Nagisa Hirai was an active child who loved playing soccer with the boys. But that early happiness dissipated on her first day at elementary school when she became frightened after being unable to find her classroom.
Over time, she became a hikikomori, a Japanese term used to describe the more than half a million young people in the country who stay at home and shun interaction with people outside their family. She would suffer anxiety attacks over anything unfamiliar — even forgetting stuff for school could cause her to panic. She became increasingly uncomfortable going to school, pushing her strict parents to force her to attend.
The 30-year-old now says she’s recovering, but there are still days when she can’t drag herself out of bed for her part-time job at a university.
While the hikikomori issue isn’t new, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s now plans to mobilize them as part of a broader drive to bolster the aging workforce. The prime minister has vowed to stop the population from falling below 100 million from the current 127 million, and have all members of society make an active contribution to the world’s third-biggest economy.
There is no single cause for the phenomenon. Hikikomori can stem from factors such bullying at school or work, or pressure from parents or other family members to succeed in entrance examinations or job interviews.
In Hirai’s case, she was both scared of people and felt bad about not being able to go to school. She became anorexic during her time at a part-time high school as she struggled to find a solution — her weight dropping to around 30 kg (66 pounds).
“I could suppress my emotions by restraining my appetite,” Hirai says. While it allowed her to go out and meet people, she was never able to attend classes and dropped out when her classmates graduated.
Hirai received support from Shure University, a nonprofit that provides pressure-free space for people like her that want to continue their education. She’s now been living by herself for nearly 10 years and says that although she’s getting better she still gets tense around some people.
“I’m afraid of shutting myself off again from society,” she says of her career plans. “What’s more important to me is the kind of people I’m with rather than what I want to do. My parents are already old and I’m only a junior high school graduate. I’m always anxious about how I can live my life.”
Kageki Asakura, a member of the Shure University, says a lack of self respect is a reason why many people become hikikomori. Negative perceptions toward those who drop out of society make the situation worse, he says.
In a government survey published in 2014 of young people in seven countries including Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, Japanese were ranked lowest in terms of self satisfaction. Only 7.5 percent said they were content.
About 541,000 people aged between 15 and 39 — or 1.6 percent of the population in that age group — were estimated to be hikikomori in a Cabinet Office report published in September. The government defines them as people who have stayed at home and avoided interaction with nonfamily members for at least six months.
As society ages, hikikomori are also getting older. About 53 percent of them in Shimane Prefecture were aged 40 or older, with the figure at 44 percent in Yamagata Prefecture. This in turn raises questions about how the older dropouts will support themselves when their aging parents die.
Appropriate policies such as financial assistance and counseling could help transform hikikomori into members of the labor force, says Eriko Ito, a consultant at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo. This would boost overall economic output as well as help reduce spending on social welfare.
“We should change our thinking about supporting then,” Ito says. “It’s an investment, not a cost.”
Each welfare recipient turned into a taxpayer would add between ¥78 million ($702,000) and ¥98 million to the nation’s finances over their lifetime, according to calculations based on the latest available data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The government’s plan is to support hikikomori and other young people with difficulties by making them more “independent.” It has set up counseling centers nationwide, and has support workers visiting those reluctant to leave home.
But reaching out may prove tricky.
More than 65 percent of the hikikomori surveyed said they weren’t keen on these services as they were concerned about not being able to communicate or reluctant to have other people notice them.
“Abe’s labor policy is putting pressure on hikikomori,” the NPO’s Asakura says. “Abe wants them to be great and achieve great results. Why can’t they just pursue happiness instead?”