Solitude — how bleak. Solitude — how beautiful. Point of view is all.
The modern view is mostly — not totally — bleak. Two images dominate: hikikomori (acute social withdrawal) and kodokushi (dying alone). They merge. Hikikomori claimed mass attention a generation ago. It was a young people’s issue. Time passes; age takes its toll. “8050” tells the story: children in their 50s helplessly dependent on parents in their 80s. It’s not sustainable. The parents die. What becomes of the children? They face the bleakest of prospects — solitary drift to solitary death.
The Cabinet Office in 2019 estimated the nationwide hikikomori population at 1.15 million — more than half, 613,000, aged 40-64. Some have been withdrawn for 30 years, typically self-isolated in their childhood bedrooms, sometimes never seeing even their parents. The bubble economy of the 1980s burst in the ’90s. Companies froze hiring. It was a dreadful time to emerge into the adult world. Many young people never did emerge.
Others did, but the unstable, low-paying part-time jobs many were forced to settle for proved a tenuous foothold. Among aging hikikomori are a growing number of relative newcomers to the ranks. Spa magazine this month presents some biographical sketches.
“It’s not that I don’t want to work. I can’t work,” says “Yoshiki Watanabe” (a pseudonym). At 51, having worked at some 30 jobs over as many years, he was mentally and physically drained. Part-time workers, comprising nearly 40% of the post-bubble workforce, are exposed to every abuse a harshly competitive society generates. Spa’s list includes layoffs, power harassment, sexual harassment, overwork and bullying. Part-timers are “disposable,” something they’re never allowed to forget.
We’re not told how long ago or under what circumstances Watanabe quit, or lost, his last job. It seems to have been recently, and he doesn’t consider himself hikikomori yet, though he fears he’s headed there. He lives alone on an allowance from his parents. Helplessness feeds apathy. He may snap out of it. He may not.
“Hironobu Tada,” 53, was an electrician, steadily employed for 24 years. Even full-time employment can turn traitor. A shift change, personnel change, a new and unfriendly boss — in short, Tada was pressed into early retirement, which he took, confident of moving on. First stop: Hello Work, the government employment agency. Job interviews materialized but came to nothing. Was his knowledge outdated, his skill obsolete? Repeated failure breeds dark thoughts: “I’m no good.” His determination faltered. He lives with his mother, on her pension. She’s over 80, healthy still but for how long? He’d better find something, he tells himself, before she needs nursing care. He looks into the future and sees nothing. “I don’t know what to do,” he says.
That’s the bleak side of solitude. The obverse of hikikomori is okomori — happy solitude. Josei Jishin magazine this month features restaurants, pubs, hotels and hot-spring resorts that cater to ohitorisama. Hitori means alone, o is an honorific prefix, sama an honorific suffix. “Welcome, loners!” is the subtext.
This is new. Traditionally the hospitality industry revolved around families and groups. You felt a fool, coming alone. No longer. Aloneness is one thing, loneliness another. What’s wrong with enjoying your own company? Some have given it religious significance. In “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki speaks of “the spirit of eternal aloneness.” Those who know it “find (their) good friends in flowers and birds, in rocks and waters, in rains and the moon.”
So it is with “solo campers,” a newly proliferating breed. “What are the charms of solo camping? Use your imagination,” prods the Sotoasobi Life website. “Alone, in the vastness of nature,” whatever you’re doing — “just sitting in a chair, or cooking — is totally different from being at home. Whatever anxieties lurk elsewhere, here in nature it’s calm. You breathe nature’s air, savor nature’s fragrance in wind and earth, your ears bent to the songs of insects.”
As every intermittent solitary knows, there are thoughts that come to you, moods that steal over you, which shy away from company. They seek you, alone. Treat them kindly and they’ll come again.
An ancient classic suggests hikikomori, 12th-century style.
“So I went on living in this unsympathetic world amid many difficulties for 30 years,” writes Kamo no Chomei (circa 1155-1216) in “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”), “and the various rebuffs that I met left me with a poor opinion of this fleeting life. So when I arrived at the age of 50 I abandoned the world and retired. … And so it is that I have come to spend I know not how many useless years hidden in the mists of Mount Ohara (in makeshift little brushwood huts) like the cocoon some old silkworm might spin.”
Peace, contentment, the “calm” of the solo camper extended over a lifetime, first soften, then efface, bitterness: “If one knows himself and knows what the world is he will merely wish for quiet and be pleased when he has nothing to grieve about, wanting nothing and caring for nobody.”
Hikikomori in the 1980s acquired — a few lurid examples paved the way — an association with sex crime. That gave way in the ’90s and 2000s to the benign otaku, alternatively translated as “nerd” or “geek.” This was social withdrawal with a wry twist, best typified perhaps by one Taichi Takeshita, who in 2008 gained some notoriety as author of an online petition calling for the legal right to marry an anime character. “Nowadays,” he wrote at the time, “we have no interest in the three-dimensional world … I’d rather live in a two-dimensional world” — with his love, cartoon time-traveler Mikuru Asahina. Thousands signed his petition.
Back to Spa and the present. “Hiroyuki Nanba,” 57, was a systems engineer who, failing to get along with colleagues, gave up at last and quit. That was 15 years ago. He’s single and alone — not idle, however. He’s a homebound online stock trader, buying this stock, selling that, losing more often than profiting but his savings are adequate, his needs few, and if he didn’t fear dying alone, he would probably describe himself as content, if not happy. Like Kamo no Chomei.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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