They call their gatherings “hikikomori university” — sessions that allow people who as a rule have little contact with others to share their difficulties with social interaction and learn ways to cope.
At the “university,” lecturers are their peers and the students are other “hikikomori” (shut-ins), as well as their parents and supporters.
Hikikomori refers to people who seek isolation from society and often confine themselves at home for long periods.
Although these gatherings are still in an early stage and are being held only sporadically, the concept is receiving growing support nationwide as a significant step forward, according to the organizers.
The activities are also aimed at getting across to supporters and the general public issues from the viewpoint of shut-ins.
The phenomenon first drew notoriety decades ago. Such people have serious difficulties with normal school and work routines, even in dealing with their closest relatives.
According to a Cabinet Office survey in 2010, nearly 700,000 people nationwide were shut-ins, their extreme withdrawal triggered by various factors, including bullying at school and strained interpersonal relations at work.
Many are in their teens and 20s, but there are also hikikomori in their 30s and 40s. Some have become violent, and suicides have occurred in extreme cases.
Since August, these hikikomori university classes have been held on an irregular basis in Tokyo and Fukuoka, with a dozen lecturers, themselves shut-ins, mainly discussing their hardships.
Often constructive ideas come out of the sessions, like creating new “faculties” within the university, such as a “common knowledge faculty” to help participants learn the rules of society, and a “fashion faculty” to offer lessons on desirable personal appearances and manners in society.
“When (shut-ins) get together, it often ends up becoming an occasion to share one’s misfortunes,” said the 35-year-old man who came up with the idea of calling their sessions a university.
“By inserting the concept of learning into the sessions, we are able to generate positive ideas and forward-looking ways of thinking,” said the man, himself a shut-in who declined to be named.
During a planning meeting in Fukuoka in late September where about 20 participants gathered, discussions led to a proposal for a “hikikomori community.”
The idea is for shut-ins to gather and live in underpopulated areas, work from home using the Internet and thus support themselves.
Some also suggested exploring the possibility of utilizing abandoned homes.
The amount of “tuition” paid is determined by each participant’s level of satisfaction and financial status. Because many of the lecturers are in a tight spot financially, the payment is often used to cover transportation, according to the organizers.
They have received about 80 emails expressing support for their gatherings since the first session was held in August in Tokyo, which attracted about 40 participants, they said.
The university already has unique departments.
For example, the “faculty for those who want to become positive toward continued living” was created in response to a request from a female shut-in who said she would like to hear from people with the same experience who have found ways to become more forward-looking about their life.
There is also an “everybody’s different, everybody’s valuable faculty” that teaches participants to see their differences from ordinary people as their own individuality.
Unfortunately, as shut-ins often also have other problems to overcome, such as depression, there have been times when lectures were canceled.
Tasks that need addressing down the road include increasing the number of lecturers and secretariat ranks, according to the organizers.
Masataka Kondo, chief coordinator of a support group for young people in Okinawa and who took part in the session in Fukuoka, said: “Even for someone like me who has been involved in support activities for a long time, it is difficult to understand (shut-ins) as I myself have never gone through it.
“It was great to hear from those experiencing it what they really feel and think,” he said.
Masaki Ikegami, a journalist advising the group’s organizers, said shut-ins are very sensitive and if they sense their supporters are being condescending, the support will fall on deaf ears.
What the sessions hope to achieve is “not to make them adapt to society, but to move society toward accepting their point of view,” Ikegami said.