It’s 9.30am, the day before your first exam. You’ve finally managed to turn off the snooze button and heave yourself out of bed. After a 40-minute shower and a breakfast worthy of MKR you drag yourself back to your room. You frantically get ready to head to Central to begin the study you planned to start weeks ago. There are clothes all over the floor and it’s freezing. Finding something acceptable to wear will be a struggle, and what’s that you’ve just remembered? You’ve forgotten to do your washing. You sigh, ditch the plans to go to the library and instead decide to stay in your trackies and study comfortably at home. No distractions. In bed. Cringing at the mess on the floor you climb under your covers and prop up your laptop. Five emails, four Facebook birthday posts, three Buzzfeed lists, two Elite Daily articles and one Upworthy video later and it’s already 11.47am. How did it get so late? Arghh. There’s so much to do! You decide you’ll start at 12.00pm. But then you glance back at the clock and it’s 12.02. You’ve missed the hour. You’re feeling pretty sleepy. Maybe you’ll just take a quick nap …

Now take that feeling and multiply the pressure and stress by 100, and you might be starting to feel like 15-year-old Haruki.

One day, overwrought with pressure from his school and family, Haruki shut himself in his shoebox-sized room, severed all contact with the outside world, and did not emerge for nine years. His only human interaction was mediated through the Internet. He spent month after month sleeping all day and slouching in front of a computer at night, devoting the majority of his time to searching the web, playing video games and anime.

Haruki is a hikikimori, a Japanese term coined by psychologist Tamaki Saito to describe a young adult who isolates himself in his room, withdrawing from all social interaction outside of his home (notably school or work). The name comes from the Japanese word hiki, “to pull,” and komoru, “withdrawing,” and is used to describe both the condition and its sufferers. According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, a person is considered to be a hikikomori if he refuses to leave the house for a period of six months or more.

Known as Japan’s “missing million,” hikikomori account for an alarming estimated one per cent of the country’s population, and the numbers are growing. For a country around the same geographical size as New Zealand, that’s roughly the population of Auckland. 80 per cent of hikikomori are men, most aged between 15 and 30. Many spend their days or nights playing video games, surfing the Internet, reading, pacing the room, or drinking beer and sochu, a type of Japanese vodka. Others will do next to nothing for weeks on end.

Understandably, everyone feels the need to retreat from life sometimes. Nothing beats spending a day snuggled in bed watching Game of Thrones or ditching the lab for an afternoon of FIFA, but any more than a weekend as a recluse is usually enough to make anyone go a bit batty. Could you possibly imagine spending nine years in your room, as Haruki did?

Unlike severe agoraphobics, some hikikomori do occasionally leave their rooms. This may be to eat with their families or dash out in the middle of the night to a konbini, a 24-hour Japanese convenience store. But not Haruki. For years Haruki’s despairing parents were forced to leave food outside his door, not once seeing their son’s face.

As many “shut-ins” start as school drop-outs, almost all live with their parents. While to us the idea of a 30-year-old man hiding in his parents’ house might seem a little strange, Japanese children commonly live at home well into their 20s. Even with the country’s economic downturn, many parents remain able to support their children indefinitely – and continue to do so. Some parents of the first generation of hikikomori have supported their now adult children for nearly 30 years. This poses the foreboding question: what will happen to these shut-ins when their parents die?

The more time spent in isolation, the likelihood of a hikikomori re-entering society becomes less and less. As time passes, a shut-in is likely to become increasingly aware of his social failure, in turn losing his self-esteem and sense of worth. As a result, the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more daunting.

With this grim prospect in mind, one must wonder why parents don’t do more? Sadly, having a hikikomori as a child is a source of shame in Japanese culture, so many parents are reluctant to reach out to counsellors or psychologists for support. Many are scared their children will self-harm or react violently if disturbed.

As the problem has spread in Japan, an industry has over-time arisen to help. Fortunately there are now parent support-groups, halfway houses and psychologists who specialise in hikikomori, including one who offers his services
to shut-ins via the Internet. Nevertheless, hikikomori remains a massive and growing societal problem.

Although similar cases have been found in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and the United States, Hikikomori is a culture-bound syndrome that is largely unique to Japan. In the last decade it has become a social phenomenon, appearing in multiple books, films and manga comics. Fueled with literal “pent up” frustration, a small number of hikikomori have captured media headlines by committing abhorrent crimes. In 2000 a 17-year-old “shut-in” hijacked a bus and killed a passenger. Another kidnapped a nine-year-old girl and held her captive in his room for almost a decade. Atrocities like these reveal the horrific psychological effects of societal isolation. For some hikikomori the frustration of wanting to live a normal life, yet being incapable of doing so, becomes unbearable. Tragically, in extreme cases, some hikikomori channel their anger into aggressive acts against the outside world. In his book Shutting Out the Sun Michael Zielenziger interviews a hikikomori called Jun who described his pain as “an arrow pointed deep inside of me.” Jun would ride his bicycle out at night when everyone was asleep: “listening to music and getting high from exercise, that’s the way I coped … If I didn’t go out at all on those nights … I probably would have done something violent to my parents.”

Research shows that most hikikomori, whilst anti-social, are not violent. As the New York Times observes, most shut-ins are “too trapped by inertia to leave their houses, much less plot violent schemes.” Instead hikikomori tend to suffer from depression or from obsessive-compulsive disorders. The New York Times writes how one hikikomori took multiple showers a day and wore gloves “as thick as an astronaut’s” to prevent germs. Another would spend hours scrubbing his family’s shower tiles. His brother claimed it was if he was “trying to clean the dirt in his mind and his heart.”

Whilst some hikikomori have pre-existing personality disorders such as autism, psychological symptoms are often simply a result of years of confinement without social interaction. Michael Zielenziger believes hikikomori “cannot be diagnosed as schizophrenics or mental defectives … nor are they classic agoraphobics who fear public places but welcome friends into their own homes.” Instead, he argues that the condition is more closely linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.

So, you might be wondering, if these people do not have pre-existing psychological conditions, what trauma compels them to completely withdraw from society?

Tamaki Saito, an expert in hikikomori who has seen over 1,000 patients, believes the problem largely stems from social and familial pressures. After a humiliating defeat in World War II, Japan feverishly sought to recreate the nation’s success by accelerating economic growth and forcing children into an intensive education system. Consequently families put huge amounts of pressure on children to excel in school, attend elite universities and obtain prestigious careers. Those who do not follow this path are seen as failures. As eldest sons bear the brunt of the pressure, hikikomori are often first-born sons from middle-class families.

In a way we can relate to this sort of academic pressure. I’m sure those swamped in second year law readings, battling BIOC 192, or suffering a minor aneurism from the seven per cent HUBS 192 test, would agree – Uni can be a bitch this time of year.

However Japanese schooling is a rigorous race to the top that makes Health Sci look like Beauty Therapy. Students describe school as “shiken jigoku,” or examination hell. Most students study for up to 18 hours a day to prepare for rigorous entrance exams. Competition is cut throat and bullying rampant.

Even preschoolers are under pressure. Toddlers, and even some who are younger than two years old, are put into cram schools to be prepared for kindergarten tests. A person’s future may be decided by as young as five. Entrance tests determine whether a child is accepted into a prestigious elementary school, in turn paving the way to a good university and a successful (ideally corporate) career. If unsuccessful, one is forced to accept the alternative: attend a less-acclaimed public school, have limited opportunities, and bring dishonour to the family.

Otago graduate Tom Hay is currently teaching at a Technical High School in Japan. Although his school is less academic than most, students are still under extreme pressure to excel. Tom describes how, in addition to academic commitments, “everyone is expected to belong to a club,” with extracurricular activities “dominating students’ lives.” He made a wise choice not to coach the school baseball team – they practise at 6am every morning and then after school, until dark.

If this isn’t even a highly acclaimed school, can you imagine what the pressure must be like at the top end? Exacerbating the problem is Japan’s sagging economy. People still buy into the myth that teeth-gritting work will bring success. This attitude simply does not reflect the economic realities of post-boom Japan. The sad truth is that even when hikikomori are psychologically prepared to re-enter society, they may well lack the qualifications to survive.

Based on his experiences, Tom also claims that Japanese society “isn’t a culture where it’s easy to be alone.” He notes that the “intense, collectivist social atmosphere also plays into this, and can be too much for some.” Students spend all day surrounded by peers at school before travelling home, usually on a packed train, to a small, cramped apartment. Even at home they are unlikely to have time alone. Most families live in dense, highly populated areas and it is not uncommon for three generations to live in the one household.

Besides a need to perform, there’s pressure to conform. There’s a Japanese saying that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.” As a result, those who don’t adjust to fit the societal mould risk falling through the cracks. Dunedin students get to rebel by dressing like hippies, joining the International Socialists, and smoking grass out on the Union lawn. By contrast, uniformity is prized in Japan. The students at Tom’s school choose to wear their uniforms in the weekends, even if they don’t have to go to school. They’ll wear them to the mall, to the movies and even to amusement parks – not because they don’t have the money to buy other clothing, but because they all want to look the same. In a society where conformity is everything, rebellion comes in a much more subtler form: hikikomori.

And can you blame them? I know that if I never had any time alone and was pressured to succeed and conform from infancy, I too would be tempted to say “to hell with it all.”

But let’s step back for a second. If secondary students aren’t all off taking drugs, surely that’s a good thing? Hikikomori may be a problem in Japan but let’s face it, young people all over the world exhibit anti-social behaviour. Particularly in the U.S, where guns and drugs are far more readily available than elsewhere, youth violence is much more commonplace.

Is it really right for us to automatically assume West-is-best and that Japanese society is, by contrast, callous and cruel? School socialisation, arguably, is in part responsible for Japan having one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Long school days ensure students are kept busy, off the streets and performing well. Japanese students are very well educated, with a literacy rate of 99 per cent. 95 per cent of secondary students graduate, which is pretty impressive considering that upper-secondary schooling is not compulsory. Despite people’s fear of failing, Japan has an unemployment rate of 3.7 per cent compared to our 5.6 per cent. Surely this shows that missing out on a good school isn’t necessarily the end of the world?

The question comes down to this: how do you determine a nation’s success? Should “success” be measured in literacy statistics or by some indicator of the people’s happiness? In Japan’s highly uniform neo-Confucian society, which stresses the importance of obedience, prestige, achievement, discipline, and group harmony over individual identity, it’s difficult to be the black sheep.

In Shutting Out the Sun, Zielenziger interviews the mother of a shut-in who claims “Hikikomori value the intangibles,” however they “cannot speak out because there is no place in Japanese society that allows them to … A person who challenges, or makes a mistake, or thinks for himself, either leaves Japan or becomes a hikikomori.”

So maybe hikikomori aren’t that anti-social after all? Maybe it’s just society that’s messed up? Zielenziger then recounts the conversations he had with several hikikomori men over a period of several months. He describes these men as “intelligent, stimulating, highly open and responsive adults full of cogent ideas and fascinating insights into society and themselves.”

Doesn’t that description sound like an Otago Uni senior undergrad? (I can’t bring myself to say freshers are “full of cogent ideas”). Next time you are tempted to stay in your trackies, go into a dissertation-induced hibernation and spend all night in front of a computer scree, just watch out. Before you know it, you too may be labelled hikikomori.
This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2014.
Posted 1:49pm Sunday 5th October 2014 by Kate Stewart.