National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Shut in by the past yet still unable to face the future

by Michael Hoffman

Mom, dad, two kids, nice house, nice suburb, good income — you just know this story is about to go smash.

There’s something about the 1970s and ’80s that inspires nostalgia. They were to Japan what the 1950s were to the West — bland but comfortable, steady, stable. You knew where you stood, where you were going and how to get there. Society itself propelled you upward. Your income rose. Your children would do better still. All you had to do was play along. If the requisite conformity was a bit stifling, it seemed an acceptable price to pay.

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the Vietnam War ended the ’50s. The ’80s flickered out less dramatically but no less finally. The bubble burst, the economy tottered and Japan entered a painful new phase, one it’s still in.

“Naoko” personifies it. Journalist Shoko Kurokawa, writing in Shukan Shincho magazine, tells her story. Naoko is 52. She came of age in the ’80s, in a family cast in the ’80s mold: dad a big-company salaryman, mom a housewife; dad rarely home, mom rarely out. Mom kept the house and raised the kids. Dad, when not at work, was out drinking, dining, golfing, traveling. Naoko and her older sister hardly knew him. This was typical.

Mom wanted the girls to grow up independent. She made them study and sent them out for piano lessons. Naoko was musical. She grew up and became a piano teacher, getting a job with a company that operated music schools nationwide.

She had her own way of doing things, and a sharp tongue besides. Parents complained. Her supervisor tried to talk to her, but Naoko was not to be talked to. She stormed out, strode home, marched into her room, slammed the door — and that was that.

Everyone knows the word “hikikomori.” It’s comprehensible worldwide as signifying a withdrawal so total from social and economic life as to amount almost to burying oneself alive, usually in one’s childhood bedroom at home. The phenomenon was a few years old already when psychiatrist Tamaki Saito coined the term in 1998. He defined it at the time as withdrawal lasting six months or longer. In Naoko’s case, it has lasted 25 years.

It is shocking how common this is. In the early years it was overwhelmingly a youthful phenomenon, and the hope was that sufferers would grow out of it, or be treated out of it, and return to a normal life, but Kurokawa, in her Shukan Shincho report, estimates the nationwide number of hikikomori over age 40 at 700,000. Some came to it relatively late in life, but people like Naoko have known little or nothing else. Their dependence on their parents is total. That, in the nature of things, can’t go on forever. The problem is known as “7040, 8050.” When the child is 40, the parents are 70. When the child is 50, the parents are 80. And so on.

Naoko’s father is 84, her mother 81, her sister 54. Naoko, living in her room, awake night, asleep days, is prone to violence. Unable to tolerate it any longer, her mother and sister left eight years ago and rented an apartment. Her father stayed. His money ran out. He sold his stock portfolio to keep the household going. Far from thanking him, Naoko demanded it as her due. “It’s your fault I’m like this!” she shrieked at him. “I could have opened a school, done something! Give me back 20 years of my life!”

His passivity is surprising. Does he feel guilty? Wouldn’t he have more to say for himself otherwise? He was in his time a man of the world, an executive. Wouldn’t he reason with her, stand up to her, kick her out, tell her she’s old enough to be on her own? Maybe he’s just tired. But then, why didn’t he do it long ago?

Whatever the reason, his patience, too, finally frayed. Four years ago he left to join his wife and older daughter, though continuing to send Naoko a living allowance. Now his wife has cancer and the older daughter suffers from depression. Treatment costs mount. To survive he must sell the family home he bought nearly half a century ago as a hard-driving, upwardly mobile salaryman.

Naoko, however, refuses to leave. “This is the way he is!” she fumes to the social worker. “He makes the decisions, consults his convenience. What about me?!” The standoff continues, the father wringing his hands helplessly. The social worker seems to be trying to find work for Naoko. The prospects are not bright.

Beware, Kurokawa’s reporting seems to warn, of suburban happy family idylls. Rot may fester within, hidden from view, the more placid the idyll the more corrosive the rot. If Naoko seems an extreme case, consider Kurokawa’s account of two hikikomori brothers, 50 and 47, living together in a family home that, after the father died and the mother fled in disgust and fear of violence, went to such shockingly visible ruin that neighbors give the trash-strewn, ill-smelling premises as wide a berth as possible.

The elder brother has never worked in his life. The younger, a public employee until three years ago, was laid off for being unable to get along with people. They, too, it seems, emerged from what to all appearances was a normal, stable childhood. Now they stand at the window hurling trash at passersby.

Normality carried to extremes chills and deadens the spirit. The 1980s carried normality to extremes. Dad at work, mom home, kids grinding to pass exams into the best schools, gateways to the best companies, gateways to the best life. It was too sensible, orderly, stable — too one-size-fits-all — to be true. Everyone sees that now, wondering why so few saw it then. It needed the hikikomori phenomenon to make it obvious. A generation later, mothers for the most part work, children are in day care and, as lawyer Naoko Shinoda told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview last month, expressing the current ideal, “Raising children is the responsibility of society as a whole” — not just of the nuclear family.

But something else happened on the way from the last generation to this one. Family court judge Yoko Kato, in a separate Asahi interview last month, put it this way: “The number of couples not having children is rising. There seems to be an impoverished awareness that children are to be fostered and treasured by all of us. It’s not only the number of children that is declining, but also the value placed on them.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”