Japanese Anti-Socials: The Hikikimori Epidemic

The hikikomori, a term used in Japan to describe the hundreds of thousands of people who've isolated themselves from any social life, is becoming somewhat of an epidemic. Hikikimori is a sociological phenomenon where young people withdraw into their homes for years, leaving their bedrooms for only a few hours a day and entertaining themselves with video games, anime or their plain own thought. This psychological disease is primarily exclusive to Japan, but has recently popped up in Korea and Italy.

Although there are female hikikomori, most tend to be male with the youngest documented to be around 14 years old. For these withdrawn youth, it's not laziness or a temporary bout of heartbreak that keep them shut-ins—it's a social condition that, for some, has lasted for more than 15 years. Why is this happening to Japan's young people? And why only Japan? One of the major triggers is the importance of gaining success and a positive reputation in Japanese society. This reputation is particularly important for Japanese males and the pressure to succeed is on as early as middle school–failure to do so comes with disrespect and dishonour. In Japan, it's much easier to become a recluse than to jump back from dishonouring your family.

But this is only what triggers shut-ins. What keeps them shut-ins is their dependency on their parents. Dependency is part of Japanese culture, with girls living with their folks until marriage, and males sometimes never leaving the family home. Due to the emphasis on positive social standing, once a hikikomori becomes withdrawn, parents will often wait for months before seeking help for their child—or never seek help at all.

Many hikikomori are violent to their parents—part of the clash of traditional Japanese ideologies of sameness meeting young people's need for individuality—so they've gained a very stigmatized reputation in society. They're also commonly (but mistakenly) associated with the otaku, literally translated as “nerd,” who are feared by the Japanese. Otaku are obsessive with anime, video games, or anything really, and a few of those who are identified of otaku have committed some the most bizarre murders in the history of Japan. The Otaku Murderer is a famously disturbing example.

One of ways the hikikomori are being treated is through the service of “rental sister.” Rental Sisters are usually hired by the parents and are paid to slowly encourage their client to reenter society. They'll begin by sending their client letters or knocking on their door, simply trying to initiate any sort of interpersonal communication. The goal is to eventually get them to do simple activities outside, until they're willing to leave home and find temporary housing in a treatment centre.

Help is finally finding its way to the hikikomori, but with an estimated one per cent of Japan's population suffering from this condition and very few parents willing to speak about their shut-in children, the problem persists.

The final question experts are attempting to solve is what happens when these hikikomori's parents die off and they are left to fend for themselves after a lifetime of withdrawal?

There've been symptoms of hikikomori popping up in France, Canada and the US.

What do we do if it happens to us?


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