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‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’: the phenomenon of social isolation in Japan

For 32-year-old Kaito* from Chiba, a sparsely populated suburb in Tokyo, life for the last 16 years has been confined to a single room. He either spends most of his time on the internet or plays games and reads comic books while the rest of the world sleeps. His windows are duct taped to keep the sun out and his room is covered in plastic bags filled with trash, feces, and bottles of urine.

His meals are provided to him by his mother, who leaves them in a tray outside his door. Occasionally, when she is unable to do so, he ventures out in the middle of the night to buy snacks from neighbourhood 24/7 convenience stores. Although he has lived in that house with his parents and younger brother his whole life, over the last 16 years, he has only met his family on a handful of occasions. He uses wet wipes to maintain daily hygiene, emerging only monthly from his room to shower, almost exclusively when no one else is around. 

In November 2022, the Japanese Cabinet Office estimated that there are 1.5 million people in the country who are living as recluses, a phenomenon known as hikikomori. However, Saito Tamaki, the psychiatrist who popularised this term, claims that these figures are huge understatements. He believes that the real figure is closer to two million, with the potential of it rising to as high as 10 million in the coming years.

What is hikikomori? 

In 2003, the Japanese government issued a series of criteria towards defining hikikomori, establishing that in order to be classified as such, an individual must have a lifestyle centered at home, have no willingness to attend school or work, is unable to maintain personal relationships, and whose symptoms persist for longer than six months. 

The definition of hikikomori in Japan excludes people with physical and mental illnesses, and while some individuals do suffer from psychiatric disorders, according to Sawa Kurotani, a professor at the University of Redlands, these psychological problems are more often symptoms of hikikomori rather than the cause of it. 

Speaking to indianexpress.com, Kurotani said there is an under-defined grey area between clinically diagnosed mental illness and actual happiness. In her vast anthropological research of hikikomori, she has yet to come across an individual who proclaims to be happy with their state of life.

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In terms of gender, data from Japan indicates that roughly 90 per cent of hikikomori tend to be male as the phenomenon is catalysed by the immense societal pressure on men to be breadwinners. Kurotani, however, believes that as gender norms evolve and the pressure to marry decreases, the number of female hikikomori will rise.

The question surrounding the definition of hikikomori also pertains to its relevance in the era of social media. With the emergence of social messaging apps, the prevalence of mass online gaming communities and the shift to teleconferencing during the pandemic, does a person need to leave their homes in order to be a part of society?

According to Michael Zielenziger, author of Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, the answer is both uncertain and case specific. However, Zielenziger stresses that what distinguishes hikikomori from other individuals who are homebound by choice or necessity is their inability to significantly engage with the outside world. “A part of the phenomenon means lacking productivity,” he says, “so if you have online communications but aren’t meaningfully contributing to society, I would still classify that as hikikomori. Another point of contention is the ability to apply the term outside of Japan, given that it is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, characterized by cultural norms. 

Japanese isolationism

The idea of isolation in Japan dates back to the early days of Confucius and Buddhist thought, which regarded solitude as an exercise in enlightenment. Confucianism spread to Japan during the fourth century BCE and was particularly influential from 1603 CE to 1868 CE during the time of Tokugawa shogunate.

Adhering partially to the strict norms professed by Confucianism and acting in response to the colonial and religious influence of Spain and Portugal, in 1635, the Tokugawa shogunate issued the Sakoku edict, closing Japan’s borders and plunging the country into over two centuries of semi-isolation.

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy ended this period of seclusion when he sailed into Tokyo and demanded a treaty that would force Japan to engage in trade with the United States. Although the Japanese believed Perry’s forces to represent “black ships of evil,” being militarily at a disadvantage, they were compelled to acquiesce to Perry’s demands.

Learning from this mistake, according to Zielenziger, “Japan rushed into modernisation, determined not to kneel at the mercy of Western invaders.” Armed with industry, technology and a rapidly scaling military, Japanese forces would colonise most of their neighbours in East Asia. 

However, after its defeat in the Second World War, Japan was once again in the clutches of foreign powers, with many of its institutions being dismantled in the postwar era of US occupation. As Western influences became more prominent, the nuclear family became the dominant family structure. Japan also became increasingly technologically advanced and urbanised, its economy flourishing against all odds. According to Zielenziger, by the late 1980s, everyone thought that Japan was going to rule the world. But hidden beneath this mirage of prosperity, the hikikomori phenomenon was already beginning to take shape.

Starting in the 1970s, Japanese youth started exhibiting a preoccupation with refusing to attend school, a condition later described by psychiatrist Yoshimi Kasahara as taikyaku shinkeishou, or withdrawal neurosis — perfectly healthy children suddenly choosing to shut themselves off from society.

According to Kasahara, who published a paper on the subject in 2003 in The National Library of Medicine, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, many reports in psychiatric literature began to use the term hikikomori to refer to the disorder. This coincided with the economic downfall of the country.

As for hikikomori, the term was about to skyrocket to mainstream attention when, in 1998, Tamaki wrote the bestselling book Hikikomori, Adolescence Without End

But what really got people talking was an incident from 2000 when, after years of seclusion, a 17-year-old boy finally left his house, hopped on a bus in the town of Saga, waited 40 minutes, and then pulled knives from his jacket, hijacking the bus and holding 20 people hostage. By the end of the ordeal, he had killed one passenger and stabbed three other women in the neck.

The incident prompted the Japanese Government to take notice and, in the same year, it commissioned a nationwide study on hikikomori. Two years later, it ran a nationally broadcasted campaign drawing attention to (by its own estimates) the one million hikikomori living in the country.

Why Japan?

Japan has a long cultural association with isolationism. Even before the Sakoku edict, one of the most revered figures in Shinto tradition, Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, was believed to have abandoned her kingdom of light to embrace the solitude of a rock cave, in response to her brother’s tyrannical behavior. Finally, after years of darkness, Japan celebrated her long awaited return, and Emperors from 701 AD to date, have thanked her for her light by adorning the flag of Japan with the image of the rising Sun.

Most in Japan choose to bathe in her light but the hikikomori prefer to claim her darkness. Today, many of them use her name and variations of the same as online aliases. 

Japan has even produced a literary genre dedicated to the practice of seclusion, with books like Yoshida Kenko’s Essays on Idleness, and Kamo no Chomei’s Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut, alluding to an enchantment with these ideas.

However, the extreme modern manifestation of seclusion in hikikomori is largely a result of three unique factors of Japanese hierarchical society: its obsession with collectivism, its intense masculinity, and its familial relationship structures.

Japan has always been an extremely ‘tight’ culture in which the needs of the collective supersede the needs of an individual. During the Tokugawa period, a visiting American described the Japanese as “completely and pitilessly sacrificed to the community,” adding that even the “slightest divergence from rule (would) be observed with disfavour.”

Robert Edgerton, an anthropologist who recounted this quote in 1985 in a publication for the University of Berkley, alludes frequently to the strict rules-based nature of Japanese society, noting that communities which failed to enforce social customs were collectively punished, and that in the 19th century, the samurai were permitted to kill anyone of lower status, if their behaviour was “unexpected.”

A sole person awake in their apartment A hikikomori typically remains awake while the rest of the world is sleeping (Getty Images)

This extreme focus on the collective leaves little room for individualism. According to Kurotani, who has spent time in both the US and Japan, in the former, if someone can’t fit into one corner of society, there are other places they can go. In Japan, she says, that isn’t the case. Japanese culture is monolithic and those who don’t conform to the grasping social binds are tormented and shunned into the shadows of social oblivion.

AR Teo, a professor at the University of California, who wrote a paper titled Hikikomori, A Japanese Culture-Bound Syndrome of Social Withdrawal argues that because of the inherent preoccupation with group membership, Japanese youth are more susceptible to bullying and social ostracization. For children in Japan, he writes, bullying can have devastating psychological implications, with one hikikomori that he interviewed retreating to his room for two years after facing intense bullying in school.

Unlike in other countries, where teachers generally frown upon bullying, Zielenziger states that in Japan, teachers allow it to take place because they know that in the workforce, adults will face immense pressure to succeed and conform, a notion rooted in the Japanese concept of a ‘salaryman’ or someone who embodies traits of masculinity associated with being able to provide for their families.

William Rahardjo of Trinity College, who wrote about the concept of salarymen, states that following international economic success, “the salaryman soon became seen as the primary hegemonic model of masculinity and the symbol of masculine power for decades to come”. So, for generations of young Japanese boys, the only acceptable future was to do well in class, do well at university, do well at work and most importantly, not complain and not stand out.

This “incredible pressure” to succeed, Kurotani claims, stems from the idea that if Japanese men are not successful in a “very singular way,” they “fail both themselves and their families. Eventually, for some, it becomes too much to bear. After seeing his workload increase ten-fold after former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s educational reforms, one hikikomori discussed the rigours of the Japanese educational system with the producers of a 2007 TV documentary by ABC Australia. “I guess you could say that I lost to the pressure.”

During Japan’s economic boom, many believed that the benefits of the salaryman were worth the toil. However, as Zielenziger points out, it’s one thing to be conformist in a society that is experiencing massive economic growth and another to be so in the face of economic stagflation. Rahardjo notes that after the collapse of the bubble economy, many young people started to question why they should take a job out of college and do what they were told for 30 years, only to find suddenly that they had been laid off.

The third element of Japanese culture that promotes the hikikomori phenomenon is its co-dependent family-based structures. Known as amae, the culture-specific condition can be defined as the feeling of desire to be loved and cared for. This is exhibited not only by children but by their mothers as well, with both parties making themselves emotionally numb in order to maintain good relations.

Social worker Suzanne Vogel of Harvard University, who lived in Japan from 1958 to 1960, describes the nature of parent-child relations that make Japan different from other parts of the world. Firstly, as discussed earlier, because of the salaryman concept, Japanese fathers were often distanced from family life, making mothers the primary caregivers to the children. Secondly, Vogel writes, in Japan, discipline is maintained by evoking the fear of abandonment, unlike in Western countries where children are punished with confinement. 

To state one example, she observed that Japanese mothers walking down the street with misbehaving toddlers did not hold their hand and demanded that they stay close as American mothers would do, but instead, would leave the misbehaving child behind, who would then become anxious and run towards her. 

Kurotani argues that this shift began to take place around the 1970s, around the same time Japan began transitioning from a generational family unit to a nuclear family unit. “We didn’t have individual rooms but if I were to have locked myself in a room as a child, my parents and grandparents would have barged in and demanded I come out,” she says. However, amongst the younger generations, parents indulge their children, allowing them to seclude themselves inside their rooms, while being taken care of financially and otherwise.

Once a child becomes a hikikomori, Japanese parents continue to support them either out of shame or familial obligation. Contrasted against the US which has a homeless population of 1.6 million young people, there are only under 10,000 young people living on the streets in Japan. Amongst other things, this gulf suggests that unproductive or unrulily Japanese children are not cast upon the streets by their parents, but instead, cared for and financially supported, even when doing so may hinder their psychological development.

Instead of dealing with the problem, Zielenziger argues that Japanese parents prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist, hoping that their children will eventually rejoin society by their own volition.

Consequences of hikikomori

Japan’s hikikomori present a myriad of challenges to its economy and labour force. Since they do not work or pay taxes, according to Tamaki, the Japanese government will be forced to support them for as long as half a century. Additionally, Japan already has declining birth rates and a strictly controlled immigration system which means that it can expect severe labour shortages if more and more adolescents choose to become hikikomori. 

Moreover, as elderly parents have to support their hikikomori children, their increasing inability to care for them can have devastating consequences. Take for instance a 2018 case from Sapporo City, in which an 82-year-old mother and her 52-year-old hikikomori daughter were found dead in their apartment. According to police, both died from severe malnutrition – the mother first, and her daughter, unable to leave the house, weeks later. In another example from 2019, an elderly man from Tokyo was convicted of stabbing his hikikomori son out of fear that the son would be unable to survive after the man and his wife passed or would be violent towards them in old age. 

At an individual level, becoming a hikikomori causes acute psychological and social challenges.

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For Zielenziger, however, the problem of hikikomori is far graver, indicating a larger problem within Japanese society. He states that while growing up he understood people who didn’t work or be productive, to be either “lazy or crazy.” The lazy ones, he says, needed a “kick up their ass,” and the crazy ones, required medication. His takeaway though is that hikikomori are neither lazy nor crazy. Of the hikikomori he interviewed, he says, “they were smart, they had something to offer to society, but because Japan doesn’t allow for individualism, they weren’t able to contribute.”

In Japan, as the popular saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out must be hammered in.’ The Japanese were taught to conform, to bend, break and realign, all in service of uniformity. But as one former hikikomori, Iwata Mitsunori, told the Japanese daily Asahi Shinbun News Service in 2002, this one-sized approach doesn’t work for people like him. “My own way of seeing things and society’s way of seeing things did not fit,” he says, “so I had no option but to withdraw.” As to when that withdrawal may potentially end, he utters a solemn forecast: “once you leave your position in this sick society, there is no way back.” 

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*Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect privacy

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