While hikikomori (social withdrawal) is usually seen as mostly affecting men, the current way of thinking fails to take into account the many women who are effectively — and involuntarily — cut off from society, campaigners and experts say.
Kyoko Hayashi, who is leading efforts to help such women, said she wanted the government’s definition of hikikomori, which applies to someone who avoids contact with others, to be more inclusive and reflect the reality facing women.
“There are actually many women struggling, but because of their identified roles as housewives, or those doing household chores, one cannot see that they are actually socially withdrawn and need help,” she said.
Hayashi, 50, also includes in her definition of hikikomori single women who, while they can leave their homes, struggle to maintain a stable job or hold their lives together.
Government statistics about hikikomori are limited to people who have spent almost every day confined to their homes, avoiding interaction with others, for at least six months. But they do not capture a number of women who for various reasons might have effectively dropped out of society, Hayashi said.
One of her projects, Hikikomori Joshikai, or a women’s group for social withdrawal, aims to reach out to what is seen as a growing number of female recluses in recent years in a country that has long been battling the issue of social withdrawal. Around half a million people are classified as hikikomori by the government.
“I want to meet people,” one woman said recently at a nearly three-hour, female-only gathering of nearly 90 women in Tokyo.
There is no fixed course of treatment for the condition, as the triggers for socially withdrawing vary for people.
It could be a setback in school or work, relationship woes, or any kind of pressure from culture or society.
Hayashi, who dropped out of college and shut herself away from society for two years when she was 26, began earlier this year organizing meetings where such women can gather and also runs Oshare (Dress-up) Cafe, which provides makeup and fashion tips as a confidence booster.
She said she has been surprised by the strong turnout at meetings, which have been initially held in Tokyo but will take place in other parts of the country this month.
Since the first meeting in June, more women have been participating, even from as far away as Hokkaido, Gunma and Shizuoka prefectures.
“In a female-only setting, they are more open and trusting,” Hayashi said, noting that women sometimes find existing, and mostly male, support groups for hikikomori less helpful. Similar female-only gatherings have been springing up recently, a sign of the need to provide such avenues.
Attendees at a gathering in late August ranged in age from their 20s to 40s. Some were shy but others were sociable, and some were fashionably dressed.
They were nothing like the country’s entrenched image of hikikomori: lonely, quiet teenage boys or middle-aged men who shut themselves away reading books, playing video games or staying glued to the computer.
While the government’s definition of hikikomori stresses the avoidance of contact, most socially withdrawn women Hayashi has encountered would like to interact with others.
“Just because they are hikikomori does not automatically mean they do not want to meet people,” she said. “Most of them actually do wish to, they just don’t have the opportunity.”
Female recluses are also failing to show up in government figures because they end up seeking help elsewhere, according to Hayashi. For example, those who attempt suicide, suffer from eating disorders or struggle with their parents are brought to psychiatric wards, clinics or support groups instead of being seen as struggling with social withdrawal.
Hayashi argued that hikikomori is not a disease and that people struggling with it will not be healed simply by taking medication. She said she also believed doctors lacked knowledge in dealing with hikikomori.
Natsue Onda, a former hikikomori who works with Hayashi, said at one of the meetings that she struggled to fit into society as a student and attempted suicide.
But her life turned around after she took part in a boat cruise organized by civic group Peace Boat, a global nongovernmental organization based in Japan whose purpose is to raise awareness about issues affecting society.
“There was so much diversity there. I felt it was OK to be different. I realized I did not have to try to be someone I am not,” said Onda, 30, who is now a project coordinator for the Peace Boat Global School, which offers cruises in an alternative school format for truant children and social recluses.
In a Cabinet Office survey, only the second of its kind focusing on hikikomori, released last month, men made up around 70 percent of the estimated 541,000 people between ages 15 and 39 who were found to avoid social contact and shut themselves in their homes. The figure was down from 696,000 in the previous survey in 2010.
Masaki Ikegami, who wrote the book “Hikikomoru Joseitachi” (“Hikikomoru Women”), agrees female recluses are being underreported. She blames traditional views about men’s and women’s roles for the failure to see how domestic tasks can lead women into social withdrawal.
“In Japan, there is a very strong mindset for traditional gender roles (and) there is this unspoken pressure to fill those roles. The people concerned feel it,” said Ikegami.
“If they are not in the head count in the first place, they do not exist and that makes it hard to look at the problem and act to address their concerns.”
And, according to Hayashi, even when women are leaving their homes to work, conforming to society’s standards can be daunting in male-dominated workplaces. While some welcome the challenge, others are crushed by it and shut themselves away.
As a result, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of boosting women in leadership positions and empowering them in society might just add pressure, she said.
“Women are encouraged to shine in society. But that is pressure,” she said. The new policy “reinforces our view that we are no good.”
Ikegami said, “Japanese society is such that once you stray from what is seen as the fixed road, you cannot come back. The environment should be conducive to accepting people who want to return to society, but currently local communities have no such system, leading recluses to remain where they are.”
For Hayashi, it is not a matter of pushing women out of their shells, but simply offering a helping hand to those who wish to emerge.