“Hikikomori”: Social Recluses in the Shadows of an Aging Japan

Ishikawa Kiyoshi [Profile]

[2017.07.19] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

The phenomenon of hikikomori—long-term social withdrawal—came to the fore as an issue involving young Japanese in the late 1990s. The situation is becoming even more serious as the recluses advance in age.

The Japanese term hikikomori refers to people who avoid personal or social contact and live in self-imposed isolation for an extended period—six months or longer, as defined by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. The same term refers to the phenomenon of social withdrawal exhibited by these individuals. The recluses commonly live at home with their parents, holed up in their bedrooms, neither supporting themselves financially nor functioning independently.

In September 2016, the Cabinet Office released the results of a survey conducted in December 2015, estimating that the number of hikikomori nationwide is on the order of 540,000. Among these recluses, about 35% have been in self-imposed isolation for seven years or longer. The total number is 150,000 lower than that estimated in a similar survey conducted in 2010, but we should note that the figure does not include long-term truants under 15 or recluses aged 40 or over. This means that hikikomori in the 35–39 age group as of 2010—who accounted for 23.7% of the total in that year’s survey—were no longer covered in the 2015 survey. Furthermore, many recluses have no contact with medical institutions or support organizations, so are invisible to those providing data for the surveys.

Some local governments have conducted surveys of their own regarding hikikomori in their jurisdictions. For example, in May this year Saga Prefecture announced the results of a survey identifying 644 recluses, of whom more than 70% were aged 40 or over and 36% had been living in isolation for 10 years or more. Such findings suggest that if those not covered under the Cabinet Office’s survey were included, the total number of hikikomori would top 1 million.

The phenomenon of hikikomori originally drew attention in Japan during the late 1990s, and my impression is that the number of people affected by this condition is continuing to increase. Efforts by medical and welfare bodies to alleviate the problem have not been successful. Those whose condition is relatively mild and who can get out to medical institutions and support-providing organizations on their own are often able to recover or improve. But those whose condition is grave and who have been isolating themselves for many years tend to continue on into their forties and fifties with little improvement. And in the homes of such long-term hikikomori, sometimes the situation becomes violent and the family as a whole falls into a state of mental and emotional paralysis.

According to various surveys, about one-third of the hikikomori suffer from mental ailments like schizophrenia and depression, another third are affected by developmental disorder, and the remaining third have personality disorders of one type or another, causing pain to themselves and those around them. The underlying factors vary, but in many cases the affected person has suffered abuse, such as bullying at school or workplace harassment. Another issue is family neglect, resulting in the failure to receive enough love or gain experience in communication within the home.

Persistent Efforts Pay Off

I have been involved in providing support for recluses since around 2000. Most of them find it difficult to go outside, so from the start my activities have taken the form of outreach visits to homes. I have also conducted monthly classes for family members, held individual discussions with family members and hikikomori, and arranged gatherings for young people. I currently make about 800 house calls a year, and have made more than 10,000 altogether. In my activities I provide support for people from their teens to their fifties, but my efforts are directed largely to those in their late thirties to early forties.

In this work, I attempt to help hikikomori build on their strengths and have repeated experiences that will allow them to interact confidently with those around them. The process also includes taking them on trips. I conduct 7 or 8 such trips to other Asian countries every year, and 20 trips to rural Okinawa and other domestic destinations.

When I initially call on hikikomori, virtually none of them show any interest in traveling overseas. In fact, over half of them do not even show their faces when I visit their homes. Forcing my way through the door to their room so I can see them is counterproductive, so I take my time, visiting repeatedly and striving to convey my sincerity with courtesy and gentleness. I find that their improvement can be quite rapid when it is preceded by such repeated calls. One key part of the process is getting them used to the presence of visitors in the house.

In some cases I have visited recluses’ homes once or twice a month for more than 10 years before we actually meet face to face. They usually improve after that, but when the approach takes so long, it makes me ask myself if I couldn’t have found a better method. To be honest, this is still a process of trial and error for me.

The routes to recovery are surprisingly diverse. In many cases, of course, improvement accompanies the provision of medical care. But some recluses who have been in a serious state for very long periods—10 or even 20 years—become able to support themselves, function independently, and even get married without having received any medical treatment. In any case, I am awed by the valiant efforts of recluses and their families.

Swindlers Who Prey on Recluses with Assets

Nowadays, as the social isolation of hikikomori drags on, we are seeing many cases in which their parents grow old and die. After losing their source of financial support, many of them quickly become severely destitute. In other cases, though, their parents leave considerable assets behind, hoping that their offspring will be able to get by even in isolation by scrimping and gradually drawing on the inherited savings. Some parents leave more than ¥10 million in the bank, while others put up apartment buildings on their own property to provide ongoing rental income after they pass away.

These substantial inheritances can have tragic outcomes, however, when the surviving recluse has nobody to turn to for advice and no money sense or basic knowledge about society. Recently groups of swindlers targeting moneyed hikikomori have sprung up on the Internet. Originally such groups preyed mainly on seniors, but now they have started also to victimize recluses with assets.

Such recluses, with their parents gone and nobody else to consult, tend to rely mainly on the Internet for information. They get into online discussions about dealing with their worries about life after their parents’ death and about handling the assets they have inherited. Swindlers pretend to befriend them, flattering their perceptiveness and skillfully tempting them to become co-owners of businesses. When the recluse hands over the money, they grab it and vanish.

Sometimes the swindled hikikomori will then be approached online by confederates of the original swindlers offering an easy way to make money. This is to allow the criminals to use their identities to acquire mobile phones and bank accounts for carrying out scams. One person whose case I became involved in recently started out as a victim of swindlers but ended up becoming an accomplice. He was convicted and sentenced to prison. After his release, I was consulted by one of his relatives, who did not know how to deal with him.

Other types of criminals also target hikikomori with assets. Some sell them liquor and drugs and then charge them exorbitant amounts. In other cases, a pretty girl suddenly approaches the target, pretending to be a volunteer supporter or such, and he ends up giving her large amounts of money and expensive presents. And the recluses who have fallen prey to such swindlers often bear their losses in silence, unable to tell anybody about them. Their pent-up anger and stress can cause some of them to turn violent.

When hikikomori lose their parents and find themselves totally alone and unsupported, without a sympathetic confidant, even small-scale troubles can turn into major problems. We need a detailed set of responses and arrangements to keep such people from becoming socially abandoned.

In Bed with a Smartphone

Smartphones started to spread in Japan from around 2010, and now they account for more than half of the mobile phones in use. Since they are always connected to the Internet, users can easily get caught up in gaming and social media. And the availability of these habit-forming attractions creates an environment in which people can fall more easily into hikikomori status. It used to be that even when people became addicted to surfing the Internet and playing video games, they relied mainly on their computers and game consoles, which required them to sit up on a chair, often at a desk. But now they can play games and use social media while lying in bed with their phones.

Even if people come to be dependent on games, the problem is relatively mild as long as they are playing for free. But some recluses fall for the attraction of extras that users can acquire in some games by accumulating points or paying money. And there are cases where they run up big monthly bills on the order of ¥60,000–¥200,000. Since they have no earnings of their own, this money comes from their parents’ pockets. And if parents balk at paying, their offspring may raise a ruckus—saying, for example, “It was your lousy upbringing that turned me into a hikikomori, so giving me money is the least you can do to atone for your failure.” Sometimes they even turn violent.

To be sure, most hikikomori do not cause such serious trouble. The majority of them are in fact overly quiet and lethargic. Many are victims of bullying or other types of abuse.

Over 20 years have passed since hikikomori emerged as a serious problem in Japan. Since then, changes in lifestyles and the long-term aging of the population have had a major impact on issues relating to these recluses, and the situation has become much more complicated than we previously could have imagined. Meanwhile, society’s capacity to establish systems and provide care for those affected has failed to keep pace with the changing situation. That is what I sense as someone working on the front lines.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 6, 2017.)

  • [2017.07.19]

Journalist. Graduated from Sophia University and worked for NHK (Nippon Broadcasting Corporation) before going freelance. Has been involved in providing support for long-term hikikomori (recluses) since around 2000. Author of Dokyumento: Chōki hikikomori no genba kara (Long-Term Recluses: A Documentary Report from the Front Lines) and other works.

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