A month at home in isolation may seem like an eternity for those unaccustomed to a lack of person-to-person contact, but the experiences of Japan’s large numbers of hikikomori, or social recluses, may offer some hints on how to stay sane during the coronavirus pandemic.
The health ministry defines hikikomori as people who have remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months, are not going to school or working and are not interacting with people outside their family. According to government studies, there are an estimated 1 million or more hikikomori nationwide.
Although people have started to use the term more loosely to describe themselves hunkering down at home to help stop the spread of COVID-19, most social recluses spend years, sometimes decades, in isolation.
Nito Souji, who has been a hikikomori for more than 10 years, stresses the importance of keeping focused on the big picture and taking each day as it comes.
“I became a hikikomori with the objective of living every day doing only things that are worthwhile, so for me the past 10 years have been far more pleasant than working outside,” he said.
Unable to land a good job after graduating from university in Tokyo or realize his dream of becoming a novelist, Nito returned to his hometown to practice drawing in the hopes of becoming a creator of dо̄jinshi (self-published comics) and other works. He had initially only planned to remain a hikikomori for three years, or until he could support himself.
“I had no friends in my hometown and felt rushed to become financially independent as soon as possible, feeling ashamed to go outside. So I became a hikikomori,” he said. He now lives alone in his aunt’s apartment in Kobe.
Nito’s dream of becoming self-sufficient through his own creations eventually spurred him to learn English and game development from 2015, where he has devoted his efforts for the past five years. Now with fluent English skills and his first original game set to launch on Steam, a video game digital distribution service, his hard work appears to have paid off.
“In the last 10 years, I was able to create whatever I wanted to create, so even if there were struggles, I enjoyed it,” he said.
Pull Stay, which is a literal English translation of hikikomori, is a game inspired by Nito’s experiences as a shut-in and features a protagonist modeled after himself.
Nito said he hopes sales of the game will generate enough revenue to enable him to finally emerge from seclusion and become a nomad worker once the COVID-19 pandemic blows over.
“Having hope and making a little progress every day — that worked for me,” he said.
Meanwhile, a self-professed, Tokyo-based hikikomori DJ who goes by the name CLiONE — and who also began a reclusive lifestyle to focus on his passion — suggested connecting with people online as a way to overcome loneliness during self-isolation.
“No matter what sort of person you are, communicating with other people leads to a reduction in stress. If you mull on things alone, your thoughts tend to take a bad direction, so even talking with friends over the phone can change your mood,” he said.
For the past two or three years, CLiONE has spent most of his time alone at home, producing original music and remixes and occasionally taking on jobs from crowdsourcing platforms. And because he only performs via live streaming on YouTube, where he has over 13,000 subscribers, his activities already follow social distancing rules.
Inspired by Marshmello, an American electronic music producer and DJ who wears a marshmallow mascot head, he dons a custom cartoon head during live streams to keep his appearance a mystery.
But he said interacting with fans through live streaming provides him some relief from the depressing coronavirus-related news bombarding the world daily.
“Even for people like me, with few friends, you can talk to strangers you’ve never met before through online games and live streaming. So I recommend connecting with others online,” he said.
Shin, a 35-year-old who spent four to five years as a hikikomori in southwestern Japan from around the time he was 21, felt little stress from being alone but said doing things he enjoyed helped.
“If I did feel stress at the time, I would watch action movies. Also, even just moving my body while indoors helped me alleviate stress to a certain degree,” he said.
Unsuited to Japanese work culture, Shin cites sleep deprivation and overwork at a game company he joined following graduation as the trigger for his shut-in behavior. Isolating at home helped him to recalibrate his life.
“At first, I spent every day just sitting and staring out the window. Besides going for treatment and taking walks with my mother, I was always in the house. I used the computer often, so I wasn’t lacking in study or entertainment,” he said.
Although Shin eventually pulled himself out of the hikikomori life at around 26 or 27 with the help of a nonprofit organization recommended to him by his father, he still spends most of his time at home.
Now living in Fukuoka Prefecture with his American wife, Shin works as a freelance programmer. The couple occupy themselves by playing co-op games, watching movies together, drawing and coloring.
“If I were still a hikikomori now, I don’t think what’s happening outside would change me. But I would probably blame myself for not being able to help my family despite being worried about them,” he said.
For Nito and CLiONE as well, the government’s request to stay at home has been a breeze.
“I’ve used a weekly grocery delivery service for a while now, so I don’t even need to go to the supermarket. So I really don’t leave the house. I come out maybe once or twice a week to take out the trash,” Nito said.
Nito said getting haircuts — usually the only reason he ventures out into the city — is the only thing that has been directly affected by the pandemic. He elected to find one in his neighborhood instead last time due to fears over the virus.
“I don’t really want to go for my next haircut. I’ve always been prone to colds and my body has further weakened due to the hikikomori life. So I’m thinking of cutting my own hair next time,” he said.
With technological advancements making it possible for CLiONE to conduct all facets of his music business online, the pandemic has also had little impact on his daily life.
“I don’t usually go out, so my lifestyle rhythm was not affected very much by the state of emergency declaration,” he said.
CLiONE, meanwhile, predicts that the move to a virtual life may not be fully reversed. Virtual reality and live streaming will play an important role in the world “after corona,” since people’s aversion to close contact will likely linger even after the virus is contained, he argues.
“There’s a chance that artists won’t be able to hold live performances and shows like before,” he said.
In this regard, not just for hikikomori and introverts, but for all people, using technology to maintain a sense of togetherness has become more important than ever.
“You may feel scared at first, but if you courageously take the first step your human connections will expand, and you will feel that you aren’t so alone,” CLiONE said.
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