by Dylan Reilly
Imagine, that, for whatever reason, life seems simply unbearable to you. You may be in school and being constantly bullied, or having a job you hate with no foreseeable hope for a better one, or you may simply be depressed. Now think, what kind of solution is there for you? In Japan, one of the most common answers for young people seems to be “stay home and don’t come out”. An increasingly prevalent issue in modern Japan, and especially its youth, is that of the hikikomori. Literally meaning something like “being confined”, it refers to the shut-in population of the country. However, this does not refer to those who must remain in their homes because of extenuating circumstances like health, but rather fully healthy (usually) individuals who simply refuse to leave their house, and often not even their room at that. Some may occasionally leave for such things as short shopping trips or meals with their family.  And interestingly enough, around 80 percent of hikikomori are male. 
It is also important to note that the development of the hikikomori as a social phenomenon is a relatively recent one; its first inklings began to appear around the mid-80’s.  One of the factors attributed as a spark to the proverbial flame is Japan’s lackluster economy; many young Japanese, not just hikikomori, are without jobs, or part-time ones at the most. And thanks to this, an overall feeling of depression or helplessness so characteristic of the “hikki” mindset has begun to emerge. However, at the same time, it is common for many Japanese youth to live with their parents anyway, and because of the disposable income this older generation has despite economic trouble, the option of staying home becomes more and more appealing. It only gets better when one learns that parents of hikikomori often do financially support their children into adulthood. 
However, these “hikki” are not returning to their houses simply because they are lazy, as easy as it would be to label them that way. Instead, it appears more likely that this seclusion is a very Japanese response to the messages that permeate Japanese society. Contrary to the messages seen in the West that promote independence and action from an early age, Japan takes pride in obedience, conformity, and discipline. As a result, instead of the loud, rebellious “punks” one sees in Western culture, it is believed by some that hikikomori have the same intentions or feelings of “not fitting in”, and that society has led them to “rebel” by shrinking away.  As spoken by the mother of a hikikomori, “a person who challenges, or makes a mistake, or thinks for himself, either leaves Japan or becomes a hikikomori.”  These people may find fault with Japanese society or feel stifled by it, but because of its nature, there is nowhere for them to go but in. Some propose that the Japanese tendency to see solitude as something noble helps the hikki cause as well.
Now, there seems to be something very odd about all this (aside from the obvious). How do these people manage to survive? Or, to be more specific, why do the parents of these shut-ins continue to feed and/or at least provide a home for their children? It seems difficult to understand here; it seems more common for people to kick out a lazy twenty-something, or to help them find a job if the problem is not as serious. But it seems to come down, once again, to some of the ideas of Japanese culture. Used to already providing for their children, as so many Japanese parents do, some simply become used to the idea of continuing to do so. Others follow the mantra of not sticking out or rocking the boat, and so attempt to keep “business as usual” within the home. Sadatsugu Kudo, the head of Youth Support Center, one of many hikikomori “rehabilitation groups”, explains that “Most parents feel that hikikomori is a failure of their child-rearing.”  However, some parents genuinely fear that their child will no longer be able to function in the real world, and that the only way for them to survive is to be supported by these parents .
The emergence of the hikikomori holds a unique space within the borders of National Cool; while it is a known phenomenon within it, and has garnered a good deal of attention, it represents one of the harsher realities of Japan. It is studied about by those captured by its flashier exterior but in the end its negative qualities are often glossed over or worse, idealized into a “way of life” rather than a serious problem. Will this trend only grow as time goes on, or will something change to halt its growth? And even if something does change, will one thing be enough, or will these people remain almost literally and hopelessly encapsulated, while the rest of Japan flows on ahead?
Some believe that the existence of the hikikomori represents a uniquely Japanese social disorder. Do you agree with this thought, or is it possible to find people living similar lifestyles for similar reasons around the world?
If one of the purported reasons for hikikomori is the current ideal of Japanese society, do you think their numbers will rise in the future?
An odd note is that 80 percent of hikikomori are male. Why do you think male hikikomori are more prevalent than female ones? In addition, do you think there are unique factors that influence these few female hikki?
1. Jones, Maggie. “Shutting Themselves In.” The New York Times. 15 Jan 2006. Web. 26 Mar 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2
2. Zielenziger, Michael. “Retreating Youth Become Japan’s ‘Lost Generation’.” Excerpt from Shutting Out the Sun. NPR. 24 Nov. 2006. Web. 26 Mar 2011. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6535284
3. Gallagher, Paul. “Hikikomori – The Silent Sufferers.” Dangerous Minds. 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 26 Mar 2011. http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/hikikomori_the_silent_sufferers/