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Hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引き篭り lit. "pulling away, being confined," i.e., "acute social withdrawal") is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents and young adults who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement due to various personal and social factors in their lives. The term "hikikomori" refers to both the sociological phenomenon in general as well as to individuals belonging to this societal group.
The Japanese Ministry of Health defines hikikomori as individuals who refuse to leave their parents' house, and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months. While the distinctiveness of the phenomenon varies depending on the individual, some youths remain in isolation for years, or in rare cases, decades. Often hikikomori start out as school refusals, or tōkōkyohi (登校拒否) in Japanese.
According to estimates by psychologist Tamaki Saito, who first coined the phrase, there may be one million hikikomori in Japan, twenty percent of all male adolescents in Japan, or one percent of the total Japanese population. Saito later admitted in his autobiography (Hakushi no kimyo na shishunki) that he made up this number to draw attention to the problem and that it had no factual basis. After the syndrome was officially recognized, the number of reported cases turned out to be in the low thousands.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Though acute social withdrawal in Japan appears to affect both genders equally, due to differing societal expectations for maturing boys and girls, the most widely reported cases of hikikomori are from Japanese families with male children who seek outside intervention when a son, usually the eldest, refuses to leave the family home.
While total social withdrawal has been claimed to be mainly a Japanese phenomenon, there are reports of similar phenomena developing in South Korea, Taiwan and China.[How to reference and link to summary or text] When a BBC program claiming that hikikomori was a Japanese phenomenon was aired in Britain, the BBC home page received numerous messages from viewers in the United Kingdom saying that they had personal experience with hikikomori and that it was hardly a phenomenon particular to Japan. Even the most casual search of English language materials will show that essentially the same phenomenon is found in the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain, etc.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Sometimes referred to as a kind of social problem in Japanese discourse, the hikikomori phenomenon has a number of possible contributing factors. Young adults may feel overwhelmed by modern Japanese society, or be unable to fulfill their expected social roles as they have not yet formulated a sense of personal tatemae (the public facade) and honne (the "true self") – both of which are needed to cope with the daily paradoxes of adulthood.
The dominant nexus of the hikikomori issue centers on the transformation from young life to the responsibilities and expectations of adult life — indications are that advanced capitalist societies such as modern Japan are unable to provide sufficient meaningful transformation rituals for promoting certain susceptible types of youth into mature roles within society.
As with many advanced capitalist meritocracies, there exists a great deal of pressure on adolescents in Japan to be successful and perpetuate the existing social status-quo. A traditionally strong emphasis on complex social conduct, rigid hierarchies and the resulting, potentially intimidating multitude of social expectations, responsibilities and duties in Japanese society contribute to this pressure on young adults. Historically, Confucian teachings de-emphasizing the individual and favoring a conformist stance to ensure social harmony in a rigidly hierarchized society have shaped much of the Sinosphere, possibly explaining the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon in other East-Asian countries.
In general, the prevalence of hikikomori tendencies in Japan may be encouraged and facilitated by three primary factors:
- Middle class affluence in a post-industrial society such as Japan allows parents to support and feed an adult child indefinitely in the home. Lower income families do not have hikikomori children because a socially withdrawing youth is forced to work outside the home if he cannot finish school, and for this reason isolation in the room stops at an early stage.
- The inability of Japanese parents to recognize and act upon the youth's slide into isolation, soft parenting, or even a codependent collusion between mother and son known as amae in Japanese. When a youth withdraws from life, parents can act or respond in such a way that causes the child to become even more seclusionary.
- A decade of flat economic indicators and a shaky job market in Japan makes the pre-existing system requiring years of competitive schooling for elite jobs a pointless effort. While Japanese fathers of the current generation of youth still enjoy lifetime employment at multinational corporations, incoming employees in Japan enjoy no such job guarantees in today's job market (See Freeters and NEET for more on this). Young Japanese people are savvy enough to see that the system in place for their grandfathers and fathers no longer works, and for some the lack of a clear life goal makes them susceptible to social withdrawal as a hikikomori.
Lastly, it should be noted that the hikikomori phenomenon is similar to the symptoms exhibited by people with Pervasive Developmental Disorders in western cultures. Japan has the highest incidence of Pervasive Developmental Disorders, a group of disorders including autism and Asperger’s syndrome, in the developed world. In Japan, PDDs are some 2.95 times more common than in western countries. Some 3.3% of Japanese males have PDD compared with approximately 1% in Europe and the US. This has led some western commentators to suggest that people with hikikomori are affected by PDDs or disorders that affect social competence, but that their disorders are altered from their typical western presentation by the social and cultural pressures unique to Japan.
The Education System
The Japanese education system, like those found in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, and similar to the school systems in India, puts great demands upon youth. A multitude of expectations, high emphasis on competition, and the rote memorization of facts and figures for the purpose of passing entrance exams into the next tier of education in what could be termed a rigid pass-or-fail ideology, induce a high level of stress. Echoing the traditional Confucian values of society, the educational system is still viewed as playing an important part in society's overall productivity and success. In this social frame, students often face significant pressure from parents and the society in general to conform to its dictates and doctrines. These doctrines, while part of modern Japanese society, are increasingly being rejected by Japanese youth in varying ways such as hikikomori, freeter, NEET, and parasite singles.
Beginning in the 1960s, the pressure on Japanese youth to succeed began successively earlier in their lives, sometimes starting before pre-school, where even toddlers had to compete through an entrance exam for the privilege of attending one of the best pre-schools. This was said to prepare children for the entrance exam of the best kindergarten, which in turn prepared the child for the entrance exam of the best primary school, junior high school, high school, and eventually for their university entrance exam. Many adolescents take one year off after high school to study exclusively for the university entrance exam. The higher the prestige of the university, the more difficult the exam, the most prestigious university with the most difficult exam being the University of Tokyo.
Since 1996, the Japanese Ministry of Education has taken steps to address this 'pressure-cooker' educational environment and instill greater creative thought in Japanese youth by significantly relaxing the school schedule from six day weeks to five day weeks and dropping two subjects from the daily schedule, with new academic curricula more comparable to Western educational models. However this may be too little too late, as highly competitive Japanese parents are sending their children to private cram schools to 'make up' for the newly lax curricula in the Japanese public schools.
After graduating from high school or university, Japanese youth also have to face a very difficult job market in Japan, often finding only part-time employment and ending up as freeters with little income, unable to start a family.
Another source of pressure is from their co-students, who may harass and bully some students for a variety of reasons, including physical appearance (especially if they are overweight or have severe acne problems), wealth, educational or athletic performance, or even having lived overseas for a short period. Some have been punished for bullying or truancy, bringing shame to their families.
While many people feel the pressure of the outside world, and may feel uncomfortable in public (or "social anxiety"), a hikikomori reacts by complete social withdrawal to avoid all outside pressure. In some cases, they may lock themselves into their bedroom or another room of their parent's house for prolonged periods of time, sometimes measured in years. They usually have few, or no friends. A hikikomori's days are characterized by long spells of sleeping, while their nighttime hours are often spent watching TV, extensively playing computer games, surfing the Internet, reading, or other non-social activities.
This refusal to participate in society and fulfill their expected roles makes hikikomori an extreme subset of a much larger group of the younger Japanese generation that includes parasite singles and freeters. All three groups seem to be rejecting the current social norms society has placed upon them in their own unique ways, with lifestyles considered deviant by society at large.
The withdrawal from society usually starts gradually. Affected individuals may appear unhappy, lose their friends, become insecure, shy, and talk less. Those in their teen ages may be bullied at school, which, atop the already high pressures of school and family, may be the final trigger for the withdrawal.
Hikikomori often set their own sleep schedule, typically waking in the afternoon and going to bed in the early morning. While they are awake, they may engage in a variety of activities shared with other people of their age, including listening to music, surfing the Internet or actively posting in Internet forums like 2channel, which has become famous for its hikikomori population. While hikikomori favor indoor activities, most of them do venture outdoors on occasion, though they may prefer to do that at night.
On the individual
The lack of social contact and prolonged solitude has a profound effect on the mentality of the hikikomori, who gradually lose their social skills and the social references and mores necessary to interact with the outside world. They may immerse themselves into the fantasy worlds of manga, television or computer games, which in turn become their only frame of reference. Due to a lack of interpersonal stimulus the hikikomori may developmentally stagnate into routine behaviors as time passes, sleeping all day and staying up all night only to sneak out into the kitchen for food when the family is asleep. In extreme cases, the hikikomori eventually abandons all diversions of books and TV and simply stares into space for hours at a time.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Should a hikikomori decide to give up his seclusion, whether on his own or through the aid of a care worker, they may face the problem of lacking social skills and years of education that their peers already possess through normal daily interaction with society. Also making reentry into society difficult is the recent social stigma that has come to be attached to the condition due to mass media attention since 1998. As a result, some former hikikomori might be afraid that others will discover their past, adding to their feeling of insecurity around people, especially strangers, in how they should act. Also detrimental is the fact they lack a work history, making anything beyond menial jobs difficult to acquire.
On the family
Having a hikikomori in the family is often considered embarrassing, so usually it is acknowledged as an internal private matter of the family, and many parents wait for a long time before seeking help from a third party within the hikikomori support industry. Also, in Japan the education of the children is traditionally done by the mother, and the father may leave the problem of a hikikomori to the mother, who feels very protective of her child. Initially, most parents simply wait and hope that the child will eventually overcome his problems and return to society by his own will. They see it as a phase the child has to overcome. Also, many parents are uncertain about what to do with a hikikomori, and wait simply due to lack of other options. An aggressive approach by the parents forcing the child back into society is usually not taken or only after a considerable waiting period.
In some cases, school homeroom teachers and social workers make inquiries, but usually do not get involved with the situation. In recent years, due to widespread media attention, having a family member who is a hikikomori has come to have a social stigma attached to the condition akin to mental illness. Due to this stigma and the resultant shame, many families strive to keep their child's hikikomori condition a secret from those in the community, thus further delaying parents from seeking outside intervention for their child.
Hikikomori gained increased worldwide attention when the media attributed a number of high profile crimes to it a few years ago. In 2000, a 17-year-old labeled as a hikikomori by the press hijacked a bus and killed one passenger. In fact, it was discovered later that the hijacker had originally been a hikikomori, but his parents, in frustration, had committed him to a mental hospital for two months of observation. Allegedly, the boy felt betrayed by his parents as a result of his hospital admission, and some argue that the violence during the bus hijacking was directed at his mother by proxy. In the ensuing days, the media characterized other extremely violent crimes as having been perpetrated by hikikomori, such as one man who kidnapped nine-year-old Sano Fusako and held her captive for nine years and two months, or Tsutomu Miyazaki, who in 1989 killed four young girls. As a result of this negative media attention, hikikomori acquired a social stigma of being violent and mentally ill that persists to this day.
The hikikomoris' fear of social pressure and concurrent inability to effect change in their situation may turn into frustration or even anger. Some hikikomori have physically attacked their parents, though most of the time anger manifests in other ways, such as nightly harassment by banging on walls while the rest of the family sleeps.
This hostility often arises when parents continue to exert pressure on the hikikomori to come out of their rooms after many months of isolation, despite the fact that a status quo has been allowed to develop between the parents, usually the mother, and the hikikomori. This status quo, called the Strange Peace, occurs because parents passively allow their child to stay withdrawn. It can have many causes but mostly centers on an amae relationship between mother and son, the fear and social stigma of the local community knowing the family has a hikikomori, and the notion that it is better to have the child in the house even in isolation than as a runaway.
When hikikomori came into the public spotlight, mass media sources initially argued that the loss of a social frame of reference might lead hikikomori to commit violent or criminal acts. However, hikikomori experts maintain that true hikikomori are too socially withdrawn and timid to venture outside of their rooms, let alone go outside the home and attack someone. If hikikomori physically attack anyone, it is usually family members.
There are different opinions about the treatment of a hikikomori, and the opinions often split into a Japanese and a western point of view. Japanese experts usually suggest waiting until the hikikomori reemerges, whereas western doctors suggest dragging the hikikomori back into society, by force if necessary.
While there are a growing number of doctors and clinics specialized in helping hikikomori, many hikikomori and their parents still feel a lack of support for their problems on an institutional level and feel that society at large has been slow to react to the hikikomori crisis. In the last several years, a hikikomori support industry has sprung up in Japan, each with its own style or philosophy in treating hikikomori cases. Despite this diversity, there seem to be two general camps for treatment:
- The psychological approach suggests psychological help is needed for these isolated young people, as many parents are overwhelmed with the problems of a hikikomori child whom they don’t understand. The standard psychological approach to hikikomori behavior in a youth is to treat the condition as a behavioral or mental disorder and so admit the child to a hospital ward in order to administer counseling, observation, and drug therapy using standard institutional procedures.
- The socialization approach to hikikomori treatment views the problem as one of socialization rather than mental illness. Instead of clinical treatment in a hospital, the hikikomori is removed from the original environment of the home into a shared living environment and encouraged to reintegrate into social groups through daily activities with other hikikomori who are already in various states of recovery; this approach shows the person that they are not alone in their condition and appears to be successful for most cases.
In contrast to the approach of treatment, some may argue that the Hikikomori status is a personal personality style or choice of living to be accepted, or resolved, within the respective families, as long as this choice is not leading to criminal or violent behaviour affecting others. As there is a certain tendency in societies, especially traditionally conformist ones like the Japanese society, to label individuals or minority groups deviating from the perceived norm, be it physical, social, psychological or sexual, "pathologically ill" and calling for their cure, i.e. re-alignment with the mainstream, there must be a careful examination regarding the actual wishes of the individual in comparison to the alleged harm to society (also see Asperger Syndrome and Schizoid Personality Disorder regarding the treatment vs. acceptance issue).
In some cases a Hikikomori partially or completely recovers in time when given a free house or apartment of his own.
References in pop culture
- The light novel and manga (recently made into an anime series) Welcome to the NHK! created by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and illustrated by Kenji Oiwa, currently serialized in the magazine Monthly Shōnen Ace deals with hikikomori as a central theme.
- In the manga and anime, Rozen Maiden, the main character, Jun Sakurada, suffers from hikikomori after cracking under the pressure of entrance exams.
- Episode 2 of the live action TV series Jigoku Shōjo (based on the popular anime series of the same name) tells a short story of a hikikomori who exacts revenge against the person who led his father to commit suicide.
- Endrance, one of the major characters of .hack//G.U., is a hikikomori outside of the game, spending most of his time playing it.
- The 2004 film Hikikomori: Tokyo Plastic by director Adario Strange.
- 2004 film The Quiet One by Danyael Sugawara
- In the film Densha Otoko, the main character is given advice over the Internet by a hikikomori.
- In the 2006 South Korean horror film APT.
Related Japanese topics
Medical diagnoses for hikikomori behaviors
- Asperger's syndrome
- Attention-Deficit-Disorder (ADD)
- Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Avoidant personality disorder
- Delayed sleep phase syndrome
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Schizoid personality disorder
- Selective mutism
- Social anxiety disorder
- Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse) - 2001 film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa which comments about this behavior in Japan
- School refusal
- Secondary school
- "Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2006)
- NPR: text and audio excerpt from "Shutting Out the Sun"
- Shutting Themselves In, The New York Times Magazine, January 15, 2006
- "BBC Correspondent: The Missing Million"
- "BBC Correspondent: Hikikomori Violence"
- "Time Asia: Japan's Lost Generation"
- "Time: Staying In and Tuning Out"
- "Al-Jazeera: Japan's Secret Epidemic"
- "Scotland on Sunday: Japan's Lost Generation"
- Movie: "Hikikomori: Tokyo Plastic"
- “Hikikomori - Japans Latest Outcasts”
- "NHK's Hikikomori Support Site (in Japanese)"
- "Managing Categorization and Social Withdrawal in Japan"
- "Kal Karman documentary on hikikomori (in Quicktime movie format)"
- "Homepage in English about hikikomori by students of Roskilde University, Denmark
- " Francesco Jodice ´s website where you can find a very interesting little documentary on Hikikomori"
- "Dropouts in Japanese society"
- "Investigations into the phenomenon of acute social withdrawal in contemporary Japan (pdf)"