Akiko did not step out of her house once between the ages of 15 and 22.

“I didn’t want to see people,” said Akiko, now 27. “I was afraid of people.”

After Akiko graduated from junior high school, where she attended classes for a total of 10 days over a three-year period, she withdrew into the world of her bedroom in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture.

Her mother was in poor health, so Akiko was taken care of primarily by a father who spoiled her and was excessively protective — he would accompany her wherever she went.

There are up to 1 million people in Japan who, like Akiko, cut themselves off from society.

“Hikikomori,” or social withdrawal, is a condition that often leads to family breakdowns because many of its victims suffer from mental depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, and vent their frustrations through violence in the home, according to experts.

Experts also say that because most parents try to keep the problem a secret, even hiding it from relatives, the entire family becomes isolated from society.

“This is no longer a private, family matter,” said Masahisa Okuyama, who heads a nationwide association for parents of hikikomori sufferers. “One million young people are saying they do not want to enter this society. This is a social problem that has to be addressed at a government level.”

Okuyama has a 29-year-old son who has been a hikikomori for 12 years. He had to force his son out of the house because he was assaulting Okuyama and his wife. The son now lives separately from the family.

“I didn’t know where to turn to” when he turned violent, Okuyama said. “No one really helped us.”

Disappointed by the meager advice he got from a local mental health center, Okuyama set up a parents’ self-help group in 1999 with four other families that had withdrawn children.

In five years, the group has grown to 38 branches nationwide with a total membership of 5,830 families.

The association’s head office in Iwatsuki, Saitama Prefecture, receives mail every day from desperate families, Okuyama said.

Experts say hikikomori is a social disease born out of a difference in the experiences and values of parents, who have devoted their lives to their jobs and sought material wealth, and their children, who take their parents’ material abundance for granted and struggle to find emotional meaning in their lives.

“I have had some cases where counseling the parents has cured the socially withdrawn person,” said Masakazu Nakagaito, a psychiatrist at a Niigata prefectural mental health center.

Akiko finally began leaving her house after her mother died in 2001. “I had to attend her funeral, anyway,” she said.

Soon afterward, Akiko moved out of her home to live with her sister, who is four years her senior, and joined a self-help group at the sister’s suggestion.

“I began to feel I wasn’t alone,” she said.

Based on the experiences of hikikomori sufferers, the parents association advocates a recovery plan in which the shut-ins meet at “half-way” facilities to learn the basics of building relationships before venturing out into society.

Because coming to the meetings is a difficult step for them, trained support workers first visit the hikikomori sufferers to help expose them to the outside world.

There have been positive results, Okuyama said, citing examples in which long-term sufferers were able to leave their rooms and take part-time jobs.

However, Okuyama said he believes strongly there are limits to what private groups can do.

At an assembly of the parents’ association held earlier this month, participants said that just three of the 35 branches are making ends meet. Most groups receive no government money, running the treatment facilities and job training programs solely on contributions from member families.

“Individual efforts are reaching the limit,” said Okuyama. “There should be a national project to tackle this problem.”

The government is slowly beginning to recognize the problem, which rapidly grew among young Japanese in the 1990s.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry for the first time last year issued a set of guidelines to municipalities to deal with the hikikomori problem.

The report’s emphasis on support for family members has been applauded by both groups and hikikomori experts, but they are quick to point out the government must do more.

Private counseling for hikikomori has become more widespread in recent years, but many families find it hard to afford the high fees, which are not covered by national health insurance, support groups say.

Okuyama is now working to get government funding for treatment and support to ease the financial burdens on families.

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