On a Saturday in mid-April, a woman in her 50s sat on a bench munching a rice ball in front of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.
She is one of several people interviewed that day who said they have family members or friends who are hikikomori — people who shut themselves into their homes for reasons ranging from difficulty finding a job or refusal to attend school to trouble in their personal relationships. Others said that they themselves have been social recluses in the past.
The woman’s daughter, who is in her early 20s, dropped out of college without enough credits to graduate.
“Today my daughter also says she has hay fever, and is sleeping at home. She is a NEET!” the woman coolly blurted out, using the acronym that refers to young people who are not employed, furthering their education or training.
In junior high school, her daughter would often skip classes due to unexplainable fevers.
The woman believes her own bad marriage might have influenced her daughter’s behavior, but she does not blame herself, saying she did her best to raise her. Now her daughter is thinking of studying architecture at another university.
“As long as she has a standard for how she lives her life I’m not sure there is anything wrong with shutting herself in. I believe in my daughter,” the woman said before briskly walking off.
A Cabinet survey has found that, while the number of people shutting themselves in their homes fell from about 696,000 in 2010 to around 541,000 in 2015, the ratio of those who have been isolated from society for seven years or more has reached a new high of 34.7 percent. While studies had been limited to younger age brackets, the nation has seen a rise in the number of middle-aged hikikomori in recent years.
In the street interviews conducted in April, 19 of the 41 people interviewed — ranging in age from their teens to their 70s — said they knew people close to them who were hikikomori. Some even revealed their own stories of social isolation. They were also asked their ideas about how to support those who have turned away from society.
When asked about their perceptions of hikikomori, some said they envy them because their families show them understanding or even give them financial support, while others said they have a “negative image” of such social recluses — who are often the subject of television news reports.
A 40-year-old lawyer who lives in Saga Prefecture said he stopped attending school for a period in high school.
“Although I didn’t study in junior high I was at the top of the class, but in high school it didn’t work that way and my grades suddenly began to drop,” the man said, explaining that his motivation dropped proportionally and he stopped going to school.
It was his school supervisor who gave him the support he needed.
“My teacher was very passionate and would often come visit me at home and give me advice,” he said.
Most people interviewed on the street who said they were struggling to cope with life issues cited problems in personal relationships, such as interactions with people at work.
“I want to shut myself in, and there are times when I just don’t want to interact with other people at all,” said a 29-year-old civil servant from Hokkaido, adding that lately the job-related stress he experiences has intensified.
A 35-year-old temporary employee said that she went through a period of isolation as a student and shut herself in because she was being bullied. She began going to a psychiatric clinic after a referral by the school, but what really saved her was finding a passion in life, she said. Once she started attending live music performances by her favorite artist, she was able to start relating with people again and she made friends.
“The biggest thing for me was being able to find something that I really enjoyed,” she said.
Shutting oneself in is not the only way people deal with their issues, the interviews showed.
“I have never been a hikikomori but when I am having a difficult time I cut my wrists,” said one 15-year-old female high school student. She resorts to inflicting injuries on herself when stressed because she can find no other means of release, she added.
Although she is willing to seek advice from people with the same experience whom she meets through the internet, she said. “I don’t want to worry my parents, so I’m not able to speak to them about it.”
A 58-year-old female part-time worker said she never had a choice to take time off when growing up, unlike many social recluses today.
“My parents taught me that taking (time) off from work isn’t good.” Her two sons, who are in their 20s, were raised the same, but she said the fact that they are regularly employed now is purely “by chance.”
“In this society anyone can have struggles in life, but if it drags on people end up becoming social recluses,” she said as she watched people hurry through busy Shinjuku.
A man in his 40s who works in sales believes parents need to help their children if they have shut themselves in, while a female part-timer in her 50s said, “I hear about (hikikomori) on TV and in the news, but I don’t have any idea how to deal with them.”
Differing opinions can sometimes cause rifts in families.
A woman in her 50s whose son became regularly absent in junior high school said she thought it was better not to force him to attend school, although her husband and in-laws disagreed.
“They asked me why I didn’t make him go,” she said.
Most of those interviewed said securing a job was not a requirement for shut-ins since “it is good to have various lifestyles,” and that demanding people who have isolated themselves to find work did not seem to be effective. Even so, they acknowledged that people have to make a living.
A man in his 40s from Okinawa Prefecture who was in Tokyo on business said he hired a person in his early 20s who had been a social recluse to work for his airport-related company. He said the man was timid at first, just as the employment agency had described, but gradually opened up. “He has a high level of ability but his communication skills are probably lacking.”
He said he instructed his other employees to smile “almost as if you’re going to hug him” when interacting with the new hire. After about a week, the man had dropped his guard. “He is very serious. I think we can use him as a resource for recruiting future employees.”