has been the initiation of a curriculum whose name translates as “education of the heart” by the Japanese Ministry of Education. It aims to instill moral ideals and a sense of patriotism via the observation of national traditions. Critical of this neo-nationalist program, Bergstrom argues that it retains “no sense of rethinking the fundamental aspects of this problem.”

In their emergence as a socially anomalous group, hikikomori are a critique of society writ large. Deviant groups “frequently open up a space to rethink sociality,” explained Bergstrom. So perhaps instead of pathologizing these individuals as socially inept, criminal, or mentally ill, the hikikomori phenomenon can be seen as an opportunity to address underlying issues and maybe even come up with some fresh, less-normative solutions.