Hikikomori: The Digital Age Hermit
Editor’s Note: This is a text version of episode 32 of my friend and I podcast “The Swarthy Nerd Podcast” . It has been edited for this blog. You can listen to the episode in full by clicking on this link. Please enjoy!
Japan: A nation rich in cultural tradition, technological advancement, animation innovation, and an unreal politeness. It’s a peaceful county that holds the status quo on the highest pedestal. From childhood to adulthood, the Japanese are expected to follow the status quo, daring not to stand out from the crowd; as they will be hammered down like a nail sticking out from the board.
You’re expected by society and by your family to work hard. At school, work, and for the general public, Japanese citizens must put on their best face (or tatemae 建前, たてまえ lit. “façade”); regardless of what they might be going through in their personal life thanks to the nation’s intense conformist nature.
But, what happen when this intense conformist nature Japan is known for becomes too much for one person to bear? Let’s say a salary-man gets chastise by his boss for a one minor mistake that can be easily fix. In America, we might get in our feelings over the matter for a split second then seek to correct the issue. In Japan however, the salary-man will cave in, withdraw into his shell, and finish the work for the day – never returning to work the following day.
Instead, he’ll lock himself away in his disgusting, trashy room of his parent’s house in a state of deep depression for months or even years. He doesn’t interact with the outside world beyond the virtual, online world – a world in which he feels is much safer than brutal reality. He wastes his time and life away watching anime and playing video games; never contributing to society. His parents provide his need out of “support” until they grow old and die. They don’t know what else to do with him or get him out of this state.
This man is a member of Japan’s missing one million: hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引きこもりlit. Pulling inward, being confined). A social phenomenon with origins dating from the mid-1980s and appearing in the Japanese mainstream in the late 1990s, the hikikomori is the modern-day reclusive hermit who has withdrawn from all social interactions.
According to the 2016 Japanese census report, 540,000 people aged 15-39 are considered hikikomori. However, some experts has estimated that the number is 1.55 million (since hikikomori do not interact with society and prefer to be hidden) and growing. This condition can go on for years – even decades – and this is a problem that Japan must address before it worsen.
There are hikikomori that in their 40s (the first generation) who have not left their aging parents’ house in decades, leading to Japan’s “2030 Problem”; an issue in which the hikikomori baby boomer parents are entering their 60s, 70s, and 80s; therefore, they cannot provide for their hikikomori children (due to retirement, illness, and death). With the parents dying, this causes concern as many are wondering who’ll take care of these hermits and what to do to help them come out of their shells.
In this episode of the Swarthy Nerd Podcast, we will explore one of Japan’s infamous dark side: the hikikomori. What is a Hikikomori? Why so many men in Japan are withdrawing from society and causing a strain on the Japanese economy and their family? And could America experience their unique version of the Hikikomori.
BREAKING DOWN THE HIKIKOMORI
Before acknowledging why Japanese youth are becoming Hikikomori, we must analyze what causes and does not cause Hikikomori. 80% of Hikikomori are male; with the reminding 20% are females. The average age of Hikikomori is around mid-20s. However, there are reports of Hikikomori in their teens and 50s. A Hikikomori must’ve not partaken in society for a period exceeding six months.
They are not employed, seeking employment, or in educational training (NEET). Forms of entertainment fill their time, for example: video games, internet, and television. While it’s possible for some Hikikomori to suffer from pathological problem disorder such as autism, borderline personality disorder (BPD), schizophrenia, et cetera, Hikikomori itself isn’t considered nor treated as a pathological disorder.
The following items are what don’t make one Hikikomori. Simply going from home to work and only having interactions with people from those places doesn’t make the criteria for Hikikomori; as you’re employed and interacting with society. Non-conformity isn’t hikikomori. While Hikikomori itself is an extreme example of non-conformity, the act itself isn’t inherently Hikikomori. Japanese Herbivore Men who don’t desire a relationship with the opposite sex aren’t Hikikomori; as most are social. Understanding what makes and does not make a Hikikomori based on the factors listed above; we can begin to look into the reasoning behind the why.
WHY JAPANESE YOUTHS ARE BECOMING HIKIKOMORI
Referring back to the introduction of this essay/episode, Japan is a conformist nation where individuality is frown upon. Their youth are expected to aim high towards academic, social, and career success. Matt Davis’s article for BigThink.com on Hikikomori and the rigidness of Japan goes further on such expectations:
“Like most behavioral issues, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what mechanism lies behind it. However, there are some common features.
Japan is a very rigid, structured society, and the pressure starts early. Students are expected to study constantly, the school year lasts six weeks longer than in the U.S., and, when the Ministry of Education reduced the school week from six days a week, many parents began enrolling their children in juku, or “cram schools,” to fill in the extra hours with as much education as possible. Because of the emphasis on exams in Japan, about half of all junior high students in Japan attend juku.
Combined with the fact that the period from 1990 to 2010 saw very little economic growth in Japan, many students questioned the purpose of their high-intensity education when there was little guarantee of work at the end of it.
Social life in Japan, too, is highly structured and etiquette practices can quickly become complex depending on the situation and the others involved. For example, Japanese has many grammatical structures that vary depending on the exact nature of the person being addressed, whether they’re a superior, an employee, a customer, an older woman or man, a younger woman or man, and many others. Giving gifts is common, but certain items are considered impolite. Giving a kitchen knife to a newlywed couple is a no-no, since this implies separation.
What’s more significant than the specific rituals and rules in Japanese culture, the general, pervasive sense of propriety and correct behavior can be stifling. It is impossible to go through life without embarrassing yourself socially at least once, but in a culture where correct behavior is highly valued, slipping up in this regard can be traumatizing.
Often, a triggering academic or social failure prompts young men and women to withdraw from society and become hikikomori. It’s also been speculated that this social phenomenon is due, in part, to a culture of shame surrounding mental health issues. Depression wasn’t even recognized as a real condition until the late 1990s in Japan, and it is sometimes still seen as an excuse to take time off of work. Rather than be labelled as depressed or anxious, the term hikikomori paints people with a broader brush.”
And from William Kremer and Claudia Hammond’s BBC News article Hikikomori: Why Are So Many Japanese Men Refusing to Leave Their Homes:
” The trigger for a boy retreating to his bedroom might be comparatively slight – poor grades or a broken heart, for example – but the withdrawal itself can become a source of trauma. And powerful social forces can conspire to keep him there.
One such force is sekentei, a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels to impress others. The longer hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure. They lose whatever self-esteem and confidence they had and the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more terrifying.”
Let’s refer back to the word tatemae. As tatemae literally means “façade” or “pretense”, you will display a sort of masquerade of “happiness” and “carefreeness” for society: never revealing your true face, or honne (本音 ,ほんね). What is honne? Honne literally translate to “true voice” or the dark thoughts you keep hidden from the world. Thoughts such as “My boss’s idea is so fucking stupid; he needs to be fired!”, “I want to kill my bullies”, and “I’m tired of you crying about your problems all the time”.
The clash between tatemae and honne births inner conflict. You want to speak out about what’s bothering you or how you truly feel about a situation, but you live in Japan: a country of conformity – with tatemae a major component of Japanese social conformity.
Balancing between honne and tatemae for the Japanese can be stressful to the point that it can drive many to isolation. Why face the world with a façade, never being allowed to express your true thoughts when you can alienate yourself from said world? However, isolation is a dangerous trap. Having others support you won’t work well in the long run.
The Strain Hikikomori Cause
Hikikomori refusing employment and educational training to support themselves causes an ill effect on the Japanese economy and their caregivers. The Japanese workforce is dwindling as the numbers of Hikikomori increases. Aged Hikikomori whom decided to return to society find reintegration difficult; as they lack the (job) skills to generate income — especially as they’re entering the worst job market in modern history (the lingering effect of the 2008 market crash).
When discussing the caregivers of Hikikomori, we must bring up two set of numbers: 2030 and 8050. 2030 represent the year in which the first generation of Hikikomori will turn 50 while their caregiver parents will turn 80 (with some Hikikomori turning 65 even). By this time, the caregiver parent(s) of their Hikikomori child have long since retired and eventually died; leaving the Hikikomori without their primary support system.
Diving into the morbid, there are reported cases in which parents of the Hikikomori have passed away in their house. Due to Hikikomori’s lack and fear of social interactions, few Hikikomori have spent days or even weeks with the decaying body or bodies of their decreased parent(s) for days or weeks before contacting law enforcement.
Example 1: Late November-Early December 2013: 34-year-old shut-in man from Osaka, Japan was arrested for corpse abandonment after reporting his father passing in their house – two weeks after his death. Did not contact the police due to Hikikomori state Source: https://soranews24.com/2013/12/16/man-finds-dead-father-lives-with-the-body/
Example 2: November 9th, 2018: 49-year-old shut-in from The Kanagawa Prefectural arrested for failing to report the death of his 76-year-old mother after sister of the Hikikomori male discover their mother’s body in her bedroom. The mother died in mid-October. Source: https://nextshark.com/japanese-hikikomori-mom/
Now, imagine hearing multiple reports of rotting bodies of the Hikikomori parents discovered in their houses because of the Hikikomori’s extreme social anxiety in 2030. I fear that it’ll be the norm come 11 years from now.
The American Hikikomori
For decades, it was believed that the Hikikomori phenomenon was a Japanese exclusive problem; a cultural issue of sorts. While not as extreme in Japan, there have been case studies of the Hikikomori in the United States. In her February 2019 article for the New York Magazine titled When ‘Going Outside Is Prison’: The World of the American Hikikomori, Allie Conti spoke with 21-year-old reddit user “Luca” through private messaging about his case of Hikikomori dating back from the age of 12. During class, he’d become so anxious that he’d forgot to swallow. The anxiety led his mother to remove him from school and take online classes – which he would soon drop out of those courses as well.
After watching the anime series Welcome to the N.H.K (an anime about a Hikikomori man “discovering” Japanese broadcasting company N.H.K, or Nippon Hoso Kyokai, translation: Japan Broadcasting Corporation conspiracy to transform Japanese youths into shut-ins), Luca decided to quit school and forego work as a personal rebellion against the world (meaning he’s a lazy ass white boy who needs to grow a pair of balls).
University of California researcher Alan R. Teo theorized that Hikikomori-like conditions are coming into the light in America. In 2010, the mother of a 30-year-old anime fan contacted Teo after her son, “Mr. H”, read one of Teo’s translation; leading him to diagnosed himself with Hikikomori. From the New York Magazine article:
“Teo encouraged Mr. H. to come by his office at the University of California in San Francisco for treatment, despite the fact that would mean stepping outside for the first time in three years. Mr. H. wore a leather jacket that reeked of cigarette smoke, had mangy hair, didn’t shower, and had long fingernails. “During the first and most severe year, he remained within a walk-in closet, ate only-ready-to-eat food, did not bathe, and urinated and defecated in jars and bottles,” Teo would later write in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.
“He passed the time surfing the internet and playing video games.” Tests run on Mr. H showed seemingly conflicting results. While he exhibited traits consistent with obsessive compulsive and schizoid personality disorders, various scales and inventories concluded he had neither. Mr. H. claimed his reclusiveness was based on something pretty simple: He just didn’t want to be a part of the world, which is both what hikikomori in Japan had long said and basically what Luca told me.”
Throughout America, a large number of young men are isolating themselves in their parent’s basement bedrooms. They cannot cope with work, school, and lack motivation to launch themselves. Recent economic crisis combined with the labor market has discouraged recent college graduates, especially given when 12.6% of college grads are underemployed (source: https://www.epi.org/publication/class-of-2016/) Princeton researchers suggests that technological usage such as video games and social media has led to a 23-46% decrease of young men working in the labor force (source: https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/maguiar/files/leisure-luxuries-labor-june-2017.pdf).
We must not also forget that the 69% of college grad are entering the real world with with an average of $29,800 worth of debt – something that an average min. wage job cannot pay off (source: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/20/how-much-the-average-student-loan-borrower-owes-when-they-graduate.html).
With seemly unpayable debt, a weaken work force, and an economy that’s expected to crash soon, more and more American youth are partakning in the hikikimori lifestyle to escape reality. This is not good for the American society. If this problem continues in America I fear we will see the same problems with Hikikomori in Japan with Americans – especially with most male Hikikomori in the West are radicalized through white supremacist and incel groups.
Yuki’s And TV Guru’s Thoughts on Hikikomoris
Yuki: “First off Japan, stop shamming people for failure: everyone fails. There’s a difference between failure and stupidity. Shame people for being stupid, but don’t shame them for failure. Another way to prevent hikikomori is reduce the workload on workers and students alike. You got people in Japan working 12-18 hours a day and it’s literally killing them (karoshi lit. death from overwork). Finally, stop shamming people with mental health issues; people in Japan are afaird to admit their issues due to the stigma link with mental health. Why would people admit they have mental health issues if they are being shammed for it?”
TV Guru: “Same thing, you can’t be fucking shaming somebody for failing. But, that’s the pressure they put on society. You can’t pressure somebody into working hard. Yea Japanese people are smart because they spend hours studying but all that long-term studying comes with a price…”
“The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhere – everyone has to protect themselves. A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it protects you from – it cuts you off from valuable information, it makes you conspicuous and an easy target. Better to circulate among people, find allies, mingle. You are shielded from your enemies by the crowd.”
“The weight of society’s pressure to conform, and the lack of distance from other people, can make it impossible to think clearly about what’s going on around you. As a temporary recourse, then, isolation can help you gain perceptive. The danger is, however, that this kind of isolation will sire all kinds of strange and perverted ideas. You main gain perspective on the larger picture, but you lose a sense of your own smallness and limitations. Also, the more isolated you are, the harder it is to break out of your isolation when you chose to – it sinks you deep into its quicksand with your you noticing.”