Books / Reviews

A world of fear for Japan’s shut-ins

by Tim Hornyak

Special To The Japan Times

Several years ago, a vogue of interest in shut-ins, or hikikomori, saw researchers from France touring Japan and meeting reclusive youths. Such was the prevalence of the disorder, said psychologist Nicolas Tajan, that “if you ask people in Japan about hikikomori, almost everyone will say, ‘I know somebody like that.’ But there is no such word in France.”

I Called Him Necktie, by Milena Michiko Flasar
Translated by Sheila Dickie.
New Vessel Press, Fiction.

Almost everyone? Well, there may be hundreds of thousands of people in Japan who shun social contact, as some experts claim, and many seem to be 20-somethings who still live with their parents. Why? The causes are myriad. Mental illness is basically still a taboo subject in 21st-century Japan, and those who admit to depression face social stigma. This country, after all, has one of the world’s highest suicide rates.

It’s not surprising to see foreign academic and cultural interest in the phenomenon of shut-ins. In 2012, that curiosity sparked two novels from German-speaking writers. One, by Kevin Kuhn, is unsurprisingly titled “Hikikomori.” The other, by Milena Michiko Flasar, has just been translated into English as “I Called Him Necktie.”

“Necktie” focuses on Hiro Taguchi, a 20-year-old who has spent the last two years holed up in his parents’ Tokyo home. He spends his days not surfing the Web or watching anime, but contemplating a crack in the wall. Thankfully Flasar doesn’t spend too much time on that pastime, but soon propels Taguchi into the outside world. The trigger? A “flight of cranes” he sees through his window.

Setting aside the fact that there are no wild cranes in Tokyo, or anywhere else on Honshu for that matter, we are told that Taguchi is compelled to go outside. He soon finds himself observing people in a park, particularly a salaryman, Tetsu Ohara, who sits across from him on a bench for hours on end. When the two acknowledge each other, Taguchi eventually begins to talk for the first time in ages.

The two men slowly trade life stories, told through conversation and flashbacks, and form a tenuous friendship. Taguchi is revealed to be scarred by the loss of two childhood friends, and his parents cannot penetrate the mental fortress he has built against adulthood.

In private reflection he muses: “Growing up signifies a loss. You think you are winning. Really, you are losing yourself. I mourned the child I had once been, whom I heard in rare moments pummeling wildly in my heart.”

Ohara is too ashamed to tell his wife that he has been laid off from his job, and maintains the ruse of bringing her homemade lunches with him when he goes to “work” every day. Meanwhile, he fantasizes about jumping onto the train tracks. He’s also haunted by his past, and has never recovered from the death of his handicapped son whom he could not bring himself to love: “My hardness prevented me from feeling the softness of his cheeks deeply and sincerely. Of the two of us I had the serious heart defect.”

Flasar attempts to create honest, imperfect characters, but while they do have psychological depth, they often come off as cloying stereotypes. The hikikomori rejects the strictures of maturity and society while the repressed salaryman is crushed by them. Taguchi’s parents, fearing ostracism, believe the family’s “name and reputation must be preserved at all costs.” A schoolgirl is bullied to death. A hopelessly sensitive poet is cut down in the prime of youth.

The gloom would be overbearing if the narrative didn’t focus on prying Taguchi from his shell.

The author has a Japanese mother and is familiar with Japan, but there are some clumsy oversights that detract from the story. Aside from the cranes, a key plot point comes when Taguchi seeks out Ohara’s house — thanks to the home address written on his business card. I’ve collected countless cards from salarymen over the years but they’ve only ever had their company’s address. To readers who know Japanese well, there are some exchanges in the running dialog that ring hollow.

Where Flasar shines is in style. The writing has been described as a prose poem, and the English translation by Sheila Dickie displays a lyrical sensitivity to language and form. It omits quotation marks and other conventions in favor of a refreshingly elliptical but direct approach with economy of words; the story only runs 128 pages. Its lucid style is more Japanese than some parts of the narrative.

Writing a novel about hikikomori is ambitious and risky. “I Called Him Necktie” is a flawed yet probing rumination not only on the tragedies of the characters themselves, but Japanese society’s failure to accept its own faults. Japan’s many shut-ins themselves — people whose stories are not told — are testimony to this. As Ohara says in a revelation about isolation: “We must all, every one of us, relate to one another.”