Is the hikikomori phenomenon unique to Japan — or does it exist in other societies, too?

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from Japan and France is currently trying to answer just that question, in a project that could change how the issue of those people who become social recluses (hikikomori) is understood by experts around the world.

The three-year project, funded by Japanese government grants, aims to study “commonalities and differences” as regards socially reclusive youths in Japan and France. Whereas the word “hikikomori” has been in use in Japan for some 20 years, a similar phenomenon in France has only recently begun to attract attention there, and isn’t yet so clearly identified or defined.

To further understanding of the phenomenon in their native society, five French experts — including four affiliated with the Paris Descartes University and a Japan Foundation fellow at Kyoto University — made a study tour in Japan late last month, stopping off in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

In addition to meeting ex-hikikomori youths and listening to their stories, they visited a rehabilitation center and exchanged views with Japanese researchers in the field. During the trip, they also found time to share their findings with The Japan Times in a group interview whose lingua franca was English.

The following are excerpts from that meeting this reporter held with Nancy Pionnie-Dax (N. P-D.), a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Paris Descartes University (PDU); Natacha Vellut (N. V.), a psychologist at PDU; Maia Fansten (M.F.), an associate professor of sociology at PDU; Cristina Figuereido (C. F.), associate professor of anthropology at PDU; and Nicolas Tajan (N. T.), a psychologist and Japan Foundation fellow at Kyoto University.

“Hikikomori” is defined in Japan as those young people who are not attending school or working, have no interaction with society and have not left their home or room for more than six months. Such people came to the public’s attention here in the 1990s. Does this phenomenon exist in France?

M.F.: There is no equivalent word to “hikikomori” in French to describe the same thing. It’s pretty new there. Official concern is mainly focused on school refusal or school dropouts, but not specifically hikikomori in the Japanese sense of total reclusion. We believe it may be happening, but it’s still not officially recognized as a phenomenon. So we want to understand what’s happening in France.

N.T.: 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.

However, I understand that there are signs of an emerging trend in France, and I wonder when that started?

M.F.: It’s hard to say when. So far it’s come to light through schools. It’s usually the teachers who give an alert that somebody is not going to school.

Under the French school education system, it’s compulsory to go to school until age 16. So, if someone drops out of school before that age, it would immediately be revealed to the family through the school system. All the (other) issues with young adults are much less visible.

N.V.: Perhaps it’s a new language to express difficulties (faced by) young people.

M.F.: In some cases it’s very extreme and connected to psychiatric symptoms, but in other cases we want to test the hypothesis that it might be a way that people have at their disposal to be themselves.

We think that there are a limited means of expressing yourself in society. Thirty years ago, maybe in France you would go and travel far away if you felt you weren’t at the right place at the right time.

Now, what is interesting is that the means of expressing such feelings (are changing). Instead of going away, these kids are (locking themselves up) in their bedrooms. That might mean something about our own society and our systems.

Is hikikomori behavior not regarded negatively in France?

All: No.

N.T.: In Japan it’s of course haji (stigma). It’s not a stigma in France.

Are there any hikikomori statistics in France?

N.T.: No.

What kind of research have you been doing with Nagoya University?

N.P-D.: Professor Suzuki (from the university) works on the hikikomori phenomenon. On the Nagoya University campus he has developed an environment to take care of and prevent hikikomori, where teachers and students can meet and share activities. They also organize peer support among students. That team of researchers contacted one of the researchers at the Paris Descartes University and asked us to work on the issue.

(Note: Contacted later by phone, Kunifumi Suzuki, professor of psychopathology at Nagoya University, explained that he launched the France-Japan study in 2010, as similar cases have been observed over the last decade in other countries, including France, Britain and Italy.)

M.F.: So far, the dominant idea is that it’s specific to Japan and very connected to the historical, economical issues of Japan in the ’90s. Suzuki’s idea was that it might be much wider, and that it is (related to aspects of) modern society, much more than Japan. So that’s why he called for researchers to do comparative research.

In March, you released an interim report in which you compared cases of perceived hikikomori behavior. All nine subjects

referred to there — five from Japan and four from France — were male. Why was that? (Note: A 2010 Cabinet Office study found that two-thirds of the 5,000 people surveyed who fitted a hikikomori profile were male.)

N.V.: We can’t generalize because it’s such a small number. It’s not a statistic, but we have met only men (in) social reclusion.

C.F.: In our university there are two girls.

M.F.: Society in Japan expects men to go out, so there is a specific reason for men not to be doing that.

N.P-D.: Girls speak early about their internal feelings. What happens to boys is that they keep it locked up until the problem gets really bad.

So do you think that in France the social pressures on men to go out and make a living and support the family are also greater than on women?

All: Yes. No. (Opinions are divided. Rumblings in French follow.)

N.P-D.: Yeah, maybe we don’t agree (on this point).

N.V.: We have different points of view sometimes. We think that women find it easier to seek help, to speak about feelings.

M.F.: I would add that that’s because women’s identity in social terms is (defined by) relationships, communication and home. For men, (identity) is much more (tied to) action, performance — to being outside.

It might explain why symptoms are different when it comes to expressing difficulties in meeting social expectations, and why statistics show that women suffer more from eating disorders than men.

Isn’t it true that, in France, people are expected to live on their own when they reach 18? In Japan, it is sort of acceptable for people to stay with their parents long into adulthood.

M.F. (In France, the idea is that) one should be autonomous after 18 and should go to university or get jobs.

Yes, the perfect path would be to leave your parents and live by yourself, but it’s less and less possible. More and more young people are still staying at their parents’ places after age 30 because of economic difficulties.

What have you learned since arriving in Japan?

N.T.: Yesterday (at a meeting of a support group in Yokohama run by ex-hikikomori) we met a famous ex-hikikomori who has written about it. Most people there were in their 40s and 50s, and they are the first-generation hikikomori.

N.V.: They said they were “masters” of hikikomori (laugh).

Today we were at New Start (a nonprofit organization for hikikomori and other youths) in Chiba Prefecture. There were 50 boys and six girls. It has two objectives: It is a place where they can feel comfortable, and a place to give them job experiences. There is a bakery and a restaurant, so they have to prepare and cook food and try to become capable of living independently.

N.P-D.: At New Start, we met a young man who had been kicked out of his home and had only three months’ money to live off. Then he found help at New Start.

In France, if something like that was to happen, the young man would benefit from social-welfare support.

What are your impressions of the situation in Japan?

N.V.: Ex-hikikomori expressed very strong emotions, and we were surprised by that.

M.F.: We were moved by the fact that they shared very private issues.

C.F.: We have realized that Europeans have a lot of preconceptions (about Japanese people).

How were the ex-hikikomori you have met? Were they no longer withdrawn?

N.T.: Yes — but you can tell they are borderline (cases). A lot of them are in a cycle of hikikomori, arubaito (part-time employment), hikikomori, arubaito.

N.T.: We had this image (of hikikomori in Japan being exceptionally withdrawn) before, and even today some Japanese said that they are mute, silent. But those we met were not.

M.F.: This morning we learned that New Start is based on a very free conception of a community. We found it very interesting.

N.P-D.: The (staff members) were calling themselves “rental brothers” and “rental sisters.” In our meeting yesterday (in Yokohama), there was another thing that came up and was very interesting.

It was that psychiatry in France has evolved from treating only those with severe mental disorders to treating people with relationship issues or learning disabilities — especially adolescents. So I talked about some institutions that exist in France, where adolescents or hikikomori can go and live apart from their families. Such places are run by psychiatrists.

That was intriguing to people we met, because, they immediately thought that adolescents were being made to go there.

M.F.: We felt that psychiatry is looked upon negatively in Japan; that’s not at all the case in France.

N.P-D.: I think in Japan, there are no places (for young adults to stay apart from their schools, workplaces or homes) and maybe withdrawal is the solution. What was very interesting this morning was that they are creating an in-between, intermediate place, which is very rare in Japan.

If there is no hikikomori phenomenon in France, maybe it’s because in the past 20 years we have developed a lot of in-between areas for people to express themselves.

M.F.: Also, for the last two days, we haven’t heard the word Internet. That has not been an issue for two days.

Do you think family relationships play a role in someone being a hikikomori?

M.F.: We think it’s very ambivalent, because on the one hand there might be family issues that would lead to such a situation, (resulting from) a lack of communication or difficult situations inside the family.

But on the other hand, if these kids do withdraw inside their homes, that means something.

In France, we have been trying to understand the Japanese concept of amae (indulgent dependency). We obviously don’t have the same concept in France.

In the end, a hikikomori needs to have parents who let him or her stay at home for a long time, so it’s more of a collective syndrome than an individual syndrome.

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