A recent Cabinet Office estimate that there are some 613,000 people aged 40 to 64 who have shut themselves up at home without working or interacting with others outside of their family over an extended period confirms that the issue of hikikomori (recluse), which used to be deemed a problem mainly among adolescents and youths, has been spreading among the middle-aged population. One out of three such people are believed to be economically dependent on their aging parents, which poses a serious risk for their livelihood as they and their parents grow older. The government needs to scrutinize the data and take steps to provide support for their diverse needs.

The “8050 problem” — referring to hikikomori in their 50s living alone with parents who are in their 80s — has reportedly been widely discussed among people involved in welfare issues. There is a serious risk of the aging parents suffering illnesses and generally declining health, requiring medical or nursing care, or dying — leaving the recluses who have been dependent on them helpless on their own. In some households, it reportedly surfaces that the family had an adult hikikomori member only when the parent or parents became ill and needed help from the outside. Attention should be paid so that such families do not remain isolated from the rest of society — and that they receive support before their problems become serious.

The government has long considered the hikikomori problem as chiefly involving youths who become recluses after engaging in truancy for various reasons, including victimization by bullies. Measures taken to deal with the problem have therefore focused on helping them land a job. The government has twice held a nationwide survey — each time limiting the respondents to people aged 15 to 39. According to the last survey in 2015, the estimated number of hikikomori — defined as people who mostly confine themselves to home without going to work or school or interacting with people other than their family for at least six straight months — in that age group reached 540,000. That was 150,000 fewer than in the earlier probe in 2010, but the 2015 survey pointed to the tendency of these people being withdrawn at home for longer periods — with 35 percent of them, the largest group, remaining a recluse seven years or longer.

As concern grew that the hikikomori problem was also growing among older generations, the government held its first survey of such people aged 40 to 64 last December. Based on interviews with 5,000 households across the country with people in that age group, the probe estimated the number of hikikomori in the 40-64 age bracket at 613,000 — exceeding the 540,000 in the younger generation. Though the two surveys were taken at different times, the combined number of recluses topped 1 million.

Among middle-aged hikikomori, 76 percent were men. The main reason for becoming a recluse cited by the largest group among the respondents was the loss of their job. One out of three hikikomori in their early 40s — a generation that experienced extremely tough employment conditions in their youth — was found to have become a recluse when they were in their early 20s, according to the probe, which indicates that they became shut-ins because they had trouble finding a decent job after finishing school. Also believed to be contributing to the situation is the growing number of people who remain single and continue to live with their parents late into their adult lives, also due to the economy’s prolonged stagnation in the post-bubble boom years. The 2015 national census shows that there are 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who have not married and live with their parents.

The latest survey shows that 46 percent of the hikikomori in the 40-64 age bracket have been in that category for seven years or longer. About 34 percent of them rely on one or both of their parents to sustain the family’s livelihood and some of them depend on their parents’ pension benefits for their main income. The longer the hikikomori remain withdrawn at home and dependent on their parents, the greater the risk that they and the whole family will face economic hardships as the parents grow older, become ill and begin to require medical and nursing care themselves. In light of the latest probe’s findings, the government should explore effective measures of support that suit the diverse circumstances and backgrounds of the hikikomori’s problem.

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