Lifestyle

The prison inside: Japan's hikikomori lack relationships, not physical spaces

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Fifty-three-year-old Kenji Yamase doesn’t fit the traditional image of a hikikomori, but then perceptions of Japan’s social recluses are changing.

“People think of hikikomori as being lazy young people with personality problems who stay in their rooms all the time playing video games,” says Yamase, who lives with his 87-year-old mother and has been a recluse on and off for the past 30 years.

“But the reality is that most hikikomori are people who can’t get back into society after straying off the path at some point,” he says. “They have been forced into withdrawal. It isn’t that they’re shutting themselves away — it’s more like they’re being forced to shut themselves away.”

A hikikomori is defined by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as someone who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work, and rarely interacts with people from outside their own immediate family.

The term was coined by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito in the late 1990s to describe young people who had withdrawn from society, and a series of violent incidents involving social recluses soon after helped shape the public’s image of them as dangerous sociopaths.

In January 2000, a loner in Niigata Prefecture was arrested after it was discovered that he had kidnapped a 9-year-old girl and kept her hostage in his room for more than nine years.

Four months later, a 17-year-old from Saga Prefecture hijacked a bus, killing one passenger with a kitchen knife and injuring another two.

In recent years, however, a different picture has emerged.

In December 2018, the Cabinet Office undertook a first-ever survey of people aged between 40 and 64, and the results, published in March, revealed that around 613,000 people of that age group in Japan are believed to be hikikomori. That surpasses the estimated 541,000 people aged between 15 and 39 that a 2015 Cabinet Office survey found to be hikikomori.

The latest survey showed that 76.6 percent of recluses between the ages of 40 and 64 are men.

A total of 46.7 percent of the hikikomori surveyed said they had lived that way for at least seven years, and 34.1 percent of cases said they relied on their parents for financial support.

Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto described middle-aged hikikomori as “a new phenomenon,” but experts argue that the survey results are merely bringing to light something that has been present for some time.

Masaki Ikegami | YOSHIAKI MIIURA
Masaki Ikegami | YOSHIAKI MIIURA

“The structure of Japanese society makes it difficult for people to get back on the rails once they have come off them,” says journalist Masaki Ikegami, who has written about hikikomori issues for more than 20 years. “I think the majority of hikikomori are people who have had difficulty in their working life and have been scarred by their human relationships there.

“Other cases might be people who have had bad experiences at school, or who have been through disasters or accidents or illnesses,” he says. “Or people who might have quit their jobs to look after elderly parents and have never gone back. There are many different reasons, and it can happen to anyone at any age.”

Yamase lives in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward with his mother, Kazuko, who raised him along with his grandmother after his parents divorced when he was 10.

Yamase has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), making it difficult for him to look after himself. His diagnosis four years ago means he can now access services for people with developmental disorders and call on a helper to tidy up the house twice a week, but the majority of the housework burden falls on his mother.

Kenji Yamase | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Kenji Yamase | ANDREW MCKIRDY

Yamase is one of thousands of hikikomori in their 50s living alone with parents in their 80s, giving Japan a ticking time bomb that has been labeled the “8050 problem.”

“My mother says she’s got no other alternative but to look after me, but she’s old and she can’t move so well,” Yamase says.

“When it comes to something physical like doing the washing, she says she can’t do it. That makes me feel anxious,” he says. “I feel apologetic toward my mother. I cause her trouble. I’m at an age where I’m supposed to be looking after myself but she’s still looking after me.”

Yamase’s ADHD meant he struggled to cope with the relaxed structure of university after the rigid timetable of high school. He repeatedly missed deadlines and subsequently dropped out of his law course, and when he eventually found a job, he was unable to manage tasks efficiently and had to quit.

Over the next 15 years or so, he fell into a pattern of working for two or three years but failing to fit into the environment and quitting, then spending the next two or three years shut up at home.

“I would read books or just sleep but it wasn’t fun,” he says. “I would feel anxious, but I hated the thought of going back into society and working again. I wanted to avoid having another painful experience, so although I didn’t like being in the house, it was better than working.

“If you ask why I didn’t start looking for a new job straight away, it’s because I thought I was going to fail again. I thought that, no matter how hard I tried, things would just turn out the same way. I would become depressed and not be able to move.”

Feelings of failure and shame are common among hikikomori of all ages.

Naohiro Kimura was a bright high school student from Ibaraki Prefecture who, like Yamase, went to university to major in law. After graduation, he wanted to go to law school but his father refused to fund it. Instead, he shut himself away in his room at his parents’ house and studied for the bar examination by himself for 10 hours a day.

Naohiro Kimura | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Naohiro Kimura | ANDREW MCKIRDY

With no classes to go to, however, Kimura found himself cut off from the outside world. His mental health began to deteriorate until eventually he couldn’t even bring himself to focus on his studies. Instead, he stared blankly at a TV screen for around 10 hours a day and only left the house at night when he was sure he wouldn’t meet anyone.

“I thought I had failed,” says Kimura, who spent 10 years as a hikikomori and is now 35.

“If you graduate from university in Japan but then don’t get a job, people look at you as if to ask what you think you’re playing at. People have a strong sense that you should be working,” he says. “I was embarrassed and I didn’t want anyone to see me. Whenever I saw someone wearing a suit, I would feel like I had caused trouble. I hated seeing working people. I would compare myself to them and it would make me feel wretched. I felt a strong sense of shame.”

Kimura says he never considered himself to be a hikikomori because he would regularly go outside to walk his dog. The popular image of a recluse is of someone who never leaves their room but, in reality, only a small percentage fit that description.

“Hikikomori are able to visit places where they feel secure,” says Ikegami, who himself had a period of social withdrawal in his younger days.

“They don’t work or do anything, so they think people are going to criticize them and dismiss them as worthless. They think the people around them will start lecturing them, so they avoid places where people might be,” he says.

“They can go to libraries or convenience stores or train stations — places where they don’t know anyone or where no one is likely to start talking to them,” he says. “Some people might even feel they can go to a convenience store if the clerk is foreign, not Japanese.”

Kimura explains that, having lived in the same small, close-knit town in Ibaraki Prefecture his whole life — excluding his time at university in Kobe — the risk of running into someone who knew him if he ventured out during the daytime was high.

JULIA NASCIMENTO
JULIA NASCIMENTO

According to Tsukuba University professor Saito, who is regarded as the foremost expert on social withdrawal, that sense of shame can extend to a hikikomori’s family.

“In Japan, people who do things differently or who stand out are frowned upon, so people tend to hesitate before doing anything that will draw attention to themselves,” Saito says. “When people realize that they have become hikikomori, they know that society will think less of them, and they then fear that. The family thinks the same way. When they realize that their child doesn’t leave the house and doesn’t work, they try to hide them from society.”

Saito explains that bad relationships in the family are often the root cause of social withdrawal, and that a hikikomori is unlikely to escape his or her situation without help from an outside party. This could come from an old friend, teacher or relative who intervenes in a nonforceful way, prompting the hikikomori to seek professional counseling.

In Kimura’s case, things came to a head in a more confrontational manner. He had become unable to control his emotions and his frequent arguments with his parents had caused them to move out. One day, they turned up at the house with two police officers and two health care workers.

They said they had contacted Saito at his hospital and wanted Kimura to go and see him. Kimura was enraged that his parents were treating him like a criminal but reluctantly agreed to see the psychiatrist, and it was then that he realized he was in fact a hikikomori.

Kimura and his parents underwent counseling with Saito for the next six months, after which he began taking steps to reintegrate himself into society. Three years later, Kimura describes himself as being “still in recovery.”

He still has ambitions of sitting the bar exam, but for the time being he works part-time as a photographer and also produces a newsletter called Hikikomori Shimbun, which gives other hikikomori a platform to make their voices heard.

In light of his own experience with police intervention, Kimura says he also started the newsletter as a protest against the rising number of support groups who use force to bring hikikomori out of their rooms.

JULIA NASCIMENTO
JULIA NASCIMENTO

Such groups believe that coercion, rather than open dialogue, is the best way to address social withdrawal, but experts such as Saito believe they are doomed to failure.

“These groups force hikikomori out of their house and into a car, then take them to a group home where they effectively imprison them,” Saito says. “They give them some kind of training but it’s not effective and, after looking after them for about three months, the hikikomori then just goes back into withdrawal. These groups ignore human rights. They have appeared on TV plenty of times but I am opposed to them.”

Saito believes such groups will continue to find support and, earlier this week, he sent a tweet predicting that Tuesday’s mass stabbing incident in Kawasaki, in which the suspect was believed to be a social recluse, would renew calls for interventionist action.

But there are also signs that society is beginning to take a more compassionate view of hikikomori.

In April, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government moved its hikikomori support services to the jurisdiction of its health and welfare division. Previously, the authority’s hikikomori matters were considered a matter of juvenile delinquency.

Ikegami says there are currently few support services for hikikomori who are older than 40, but he is hopeful that the findings of the latest survey will help change that. However, he also cautions against taking the same approach as support services aimed at younger hikikomori, which he says are overwhelmingly geared toward getting them into employment.

“These people have had to quit their jobs because they suffered harassment or bad treatment in the workplace, so I think it’s a mistake to try to force them back into that environment,” Ikegami says. “I think a better goal to set for them would be first of all just to survive. People who are too scared to even go outside have suffered trauma. First, you have to build human relations.”

Over the past few years, both Kimura and Yamase have established links with other people in similar situations, and that support has helped them to move forward with cautious optimism.

Both feel that a better public understanding of hikikomori issues is crucial to improving the overall situation. But with so many stereotypes and misconceptions having taken hold throughout the years, getting people to listen can be tough.

“People think hikikomori are like an underground criminal army,” Kimura says.

“People think they’re dangerous. TV especially promotes that image. Hikikomori have been linked with crime through the way things have been reported. Hikikomori equals crime,” he says.

“I don’t think people realize that a hikikomori is someone who doesn’t have human contact,” he says. “People think it’s a physical thing, to do with space. They can go outside, but it’s the lack of human relationships that makes them hikikomori. People think hikikomori have easy lives. That they’re just relaxing and taking it easy. But in reality, it’s horrible.”


Vosot Ikeida | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Vosot Ikeida | ANDREW MCKIRDY

‘It felt like society was moving ahead and leaving me behind’

A recovering hikikomori gives a first-hand account of his experiences battling the condition

Vosot Ikeida, 57

My mother put a kind of bomb inside my body, which later made me become a hikikomori. It started when I was a very little child. She intimidated me every day by saying she would kill herself if I didn’t study as much as she wanted. It was lots of small factors.

I went to university but I didn’t have the motivation to be a good student, and I didn’t go to campus. However, it was when I had to leave university and enter society as a working person that I became unable to move.

I got three job offers, but I felt like there would be no life for me if I went in that direction. I felt hopeless. And in those days, I thought if I didn’t join a company, there would be no life.

I thought there was no way to live, so I must die. And if I was going to die, I wanted to see something very difficult before I died. So I left Japanese society and traveled around India, the Middle East and Africa for the next 10 years.

I came back to Japan and tried to be a so-called normal man. But then I fell into a deep depression and started living the life of a hard-core hikikomori. I did nothing for four years.

I shut all the curtains, but the light outside still reflected onto the curtains and I could see it from the back of the room. It felt like society was moving ahead and leaving me behind. That feeling made me isolated and insecure.

Curtains weren’t enough, so I closed all the shutters and made my room like a cave. Darkness even in the daytime. Whether I slept in the daytime or nighttime, it made no difference.”

I thought I could get family therapy so I asked my family to go with me to the clinic. My mother said no, so I started to go through psychiatric care alone but it made me worse. That’s why I’m still a hikikomori.

When I started to become a hikikomori, there was no word to explain my situation, my feelings, my condition to my friends. I wanted to explain my feelings, but I didn’t know how. If there were a convenient word like hikikomori in those days, I would only have to say it and they would hopefully understand.

Attitudes are changing gradually. More people are trying to understand us, and that’s partly because of our activities. I am deeply involved in publishing a magazine produced by hikikomori called Hikipos, so that society may understand us better.

Usually I don’t feel comfortable speaking to the media, but sometimes I feel I have to. Someone has to speak out to the general public, otherwise they won’t change the image they have of us.

I have no communication in my neighborhood. My neighbors are scarier than the general public for me. If I don’t look at the internet or put the TV on, I have no contact with the general public. But neighbors may visit me, so it’s scarier.

Vosot Ikeida is a pen name used in official media channels