Hikikomori: the quiet disappearance

They squat in their tiny rooms, in front of their computers, lying on their beds even during the day. They only go outside at night, and only if they can’t avoid it. Out into life? No way. For these young people, life takes place in just a few square meters. It is a life of self-imposed isolation – for months, for years, sometimes for decades. They are called hikikomori, which comes from the Japanese word for "retreat". As a rule, they still live with their parents, but they avoid contact with them, too. In Japanese TV films, as Evelyn Schulz explains, a few images have long been sufficient to describe the situation for every viewer: the closed door of the room in front of which the mother puts the food down. "It’s a fixed topos".

Japanese stands in front of the stove and cooks

A life in just a few square meters: Hundreds of thousands live in self-imposed isolation in Japan (symbol image).

© Nazra Zahri/Getty Images

That alone, says the professor of Japanese studies at the LMU, shows how widespread the phenomenon is in Japan. As early as the 1980s, Schulz recalls, her host family at the time reported such cases, "of people who were afraid of the world, perhaps depressed, struggling with diffuse psychological abnormalities."In Japan alone, experts estimate that there are between half a million and more than a million people, most of them men, who lose touch with the world in this way. No one knows how high the number of unreported cases is.

Although researchers now believe that similar phenomena may exist in other countries, the sheer number of people affected in Japan is astounding. What drives young people into isolation? What makes withdrawal a mass movement? What peculiarities of the Japanese social structure have contributed to this? According to the official definition, someone is considered a hikikomori if they shut themselves off from the world for more than six months. But otherwise, the diagnostic criteria are anything but uniform. The circumstances and life histories of those affected are varied and do not form a uniform pattern. Dysfunctional family structures, childhood traumas, bullying experiences, failed school careers, problematic love relationships – various reasons can become triggers. For many of those affected, the withdrawal is accompanied by psychological disorders. The list of comorbidities is long: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders. But it is still not really clear in most cases whether they are the cause or not rather the consequence of social withdrawal.

The burden of the right career

"In Japanese society, there are very normative ideas about what educational and employment biographies should look like," outlines Evelyn Schulz. And when many parents have only one child, they like to concentrate all their wishes for prosperity and advancement on this one child and overburden it with exaggerated expectations.

"The school system is very rigid," Schulz says. "School, it’s still like that today: The children have full-day classes and in the evening they go to a private cram school again." In order to get into one of the good secondary schools or a prestigious university, the young people have to pass tough tests. And unlike in Germany, for example, Schulz says, there are few fallback positions in this system: Those who don’t make it have often gambled it away.

"I saw that a lot during my visits. How do the children stand it, so without free space, I asked myself." And where the social biotope is a monoculture, those who do not like to grow so straight have a hard time: "Often it is not even the failure of the school requirements," says Schulz. "Quite often, young people just don’t fit into the system the same way."

The socially prescribed career grids are narrow. Even those who want to spend a year abroad after graduating from college risk not being able to fit into the standardized resumes afterwards. For a long time, this functioning according to rigid rules was actually considered promising: If you put in the effort, it was said, you’ll get somewhere – a kind of turbo variant of the German economic miracle mentality. And social recognition and status are still more closely tied to a straight career than in almost any other country.

But in times of globalization and post-industrial upheaval, this imaginary business model of the postwar era has long since lacked a secure foundation. Even though Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy and the yen is a very strong currency – the old promise of prosperity no longer applies. Japan has become a gap society, the social gap is widening and the middle class is crumbling.

All this does not make it easy to find one’s place in society, although, according to Schulz, more and more young people are turning away from the rigid collective performance ethic, from the patriarchally organized professional world, and are striving for other forms of living and working. Some may start small startups, others may cut back on their careers and look for a work-life balance. "And in the meantime," Schulz states, "parts of society are showing more understanding when someone says: I can’t take it anymore, I don’t like it anymore, I can’t cope anymore."

Failure of the system – Hikikomori as a theme in theater: Toshiki Okada staged his play "The Vacuum Cleaner" at the Munchner Kammerspiele in 2019. Scene with Thomas Hauser. Photo: Julian Baumann

Shadow existence in a culture of shame

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There is nothing demonstrative about this Japanese variant of denial in any form; it is entirely inward-looking. It’s not a loud protest, but a quiet disappearance from the world out there. In reports, those affected talk about how they are considered "failures" in the popular sense, they talk about their guilty conscience because they are still on their parents’ pockets. Most hikikomori, Schulz says, see their situation very clearly. They know that with each month, with each year, the chances of getting back on their feet diminish. But many have settled frugally into their shadowy existence.

And the families? "The whole thing is very shameful," says Evelyn Schulz. "How to cope when you have someone in the family who is not what you think they are?"A stigma, too. And yet Japan is "a society that gives room to deviance, even in private. You let the hikikomori be like that, that’s just the way it is. Of course there’s shame, of course there’s helplessness."

The word hikikomori reflects this ambivalence, says the Japanologist. It describes a massive social problem almost in an ironic refraction with a term that exudes something positive, even something cozy: I am retreating. And it protects against further questions. "With the term, everyone knows what is meant. You don’t probe any further." Because about mental problems "people usually do not talk openly Japan. In any case, I have experienced it only rarely, mostly only in the closer circle of friends," says Schulz. Going to a therapist is anything but a given. And so it takes a long time for those affected or their families to seek help. In the meantime, however, there are a lot of contact points that offer advice and support to parents and try to bring hikikomori out of isolation with low-threshold offers.

The problem of aging

Meanwhile, Japan is considered as a "super aged society". At 48.4 years, the country has the highest average age of its population in the world. Almost 30 percent of residents are 65 and older. Evelyn Schulz recounts her last visit to the country: "A friend showed me rows and rows of former elementary schools that had been converted into homes for the elderly. Mind you, this was in Greater Tokyo, in the megacity’s immediate catchment area, not in outlying regions." The aging of society, the Japanologist says the dominant social theme.

Along with society as a whole, the hikikomori have also long since come of age. Surveys show that their number will soon be as large in the over-40 age group as in the one below. In some cases, they have lived in seclusion with their now elderly parents for decades, still financially supported by them. "Often it’s not until both parents have died that it becomes obvious there’s someone else in the home." However, middle-aged hikikomori are also growing up. Surveys of 40- to 65-year-old sufferers showed that many of them did not enter social decline until later in life, through mental health problems, other periods of illness or job loss.

What role does increasing digitalization play in all this?? The suspicion is that the connection to the virtual world exacerbates the problem. In fact, many hikikomori are considered internet addicts by common criteria. The Net makes it easier for those affected to avoid social contact in the real world, which they find confusing and frightening. It creates them communication – on their terms, the risk of failure is subjectively perceived apparently lower.

But can’t the Internet also be part of the solution?? Some hikikomori, Evelyn Schulz tells us, successfully developed social activities online, in self-help or as bloggers, for example. At the very least, however, it opens "a window into the closed world of hikikomori" – not least for therapists, doctors and other members of the help system. And what sounds rather bizarre in this context: even a game like Pokemon Go allegedly got some sufferers back on the road, because they suddenly had to score points in the real world.

The fact that more and more young people everywhere are immersing themselves in digital worlds is also one of the traces that connects the hikikomori syndrome with similar phenomena in other societies. A number of studies find clusters of extreme social self-isolation in Spain, the U.S., South Korea, and India, among others. Thus, some researchers now warn that hikikomori is a phenomenon that not only affects Japan, but could be linked to modern societies in general.

Hikikomori: the quiet disappearance

Prof. Dr. Evelyn Schulz researches and teaches at the Japan Center of the LMU. Schulz, born in 1963, studied at the University of Heidelberg and in Kyoto, received her doctorate in 1995 and habilitated in Japanese Studies in 2001. Between 1995 and 2002, she was assistant professor and senior lecturer at the East Asian Seminar of the University of Zurich, before being appointed to the LMU in 2002.

Hikikomori: the quiet disappearance

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