“Hikikomori” ("social withdrawal") is a serious problem in Japan. It involves people — mostly men — who have withdrawn from clubs, activities and their jobs and become isolated, rarely leaving their homes or rooms and often spending all their time sleeping, watching television, playing video games and surfing the Internet. Many develop the condition is school and become maladjusted adults. Some become physically ill when people visit them. Others try to commit suicide.

Estimates on the number of hikikomori — defined as person who has been sequestered in his room for more than six months with no social life outside the home — varies from between 100,000 and 320,000 and between 1 million and 2 million. Some come out of their rooms occasionally for meals with their parents or a run periodically to convenience stores for food. Some have lived in their rooms for 15 years or more.

In August 2010, Oxford English Dictionary recognized “ hikikomori “ as a word. A survey of hikikomori around that time found that in 23.7 percent of cases the condition began when the men were in their 30s and it was caused by workplace relations. Teens made up 33.9 percent of the cases and men in their 20s made up 38.9 percent.

Other studies have shown that the average age of hikikomori is 26.7, with some as young as 14, and 80 percent of them are male. A typical hikikomori skips school a few times and a few weeks or months later stops going to school. Next they isolate themselves in their rooms. Some sleep all day and stay up at night playing computer games and watching television and get their meals at convenience stores. When their parent try to order them out of the house they retreat further into their shells. The longer a hikikomore withdraws the less likely he will be able to re-engage into society, get a full time job or form long-term relationships.

Describing one hikikomori, one expert told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “After spending more than 10 years in a state of hikikomori, his face was like a noh mask with no expression. He wasn’t sick, but he showed no emotional feelings giving me the impression that something had died inside him.

Reasons for Hikikomori

Hikikomori is blamed on the social pressures of school and work and life in general, hard economic times, social conformity, declining birthrates, lack of male role models, school bullying, overprotective mothers, parents allowing their children live at home, difficulty finding work, and expensive housing. Many men who suffer from it simply don't want to engage in life any more.

One the primary reasons the condition exists is that Japanese have traditionally lived with their parents before they got married into to their 20s. Parents can often easily afford to take care of their grown children and often do. Another reason is they simply do not want to bother living in the competitive world. One psychologist told the New York Times they reject pressures to succeed, saying “to hell with it. I don’t like it and I don’t do well.”

Speculating on the cause of hikikomori, Sawa Kurotani, a professor of anthropology at Redlands University, wrote the Daily Yomiuri: “I suspect that the impulse of “hikiomori” to shut themselves in may be an infantile reaction to the difficulty of childhood-to-adulthood transition and an avoidance of adult social relationship that are not always pleasant or easy.”

In other cultures the kind of people that become hikikimori would likely join another subculture such as join a gang, become a punk, or seek out fellow nerds. Many Japanese hikikimori are very good with computers and no doubt could find good jobs as programmers or software designers. In Japan they become depressed about not fitting and choose to close their doors and avoid situations where they will potentially be humiliated.

Hutoko is sometimes a precursor to hikikomori. See Absentee Students, School Refusal, Education

Help for Hikikomori

New Start is an organization set up to help hikikomori and other shut ins. Among those that have received help are a former bully victim who spent 14 year in his room surfing the Internet, watching television and building model car; and a 19-year-old who stayed in closet-size room for four years, watching TV games shows, eating leftovers cooked by his mother listening to Nirvana and Radiohead;

New Start hires out “rental sisters” and “rental brothers” that cost about $8,000 a year and usually are sent upon the request of a parent. Once hired out a rental sister writes a letter and introduces herself and if all goes well meets with the hikomori.

One rental sister told the New York Times, that during a typical first meeting “we’ll just talk through the door and tell them our interests and hobbies. Very rarely do we get any words back. And if they do speak, it’s very stressed.” Many months can pass before the hikikomori opens his door and more until he venture outside and meets the rental sister in a park or at the movies. The goal is to get the hikikomori to move into the New Start dormitory and participate in job-training programs.

When the Radiohead hikikomori emerged from his room he hadn’t shaved or brushed his teeth. He re-enrolled in high school and for the most part didn’t talk to anyone for the two years he went there. It wasn’t until he found a job cleaning offices that he began having conversations with people-mostly fellow workers who were in their 50s and 60s who he said “didn’t have a bias about me and my background.”

There are also support groups for parents, psychologist who specializes in hikikomori, and Internet help lines.

Image Sources: 1) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education; 2) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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