To look at 29-year-old Kenji Tanaka laughing and drinking with his friends, it’s hard to believe that he spent the best part of his twenties cut off from almost all human contact.
He’s at a weekly pot-luck party organized by New Start, a nonprofit organization based in the outskirts of Tokyo that is helping Kenji and other recovering “hikikomori” (socially withdrawn young people).
Estimates of the number of socially withdrawn young people in Japan range from the tens of thousands to more than a million. Many have been hidden for years. New Start’s aim is to coax these young people out of their rooms and help them function again in Japanese society.
But oddly enough, says the charity’s founder, Noki Futagami, the best way to do that may actually be to send them abroad.
“There’s some bit of their personality that clashes with Japanese society. That’s why they won’t come out of their homes. These kids have come to a dead end in this society, they need to go somewhere else.”
He wants that somewhere else to be 40 dormitories around the world the charity is planning to open by 2007.
Futagami believes that the experience of living and working abroad can give the children the confidence and personal skills to cope in Japanese society on their return.
Kenji has just come back from 6 months in the charity’s Rome dormitory where he learned Italian and made friends with the other ex-hikikomori.
“I feel more free now, more positive about communicating with people. Before I just used worry about what people were thinking about me.
“People in Italy looked like they were having so much fun. It made me think ‘I want to enjoy my life,’ ”
Soon the charity will open a classroom in Rome where ex-hikikomori can teach Japanese to Italian students. New Start already operates languages schools and cafes in the Philippines and in Korea as well as in Japan.
Only a few years after its formation in 1999, New Start is already providing dormitory rooms here and abroad for 80 Japanese ex-hikikomori. It’s staff are in contact with another 100, mostly young men, still shut in their rooms. Sometimes the only communication they can manage is by e-mail; maybe after that telephone conversations and finally a face to face meeting.
Once the young people agree to move into the dormitory they are watched carefully to make sure that they don’t shut themselves into their new rooms. At the very least they have to come out for mealtimes and to do their shopping. Around 80 percent of the young people also work in the charity’s coffee shops, restaurants and a care center for old people. All the hikikomori are expected to start work when they can.
Staff member Akira Kaneko says this robust approach to helping hikikomori is unusual in Japan where medication is often used instead of motivation.
“Maybe some hikikomori are really mentally ill — but at least half are being given drugs.”
“Mentally ill people should go somewhere else than this charity. We don’t give these young people medicine, they are not sick. We want to treat them like ordinary young people.”
Psychiatrist Tamaki Saito agrees that medicine is “just one way” of treating hikikomori. He has had socially withdrawn patients since 1989, well before the topic was taken up by the media, or even given a name. His treatment includes psychotherapy and day care as well as medication.
While some patients may show serious symptoms of mental illness, even psychosis, maybe half are victims of a social condition rather than an illness. He points to one social factor in particular; that it’s normally children of more wealthy parents who become hikikomori. “You can’t withdraw from society if your parents are poor (and can’t support you).”
New Start is one of over 14,000 groups that have been granted NPO status since 1998 when the Japanese government passed a new law to make it easier for such groups to form.
However, NPOs are still hamstrung by bureaucratic restrictions on fund raising. For example, out of 14,000 NPOs in Japan, at present only 18 can receive tax deductible donations.
Retired management consultant Mototoki Takao has been advising New Start since it became an NPO. And he’s not impressed with the government’s attitude to the nonprofit sector.
“The government doesn’t understand the needs of people. They just look from the top down, not from the bottom up. Japan is about 35 years behind America and Europe in its NPO development.”
He says that the charity’s income from private donations could increase 5 times if tax- deductible donations were allowed. Luckily, it’s a quirk of hikikomori care that parents are often quite happy to pay the charity to help their children. After all, the other option is to support them at home indefinitely.
This autumn the charity took 20 ex-hikikomori and helpers on a two month “slow walk” along the 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage in Shikoku. They are now planning a second walk from March to April next year; and they are looking for non-Japanese volunteers too.
Futagami, the charity’s founder, is keen to give the young people any opportunity then can get to broaden their experiences — whether it’s by traveling abroad or meeting non-Japanese in Japan.
“It’s something about Japan and the Japanese. As soon as the situation gets bad, we close the gates.
“These young people have been shut up in such a tiny world. They need to broaden their horizons.”