On March 21, TV Asahi’s long-running variety show “TV Tackle” ran a special feature on hikikomori — people who have withdrawn from society. Hikikomori first came to the attention of the general public in 1999 when a Niigata man was arrested for keeping a teenage girl prisoner for nine years in his room. Though the case was atypical, it ended up representing many people’s image of hikikomori as being dangerous sociopaths.

The feature on “TV Tackle”‘ was about middle-aged hikikomori who, in most cases, still live with their parents. In one segment, a father, desperate to do something about a 47-year-old son who never opens his door, seeks help from a private “school” whose specialty is disciplining difficult children. The headmaster comes to the shut-in’s room and loudly demands that he come out. When there is no response, the headmaster breaks down the door and forces the man to emerge.

The segment sparked a heated debate on the Internet, since the headmaster’s actions implied that violence is an effective countermeasure for hikikomori, an implication reinforced by another segment that showed the same man going to a garbage-strewn house where a 41-year-old lived alone after his father entered a nursing home expressly to get away from his son. The headmaster did not have to break anything this time, but he did persuade the man to come back to his school, where he interacted with other residents and, it was suggested, became more socialized.

The most prominent critics of the show were Masaki Ikegami, a journalist who has written extensively about hikikomori, and Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist who is considered the foremost expert on the subject. Saito filed a complaint with the Japanese Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization pointing out that it isn’t the first time a TV program has highlighted this kind of action. There are many schools like the one featured in the show, and with their Spartan approach to problem adolescents they have always attracted the attention of TV producers. Usually, their targets are juvenile delinquents, and because hikikomori were initially associated with truants, the average person may not make a distinction. In an essay on the Yahoo blog site, Ikegami wrote that segments like the one on “TV Tackle” convey the idea that coercion is the only way to address antisocial tendencies, regardless of how those tendencies are manifested.

Clinically, a hikikomori is loosely defined as someone whose life has been in limbo for at least six months. The popular image is of a person who locks himself in his room and talks to no one — a kind of agoraphobe — but studies show that 80 percent of hikikomori go out under certain circumstances.

The main determining factor is the individual’s position in society. Many hikikomori drop out of school, but others don’t develop such aversions until they get a job and find common workplace interactions unbearable. Ikegami says that as Japan’s employment situation became increasingly unstable over the last two decades, the number of hikikomori increased. Once a person fails in a job, it’s difficult to recover.

Saito thinks the attitude that accepts violence as an effective means of “helping” hikikomori is peculiarly Japanese, since it is a response to amae, which the late psychoanalyst Takeo Doi famously described as an expression of selfish impulses that springs from a secure belief that the other person, usually a parent figure, will indulge those impulses. Violence is considered by many Japanese to be a natural reaction to hikikomori’s seeming demand for indulgence. Such relationship-based violence (kankeisei no bōryoku) is commonly seen in the abusive behavior of teachers toward students, supervisors toward subordinates, husbands toward wives.

Ikegami says that while the examples shown on “TV Tackle” had positive outcomes, aggressive tactics can result in a worsening situation that then leads to reciprocal violence and even suicide. Professionals who work with hikikomori go to great lengths to establish relationships of trust, but the media, especially television, don’t cover these methods since they are invariably slow and uncinematic.

In fact, Ikegami often receives requests from TV producers for interviews, and he no longer grants them because they always make requests for taped encounters with hikikomori that are invariably unproductive. Even NHK, which wanted his help for a feature on a “social welfare series,” insisted on a one-to-one interview with a shut-in. When Ikegami asked if NHK was willing to spend several months developing a relationship with the subject, the producer balked and Ikegami refused to participate.

When Saito and Ikegami held a press conference to discuss their objections to the TV Asahi show, only one television station, Fuji TV, sent a representative to cover it. In another essay, Ikegami described calling TV Asahi to talk to someone involved with the program and getting the runaround.

Later, he learned the station used the same clip of the headmaster breaking down the door on a news show. Since it’s difficult to convey the reality of a hikikomori’s situation by visual means, TV is not an ideal medium for coverage. Moreover, Ikegami thinks stories about hikikomori, regardless of how they’re presented, approach the issue from the wrong angle. Journalists focus on the person and the attendant drama, but Ikegami believes the subject should be society and its effect on a vulnerable personality. Viewing the issue from that direction, however, is too complex for most reporters and TV producers. It’s certainly more time-consuming.

The “TV Tackle” segment fed a sensibility that sees emotional illness as a corollary of personal volition: The subjects “choose” to be that way and can be “cured” by simply changing their minds. It’s not a sensibility that has much patience with nuance, which is why TV can’t be trusted with mental health issues.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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