Municipalities across Japan are reaching out to the social recluses known as hikikomori to help them find their place in society without focusing solely on getting them back into the workforce.
Japan has some 540,000 people aged 15 to 39 who, aside from taking care of small chores, cut themselves off from the outside world for six months or longer at a time, according to a 2016 government estimate.
These prolonged withdrawals are causing concern because their parents are getting old and becoming increasingly unable to support them both physically and financially.
While the central government previously attempted to help by holding vocational training programs in the early 2000s, the effort only targeted those under 40 years old. Thus some who were unable to meet the program’s requirements, especially the middle-aged, fell through the cracks.
Sapporo is changing its approach by helping the city’s socially withdrawn people take small steps forward, rather than forcing them to make a huge leap.
“It’s raining outside, but how is the weather inside your heart?” a counselor asked a group of about a dozen people in their 30s to 50s at a monthly hikikomori gathering in central Sapporo in July called the yoridokoro (bastion).
The monthly sessions were launched in June by the nonprofit organization Letter Post Friend Consultation Network. The Sapporo Municipal Government organizes it with the aim of helping isolated people get a foothold in daily life.
The staff for the sessions mostly comprise people who suffered from hikikomori-like tendencies themselves and who can thus empathize with the participants, according to the NPO.
A woman in her 30s who took part in the session said she joined because she wanted to be “able to talk to people, even just a little bit.”
She said she has struggled to socialize since her third year in high school and considered herself “incapable of working” once she graduated university and entered the job market. In the 16 years since, she has spent most of her days engrossed in her computer and comic books.
When her father retired, she realized how much she needed to change. This led her to consult with city officials about her options.
At the gathering, she played card games and talked with others. By the time she left, her internal “weather forecast” had improved from “rainy” to “cloudy.”
Over the year through March, the Sapporo Municipal Government received some 1,000 inquiries from families with hikikomori members. Roughly 30 percent of the inquiries involved people 40 and older.
Junya Sugawara, a Sapporo official in charge of providing assistance, said the rare tie-up with the NPO was necessary to draw out the city’s many shut-ins.
“These people are very wary of administrative authorities, thinking they will be forced to do something if they reach out,” he said.
Japan faces what the welfare community refers to as the “80/50 issue,” in which these isolated people reach their 50s as their parents enter their 80s, a time when they are more likely to fall ill or need nursing care. This confluence of factors can put the whole family under financial strain.
By bringing social workers with psychiatric backgrounds to the gathering, the city hopes to be able to provide attendees with the support they need, Sugawara said.
Efforts to address the issue are also underway in Hyogo, Kumamoto and Shizuoka prefectures. Networks have also been established between the agencies involved.
Also, the welfare ministry began subsidizing municipal efforts to create gathering places for hikikomori sessions beginning this fiscal year.
“The government’s (past) job assistance program did not necessarily meet the needs of these people, and the age limit . . . prolonged their reclusion,” said Atsushi Tanaka, the head of Letter Post Friend Consultation Network.
“What is important is the process in which they build strength at a place they belong to and try to take the first step forward on their own,” he said.