Middle-aged people who live as recluses are in dire need of better public counseling services, a new survey has found, highlighting the need for measures to address the previously underreported demographic.
Those living as hikikomori — a Japanese word literally meaning “pulling inward, being confined” — used to be considered almost exclusively adolescent boys and girls who refuse to go to school or young men and women who shut themselves inside.
According to a government survey conducted last September, around 540,000 people in Japan were believed to be hikikomori — holed up in their homes for at least the previous half year, at most going outside only briefly such as to buy something at a nearby convenience store.
Nearly 35 percent said they had been living that way for at least seven years, more than twice the figure in a 2010 survey.
But this government study was limited to those aged between 15 and 39.
Another survey conducted from November to early this month by a hikikomori family association found 62 percent of 150 public counseling offices that provided valid responses said they had been asked for help from hikikomori in their 40s, and 45 percent for recluses in their 50s.
Some 52 percent reported dealing with extremely socially withdrawn people in their 30s.
In Japan, around 1,300 counseling centers exist in municipal offices around the country under a law that took effect in 2015 to provide help to needy people.
The KHJ national family association of social withdrawals sent questionnaires to 215 such offices, of which valid answers were given by 150.
Problems associated with recluses in their 40s included “finding jobs or keeping employment,” “human relations and communications” and “financial difficulties,” the survey showed.
If people refuse to leave their homes and isolate themselves for prolonged periods, they could become financially dependent on aged parents, supporters warned.
Parents and other family members also are sometimes hesitant to talk about their problems to others and as a result receive insufficient support, they said.
“The older reclusive people and their parents become, the harder it is to solve complicated associated problems,” said Minoru Kawakita, an associate professor of sociology at Aichi University of Education who helped carry out the survey.
“We need to enhance counseling services, but it is also important to keep supporting them for a long period of time.”
One emblematic case involved a 41-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture, whose mother was desperate for help, saying, “I want a breakthrough, whatever it is.”
She and her husband consulted a support group about their son, who shuttered himself in at home for most of the past decade — and did not go outside once in the past year.
The man dropped out of high school in his third year but later went to a vocational school and got a job in the real estate business, as recommended by his parents, but quit within a week.
Afterward he had occasional part-time jobs but mostly stayed at home after he turned 30.
He now lives in an annex at his parents’ house, where his parents visit him daily to check up on him.
“I’ve given up on life,” he recently said, according to his parents, as he believed any attempt at change was bound to end as all previous attempts had.
When a support group staffer came to see him last year at the request of his parents, he would not come out of the bathroom.
Currently, most government support for getting a job is targeted at people in their 30s or younger.
Public counselors often deal with the issue of social withdrawals over the phone or by visiting a person’s home.
But what is needed is creating places where these recluses can talk about their problems with people who have overcome similar issues, but that is not available in most cases, counselors said.