A world of fear for Japan’s shut-ins


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.”

  • Earl Kinmonth

    What evidence does the author have for the claim “hikikomori is a growing disorder in Japan.”

  • GBR48

    Agoraphobia and other social anxiety disorders are not confined to Japan, although it’s easy to see why they might become more of an issue there given other social and cultural factors. Such problems do tend to become more prevalent when other stresses increase, such as those that occur in a tougher economic environment.

    Globally, some folk find mixing with, or being around others to be difficult and rapidly feel anxious or disorientated in groups or crowds. This may be the result of having a naturally shy personality, but can be much more serious. When such problems impact upon one’s day-to-day life, treatment should be sought.

    Hyperacusis (an increased sensitivity to sound) and other physical hypersensitivities, all more common than you might expect, can also lead to a desire to lock oneself away.

    This is not just the creation of neologisms by bored academics and expensive psychotherapists touting for trade, but the result of the increased study of those who just find it a lot tougher to interact with the world than the majority. Sympathy, understanding and a bit of support can help.

    Japanese people should be aware of the issue, as it has featured regularly in various media. See, for example, the film ‘Fireworks from the Heart’ (‘Oniichan no Hanabi’) [2010].

    Psychological illness is not ‘fabricated’. The continued existence of such an ignorant view makes treatment difficult and helps boost Japan’s suicide statistics. The same popular ignorance used to deny the existence of allergies.

  • Horst Kloos

    I’ve read the original German version of the book and have to say something in the author’s defense. The two points of criticism that Mr. Hornyak picked – probably to discredit the writer as somebody who doesn’t know Japan very well and thus has little right to write about certain aspects of Japanese culture – are both errors in the translation.

    Cranes: they are crows in Flasar’s text. Not cranes. I’m sure the publisher will correct this error in the next edition of the book.

    Business card: in the German version, it is clear that Ohara gives his personal card to Taguchi. The translation of the word is technically correct as “business card”, however it is wrong in this context.

    Even if these two points were wrong in the original, I wouldn’t see them as “clumsy oversights that detract from the story”, but as minor and negligible errors in accuracy. But as a fact, they are not wrong. They are mistakes the translator made.

    Naturally, Mr. Hornyak couldn’t know that. But what he should know is that Flasar is bilingual and fluent in Japanese. By writing “To readers who know Japanese well, there are some exchanges in the running dialog that ring hollow.” he implies that she doesn’t, to further discredit her. One has to keep in mind that the book, including the dialogues, were written in German, for a German audience. How can the reader’s knowledge of another language be relevant to the correct understanding of the dialogues?

  • Carmen Sterba

    I left Japan in 2004. I heard my students, sons and their friends talk about hikikomori quite often. Perhaps, in the last ten years, it is not as common to talk about, but that doesn’t mean such a condition does not exist.

    • Earl Kinmonth

      I’m sure it exists and not just in Japan. I had an uncle in the US in the 1950s who was hikikomori. I myself am hikikomori by the defintion that is generally used – no social contact outside the family for six months or more. I’m too damn busy to have any time for anything other than work and family. Incidentally, the reason hikikomori was being talked about in 2004 was because NHK was giving it big play at that time. Ten years later, I find that few Japanese college students even know the term. A few years ago, the Tokyo city government made a concerted effort to count hikikomori. Even with a combination of survey methods and an extremely generous defintion of hikikomori that counted people who went out to work, look for jobs, or to shop but who were otherwise reclusive, they found only 22,500 (estimated). That’s on a population base of nearly 13 million people. NPOs and NGOs that are looking for funding keep trying to rekindle interest in the subject, but fortunately they appear to be having little success. There are far more pressing social issues that warrant attention. As long as hikikomori are not bothering anyone, what business is it of the government or NPOs and NGOs what their social life is?

      • Carmen Sterba

        This topic reminds me of Murakami Haruki’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage. In the novel, the main character wonders about how people overseas reacted to a photo and article of crowds of Japanese commuters walking with their heads down:

        “Tsukuru had no idea if most Japanese were, as the article claimed, unhappy. But the real reason that most passengers descending the stairs at Shinjuku Station during their packed morning commute were looking
        down was less that they were unhappy that that they were concerned about their footing . . . certainly it was hard to view this mass of people, clad in dark overcoats, their heads down, as happy. And of course it’s
        logical to see a country where people can’t commute in the morning without fear of losing their shoes as an unhappy society . . .”

        When I read this, my reaction was different than Murakami’s character. I thought commuters in Tokyo are not sad, nor are they trying to be careful of their feet (for Japanese have very good balance). Instead, they are just tired and want to move through a sea of humanity as if no one else is there.

        Whether talk is of ‘unhappy Japanese’ or the growth of ‘shut-ins,’ either way one media or another is very sensitive or insensitive toward analyzing trends.