National / Social Issues

A father's 25-year battle with reclusive son

Kyodo

Twenty-five years have passed since Akio Kusano’s son, Koichi, dropped out of high school.

During that time Koichi, now 42, has rarely left his house, despite clinging to a dream of one day becoming a rakugo comic storyteller.

According to a recently released government survey, an estimated 541,000 people aged between 15 and 39 in Japan avoid social contact and shut themselves in their homes.

But for people like Koichi, who is not included in those figures for people known as hikikomori, the situation is even worse. In fact, there is seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel for them or their aging parents.

“Money-grubber!” Those are the words Koichi spews at Akio (both pseudonyms) as he comes down the stairs to the living room and suddenly strikes his father. Akio, 74, flinches momentarily but frantically embraces his son to hold him off. He thinks that he no longer possesses the strength to contain his son’s violent outbursts.

When Koichi was in junior high school, Akio made ends meet working at an insurance agency and in a ramen noodle shop.

Occasionally, Akio would take time off to take his son on excursions by train. The pair would depart their home in Tokyo to go on expeditions to find Kitakata ramen shops in Fukushima Prefecture.

Koichi, who was never fond of group activities, started cutting classes at the end of his third year of junior high school. He was bullied at school and would return home with bruises over parts of his body. Then he dropped out in his first year of high school.

Koichi became a social recluse, shutting himself indoors at home, where he would behave violently toward his grandmother, mother and younger sister.

When he was 20, Koichi expressed interest in becoming a rakugo comic artist. He would often listen to rakugo CDs, which he took to his room from Akio’s collection.

However, his desire to become a disciple of a rakugo storyteller never came true.

Nowadays, Koichi will leave home every two or three months to attend meet-ups where comedy is being performed. He has hardly any contact with other family members, as he keeps unusual hours. Nonetheless, he always talks of “making it big someday.” For Akio, it is simply a fading dream.

Various factors might cause a person to become a recluse, but what is known is that the longer the hikikomori phase lasts, the greater the risks the aging parents will be dragged down as well.

A survey of about 360 people conducted by the KHJ (Kazoku Hikikomori Japan) nationwide hikikomori family federation, found the average age of such people to be 32.7, with the average hikikomori period lasting 10.8 years.

Nationwide job assistance, however, is sorely lacking. In fact, the age limit is 39 for people eligible for support from the 160 regional support stations for young people.

“For those in their 40s, the period of college graduation and the collapse of the bubble economy overlapped, and there are people who were unable to find the jobs they had hoped for,” said an official of a job-assistance facility in Tokyo. “They are exposed to the academic background competition, and are abandoned if they’ve slipped off society’s railroad tracks.”

One year ago, Akio and his wife sat across the table from Koichi. The subject of the conversation: their current home situation and what the future holds. On a sheet of paper, Koichi’s parents had prepared a list of 20 items for discussion.

Parental aging, dementia and death were listed, as well as taxes, insurance and pension plans.

“We won’t be by your side forever. We want you to think about how you are going to survive,” his father told him.

Koichi was silent throughout.