National / Social Issues | FOCUS

After Kawasaki attack, support groups worry recluses might all be painted with the same brush

Kyodo

Ryuichi Iwasaki, the 51-year-old suspect in a stabbing spree in Kawasaki on Tuesday that left two dead and 17 injured, is believed to have lived like a recluse, resulting in very limited interactions with other people and the outside world.

Many people have raised concerns about drawing a connection between a life of solitude and criminal behavior, with support groups for recluses and their families warning media and experts to refrain from giving such an impression out of fear that it could drive recluses to further shut themselves in.

While instances of middle-aged people living in poverty with their elderly parents continue to increase, efforts are being made by welfare experts to identify opportunities where they can be provided with support, as such families tend to be reluctant to ask for help.

Unlike cases concerning domestic abuse or problems between family members living under the same roof, experts said that with the case of Iwasaki, who took his own life following the attack, it would have been difficult for authorities to intervene beforehand.

The suspect lived together with his uncle and aunt, both of whom are in their 80s. In November 2017, a relative consulted the city’s mental health and welfare center about the elderly couple receiving a nurse visitation service. The relative reportedly said: “(Iwasaki) has not been employed for a long time and was becoming a recluse. We’re concerned about outside people visiting the house.”

The city officials spoke with the elderly couple 14 times, both by telephone and in person. Though Iwasaki took an allowance from the couple and ate food that was prepared for him and left in the refrigerator, he rarely spoke to them face to face or communicated with them. The officials suggested that the couple write him a letter, which his aunt delivered to his room in January.

A few days later, Iwasaki told his aunt: “I make my own meals, do my own laundry and take care of myself. What do you mean you’re worried that I’m a recluse?” The aunt told city officials that he is “deliberately cutting off his connections with other people” and that she wanted to watch his condition for the time being. The officials told her to contact them if anything came up, but they never directly interacted with the suspect.

According to a Cabinet Office survey released in March, the number of recluses — known as hikikomori in Japanese — in Japan aged between 40 and 64 is estimated to total about 613,000, exceeding the approximately 540,000 recluses aged between 15 and 39. Thirty-six percent of middle-aged recluses said they started cutting themselves off from others after quitting their jobs, apparently a result of the bleak job market in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The issue is referred to by welfare officials as the “8050 problem,” which refers to recluses in their 50s living with their parents in their 80s. The government has set up consultation counters in all prefectures and several major cities to provide assistance for such individuals. But it is difficult for authorities to intervene as long as there is no abuse or violence involved.

Meanwhile, nonprofit support groups are working to build relationships between recluses and their families to make it easier for them to receive support.

Recently, a parent in their 80s consulted Orange no Kai, a Nagoya-based nonprofit support group, about their unemployed 40-year-old son who had been a recluse for nearly 20 years.

The family lived in an older house with a steep staircase. A group staff member suggested they install a handrail using municipal subsidies. Using that as an excuse, the staff member kept visiting the home for six months, and eventually managed to meet the son, who later began receiving support as he looked for work.

“The parent-child relationship tends to become rigid when a person has been reclusive for a long time,” said Kosuke Yamada, the director of the group. “In such cases, a third party needs to give proactive support by finding small ways to help.”

“It’s only natural for recluses and their families to refuse help,” said Rika Ueda, the head of the secretariat of Kazoku Hikikomori Japan, a Tokyo-based group supporting families of recluses. “Instead of one organization trying to solve the problem alone, the key is cooperation between multiple organizations.”

Following the stabbing in Kawasaki and the close scrutiny of the suspect’s lifestyle, many hikikomori and their families have expressed worries that it could give the impression that being reclusive can lead to crime.

“We can’t say the suspect’s reclusive behavior was the factor that led to the incident,” Kazoku Hikikomori Japan said in a statement Thursday. “Media reports and comments by experts indicating such a connection will only encourage prejudice and make such people and their families suffer.”

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