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Hikikomori: Worrying mental health problem traps Japanese at home


japan
pjanvandaele/Flickr

  • Hikikomori is a psychological condition which makes
    people shut themselves off from society, often staying in their
    houses for months on end.
  • There are at least half a million of them in
    Japan.
  • It was once thought of as a young person’s condition,
    but sufferers are getting older and staying locked away for
    longer.
  • It is an economic as well as a social threat to the
    country, and is seriously worrying Shinzo Abe’s
    government.

Hayashi Kyoko started becoming a social recluse when her high
school principal started talking about university entrance exams
on the first day of school.

“The fun high-school life I was looking forward to transformed
into nothing more than a period of test preparation,” the Japanese native
told the online magazine Nippon.com
.

“It was a huge shock. I’d sensed before that I didn’t belong in
the strictly regimented education system. This feeling manifested
itself in physical symptoms, and I stopped going to school.”

And as she grew older she started working a part-time job and,
facing pressure from her mother, Kyoko said she “hit her limit”
and could no longer face leaving the house or meeting people.

Kyoko wasn’t alone. She had become one of half a million
“hikikomori,” a Japanese term referring to people who avoid shut
themselves at home and avoid social contact. (The term refers to
both the person and the condition.)

Her lowest point was in her mid-twenties, she said: “I spent all
my waking hours criticising myself… All I did was get up
afternoon, eat, excrete, and breathe. I was like a living corpse.
I couldn’t find the tiniest bit of worth in myself. I thought my
life was meaningless.

“I had this terrible kind of fury I didn’t know where to direct,
and I was always exhausted.”

‘A middle-class malady’


Hayashi Kyoko
Hayashi
Kyoko.

Courtesy of
Nippon.com


The Japanese government officially defines hikikomori as people
who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at
least six months.

But hikikomori can come in various forms: One person’s condition
can be so severe that they lack the energy to leave their sofa to
go to the toilet,
like one hikikomori who spoke to the website Quartz
.

Another could suffer from obsessive compulsive disorders so
serious that they shower several hours a day or scrub their
shower tiles for hours, such as who
spoke to The New York Times
. A third hikikomori
said
they played video games all day “as if it would
tranquilise me.”

Professor Jeff Kingston, an Asian studies professor at Temple
University in Tokyo, told Business Insider:

“Sweeping generalisations are always misleading… [But] it seems
they are mostly males who exhibit extreme symptoms of social
withdrawal who often live at home with parents who take care of
them.

“They rarely leave their rooms or their homes, and reportedly
live in and limit interactions to the virtual world.

“It is considered a middle class malady because only hikikomori
from such backgrounds can rely on the support of their families.”


japan commuter travel
Commuters
check their phones inside a train in Tokyo.

Issei Kato/Reuters

As of 2015, there were 541,000 hikikomori aged 15-39 in Japan,

according to government statistics
. There is no data on other
age groups, suggesting that the figure is likely to be far
larger. Some families are also loath to report hikikomori in
their households, Kingston said.

Japan announced last Sunday that it would conduct its first
nationwide survey of hikikomori among 40-to-59-year-olds later
this year,
according to the country’s Kyodo news agency
.

Previous surveys on the phenomenon were only of
15-to-39-year-olds, as authorities previously believed the
condition was limited to young people. The government has since
noticed hikikomori grow older and face longer periods of
reclusiveness, Kyodo said.

The country now hopes to identify older hikikomori and understand
the assistance their families need. As hikikomori grow older and
their parents become too elderly to care for them, questions over
their fate will become more urgent.

Kingston said: “The survey will provide more accurate information
because it hasn’t been done before. I suspect it will provide a
basis for improving state policies towards them because it will
detail their needs, but the social stigma will persist.”


tokyo
People
walk down stairs in a train station in Tokyo’s business
district

Yuya
Shino/Reuters



According to The New York Times
, doctors began to observe
hikikomori as a social phenomenon around the mid-1980s, when
young men exhibited signs of lethargy, refused to communicate,
and spent most of their time in their rooms.

There’s no unifying reason why people become hikikomori. Some,
like Kyoko, withdraw from society because they feel they don’t
know what to do with their lives and can no longer cope with the
pressure from people around them. Others are triggered by events
in their lives, like bad grades or heartbreak, the BBC said.

As psychiatrist Sekiguchi Hiroshi wrote on
Nippon.com
: “Hikikomori feel a deep sense of shame that they
cannot work at a job like ordinary people. They think of
themselves as worthless and unqualified for happiness. Almost all
feel remorse at having betrayed their parents’ expectations.

“At the same time, they are beset by internal conflict between
the self that cannot go out into the world and the self that
constantly condemns their failure to do so.”

As Tamaki Saito, one of the country’s first and leading
researchers in hikikomori, told the BBC:
“They are tormented in the mind. They want to go out in the
world, they want to make friends or lovers, but they can’t.”

The economic impact of hikikomori


shinzo abe
Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe is worried about hikikomori’s impact on the
economy.

Carlos
Barria/Reuters


As hikikomori refuse to participate in society, let alone go to
work, Japan’s economy also suffers.

Professor Kingston said: “They diminish the size of the
workforce, so contribute to a tighter labour market.

“Also, they are not self-sufficient, so when family support dries
up due to death or financial problems, they will need to rely on
state assistance.”

Japan already faces an aging population and massive labour market
shortages. There are about one and a half job vacancies per
applicant in Japan,
the government reported in September
— the highest for more
than 40 years.


According to Bloomberg
, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
announced plans in late 2016 to set up counselling centres and
have support staff visit hikikomori at home in a bid to boost the
country’s flagging workforce.

Whether the policy has worked is unclear, but Kageki Asakura, a
dean at Tokyo’s nonprofit Shure University, said it was “putting
pressure on hikikomori.”

What are the solutions?


japan
A
woman in traditional Japanese garb .


Ashlea
Halpern



Kyoko, the woman who was house-bound in her twenties, said she
“rejoined” society around a decade later.

Along the way she almost killed herself, saw a psychiatrist, and
started talking to other hikikomori. After turning 40, she also
started managing hikikomori self-help groups in Yokohama, where
she lives.

Other volunteer groups, such as New Start, try to get hikikomori
to go to community centres, get work experience, and socialise.

New Start runs a “Rental Sister” programme, where volunteers
visit hikikomori’s houses and chat to them from the other side of
their bedroom door to try to get them out, reported
freelance photographer Maika Elan
, who visited a New Start
centre in Chiba-shi, a city near Tokyo, in 2016.

It usually takes a “rental sister” one to two years to coax
hikikomori out their bedrooms, Elan said.

Other hikikomori set up a newspaper to shed light on the
country’s recluses. Established in November 2016, the Hikikomori Shimbun
(“shimbun” is Japanese for “newspaper”) discusses the phenomenon
around the country and hopes to serve as a link between
hikikomori and the outside world, according
to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun
.

Professor Kingston said: “One can only hope that more access to
various therapies and public health campaigns to destigmatise the
phenomenon will encourage more to seek help, find it, and learn
to manage their symptoms so that they can lead more productive
and fulfilling lives.”


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