Asian cultures often face harsh critique when placed under Western scrutiny – we prize freedom, individuality and creativity over the rigid conformity that many eastern countries are depicted as. Brutishly intelligent, we think of Japanese students devoting all their time to studying lest they bring great dishonor to their families. In truth, we project these stereotypes because we really don’t want to live our lives under that kind of pressure, and an overwhelming number of Japanese youths feel the same way. Therein lies the resoundingly sad tale of hikikomori.
Hikikomori (ひきこもり，引き籠もり) roughly translates to “pulling inward,” and has affected around 1% of the population, or close to a million reported cases. Statistically made up of young males, the person becomes so introverted that they seek refuge in their rooms and some don’t come out for years. It is a sociological condition many Japanese psychologists believe has developed within the last 30 years in response to Japan’s economic stagnantion, its aging and dwindling population, and a generation of parents nearing retirement who have deep pockets. If you’re waiting for something funny to come up, this story is not a funny one, and it’s only going to get sadder. So get some tissues and prepare to feel worse than Jim Gaffigan does after eating a hot pocket.
The condition of hikikomori will sound similar to that of depression, people who have severe anxiety disorders, agoraphobics and to some extent a state summarized by the T S Eliot poem J. Alfred Prufrock. However, hikikomori seems a condition unique to Japan, as psychologists do not attach any other form of mental illness to its source, but attribute it as a condition or even subculture in and of itself that compels a person to reject the cultural rigidity so squarely placed on the shoulders of Japanese youth. What, then, makes these guys so sad?
Some background knowledge into the Japanese educational hierarchy would make most North Americans want to turn to the comforts of their various video games consoles and forget that such a system is in existence anywhere in the world. To quickly summarize the archaic education system in Japan, imagine having to memorize for rote everything you ever learned from the time you were in elementary school until you landed your first job; your ability to regurgitate all of these notations will determine your degree of success in life starting in elementary school, when you take an exam to get into an esteemed junior high school, then an exam for a top ranking academic high school and thus providing your greatest chance at getting into the best universities, in turn landing you an excellent job as soon as you’ve got your degree in hand. You’re set on course for life by the time you’ve barely started growing pubic hair because you have to decide then what you’ll do for the rest of your life. If you don’t get into that good junior high school, you’re fucked.
There’s no room for late bloomers in this strict educational hierarchy; there is a standardized test for all students wishing to enter university, but the idea is that the high school you go to grooms you to attain a score that matches the caliber of your desired university. So, bad junior high school = bad high school = very, very little chance of going to a well-regarded university. Japanese high schools used to have nine classes a day 6 days a week, which has graciously been cut down to 7 classes and five days, but has resulted in an influx of cram schools to “make up for lost time.” If a student does not pass the standardized exam nor that of their desired university, it is expected that they will spend the entirety of the next year studying for almost ten hours a day in order to pass the next time around. Imagine for a moment leaving your house to go to cram school the whole day, coming home and studying for four more hours, then repeat for the next 365 days. This would be apt time for a vomit break.
The amount of pressure put on students and young adults is crippling to say the least, which has largely contributed to the increasing number of hikikomori cases over the years. Other factors include that the once guaranteed job out of university has not been the reality for many years, and a spreading apathy that asks what the point is. Whether the catalyst is a poor test score or bullying, these dejected people turn inwards and spend excessive amounts of time either in their room or indoors, with parents that can afford to financially support them for a near indefinite period of time.
Many Japanese live at home well into their 20s and even 30s as it is, so it’s not as if hikikomori are in any way odd to have their parents care for them even as young adults. However the longer a person remains a hikikomori, the more their ability to re-enter society atrophies. With many of their parents approaching retirement, it’s become a unique problem that could produce unprecedented problems in the near future.
Dr. Tamaki Saito first coined the phrase hikihomori about thirty years ago, when families or those suffering with hikikomori began to seek him for help. Different from ‘social parasitism’ which also plagues Japan and it’s economy, Saito found that mental illnesses such as OCD were symptoms of what he came to define as hikikomori rather than the other way around. It is largely caused by the interdependence of Japanese parents and their children, exacerbated by the social pressures put on (usually the eldest) young males to perform well in school and their career. This crippling tug-o-war between parent and child for support while trying to rise to the mounting expectations that define Japanese masculinity has been detrimental to the mental health of young males especially.
The declining birth rate has only served to put further pressure on boys with fewer children to diffuse reliance on by parents, as well as the intense competition for jobs straight out of university. Many companies will only hire what they call “fresh” graduates (those who have sought employment immediately following the March graduation), so many students will continue to pour money into attending university for another year if they don’t get a job just to maintain this crucial status. Well, fuck.
With the rise of the culture of rejection has come new research and companies in response. Halfway houses and similar programs have been growing quickly to help draw these people out of their isolation with a gentle hand so as not to cause a relapse. One program, called New Start based out of Tokyo, provides dorms and job training to help integrate hikikomori back into society by initially sending a “rental sister” over to the person’s house. She acts as the segue way between their isolation back into the world of social relationships, providing them with the initial building blocks to feel comfortable interacting with people and their culture again. This is not to say the programs are attempting to force the social rigidity hikikomori reject back onto them, but rather illuminate them to the fact that they can create meaningful relationships and find enjoyment in work.
The rate of school refusal in Japan has more than doubled in the past twenty years, and birth rates point towards a threatening population drop within the next thirty. While Shinzo Abe’s government has made some massive overhauls to the country’s economic policy that has seen the nikkei rise in May for the first time in five in a half years (and since fall 15%), it’s hard to say how their fiscal stimulus will positively affect the economy in the long run. While hikikomori are not the only social issue that requires desperate attention, they represent the startling antithesis to the Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”