BY AMELIA EARNEST
On 2009, University of Michigan psychiatrist Alan Teo received an unusual phone call. The caller, a 30-yearold male, described how feelings of contempt for society had driven him into isolation. It had been three years since he had set foot outside of his apartment. The man—identified in later reports only as “Mr. H”—had no job and no close relationships. He spent each day playing video games and surfing the Internet. This pattern of behaviors did not strongly correspond to any definition or precedent in the American medical community.
Nearly two decades before, a half a world away, Japanese psychologist Taimaki Saito began to notice a growing number of adolescent patients exhibiting socially reclusive behaviors at his practice. Similar to Mr. H, these young people had rejected activities normal for their age group and maintained few, if any, social contacts. This observation launched Saito into what would become his lifetime’s study: investigating a distinct type of acute social withdrawal he later termed “hikikomori,” which translates to mean, “a pulling away [from society].” Saito theorized that Japan’s distinctive social pressures play a role in the condition’s origins. This idea is consistent with popular perception of hikikomori as a singularly Japanese phenomenon.
But how does that explain Mr. H, America’s first documented hikikomori? Over the past decade, numerous studies across the globe have observed emerging trends of socially reclusive behaviors similar to those exhibited by hikikomori. How can cultural pressures of Japan be pushing people living in France, Korea, or even Michigan, to become hermits? They can’t. This prompts two alternative pos- sibilities: either awareness of social withdrawal spreading, or its causal factors are.
Grappling with the question of whether hikikomori are appearing in cultures outside of Japan provokes a more fundamental query: who counts as hikikomori? Or the better question, what groups count themselves as hikikomori?
“What is distinct about hikikomori,” anthropologist and researcher Sachiko Horiguchi explains, “is that it is sometimes used as a basis of identity.” Functional as an adjective and a noun, hikikomori goes beyond a mere indicator of the lifestyle a person leads. Hikikomori becomes, as Horiguchi said, a word for people themselves. And according to Saito, all those who take on the identity share a lifestyle centered on the home that rejects work, school, and other social participation.
Beyond these two fundamental commonalities, however, the label splinters. “Hikkomori is a really ambiguous ill-defined category,” Horiguchi says. “Some psychiatrists suggest that hikikomori is a distinct category, but often definitions are vague.” Capturing social withdrawal within the confines of medical terminology, it seems, is like trying to nail a cloud to the ground. Even the government struggles with its own institutions’ hazy definition. Formerly, classification of a person as a hikikomori relied on the presence of social withdrawal behaviors not explainable by a diagnosable condition. In 2010, however, a government report expanded the definition to include people who may struggle at the crosshairs of social withdrawal and mental health issues like schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, or otaku (obsessive interests in topics like manga, anime, and video games). In some definitions, Rubinstein criticizes, “An elderly person who can’t get out of bed is a hikikomori.”
Because they cannot adapt to their environment, hikikomori alter their environment to fit them. But what are these pressures, extreme enough to drive free people into cages built by their own hand? Most hikikomori began withdrawal while still in school, which Japanese psychologist Taimaki Saito has named as a possible result of Japan’s academic environment. Traditional Confucian values of productivity and success have hybridized with Japan’s plummeting birth rate to create a system that places children under high pressure. Mariko Fujiwara, director of Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, elaborated on this toxic combination of factors: “Today’s parents are more demanding because Japan’s declining birth rate means they have fewer children on whom to push their hopes.”
Familial pressures are exacerbated by an educational system that assumes the equal capacity of all students. Ellen Rubinstein describes the origins of the “pressure-cooker” academic environment: “The educational system has been built upon meritocracy… people believe that those who succeed have just tried harder than everybody else.” The stakes are high from day one. Upon first entering school, the tracking process begins. Students’ past performance funnels them onward, sending top performers to the best opportunities, which then compound into more opportunity. Those who perform poorly, however, follow a bleaker trajectory. Performance on a single test determines university acceptance. Students hoping for acceptance to top schools like Tokyo University usually attend around three years of nighttime “cram school” in preparation for the epic test sitting. Because there is a single standard measuring a student’s “success,” subjects outside of the exam material, athletics, and extracurricular activities are given little value.
Excellent academic performance is the vital first step in a prescribed formula for life success. Rubinstein describes the ideal path of a Japanese male as graduating from preparatory school, attending a top university, and then landing a job at a big company.
“In Japan there is a very distinct idea of what is a mainstream life course,” says Rubinstein, who is currently earning a degree in psychoanalysis. In the sanctity of his bedroom, the hikikomori finds his own small rebellion from this iron vice grip of societal pressure. There, he can live without fear of failure or judgment for his deviance from the expectations of others.
Enabling family structure is another factor thought to contribute to the prevalence of social withdrawal in Japan. “Japanese culture, relatively, has been tolerant to unsociable people or not perfectly socialized persons… If anyone becomes hikikomori, Japanese people tend to sympathize with him and wait to recover patiently,” Japanese anthropologist Taishin Ikeda writes in an email sent from California, where he researches deviant social behaviors of Japan. Japanese families are wealthy enough to feed and house their adult offspring for decades into adulthood. Bonds between mother and son are especially vulnerable to unhealthy dependence. One hikikomori had concealed a one-year-old girl in his bedroom for 10 years after kidnapping her. When asked how she never knew of the girl’s presence, his mother bashfully explained that her son had not permitted her to enter his room for over a decade.
In contrast, social withdrawal in Western cultures is often met by brusque abandonment. “It’s a matter of whatever environmental factors are influencing someone’s situation— family structure and responsibilities—the way people express distress is different,” Rubinstein emphasizes. “In Japan it’s a matter of withdrawing; whereas in France or America, people who have problems end up, say homeless.” Rubinstein encountered this contrast in paradigms firsthand while discussing hikikomori in Japan. “I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t kick them out of the house,” Rubinstein recounts, remembering her confusion upon learning of the enabling behaviors of Japanese parents. Her Japanese colleagues were equally perplexed, however, by Rubinstein’s expectation that parents might force their own children from the home out of “tough love.” “… [a Japanese colleague] asked me if that meant that their parents didn’t love them,” Rubinstein notes, her voice edged in surprise.
This contrast of perspective clarifies reality behind the supposed spread of hikikomori. True to Saito’s original theory, Japan’s cultural environment does contain some unique features (like rigid definitions of success) that lead young people to seek seclusion from society. More significant, however, are the cultural aspects that make that behavior an option, like parents’ comparatively high investment in their children. In 2009, an estimated one million hikikomori were living in Japan. In the United States there was one. Mr. H was not the only person in the US suffering from behaviors of social withdrawal; he just expressed his social distress in a manner that was unlikely considering his cultural background. The causal factors of social isolation aren’t becoming more widespread. Taxing social pressures and the rejection of conformity to those pressures has existed in every culture; it is only the mechanisms of coping that differ. Perhaps the inward withdrawal of a Japanese young adult parallels a Mohawk-sporting Parisian who sneaks out at night to heavy metal concerts, or an American runaway living on the street to escape the pressure to conform socially to the expectations of his parents.
In the universal clash between youth and the societal expectations they inherit, Hikikomori are just one manifestation of the social withdrawal that affects every culture.
Amelia Earnest ’14 is a Global Affairs major in Pierson College. Contact her at amelia. firstname.lastname@example.org.