National / Social Issues

Japan struggling with social worker shortage to help recluses

Kyodo

Japan is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of middle-aged social recluses across the country, with municipalities reporting they are critically short of social workers and other personnel needed to help them return to society.

A government estimate released in March showed that the number of socially withdrawn people between the ages of 40 and 64 stood at 613,000, eclipsing that of those aged 15 to 39 at 541,000.

With the Upper House election looming, some political parties are pledging to promote a comprehensive consultation service for dealing with the so-called 80-50 problem, in which parents in their 80s and their reclusive children in their 50s are becoming financially strapped.

But people who have been working at the forefront in dealing with reclusive people, known as hikikomori, say they do not have enough human resources at their disposal.

For instance, Andante, a public organization run by Kagawa Prefecture to help socially withdrawn residents, receives roughly 500 consultation requests a year, and there are just three officials, who also have other duties, to deal with them.

“We are severely short of people,” said Shota Miyatake, 33, who heads Hito.toco, a Takamatsu-based organization that helps social recluses gain job experiences under a consignment agreement with the Kagawa Prefectural Government.

“We not only need people who offer consultations but those who actually visit homes and refer consultants to support organizations whose services fit their needs,” he said.

Miyatake said it typically takes around three years for a withdrawn person to regain social connections.

“Starting to work is a form of social rehabilitation. On the other hand, it is a high hurdle for many of the reclusive people,” he said, adding it is important to provide more places for such people to simply communicate with others.

Social recluses, particularly middle-aged ones, have attracted national attention following two high-profile murder cases.

On May 28, a 51-year-old man went on a stabbing rampage that left two dead and more than a dozen others injured. He lived with his uncle and aunt in their 80s and is said to have hardly ever left his home.

Four days later, a former senior central government official stabbed to death his socially withdrawn 44-year-old son and was quoted as telling police that the May knife attack had raised fears that his son might also be capable of hurting others.

Support groups have expressed concern that linking crimes to such people could spread misunderstanding and prejudice against them. It’s calling for more efforts to prevent families living with them from becoming isolated.