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Many reasons to become a 'hikikomori' social recluse

A crowded street near JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo in May 2018. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A woman in her 50s sits on a bench munching on a rice ball in front of Tokyo's JR Shinjuku Station on a Saturday in mid-April.

She is one of several people interviewed by Kyodo News that day who said they know family members and friends who are, or say they themselves have been, hikikomori -- people who shut themselves in their homes for reasons ranging from difficulty finding a job or refusal to attend school to trouble in their personal relationships.

The woman's daughter, who is in her early 20s, dropped out of college without enough credits to graduate.

"Today my daughter also says she has hay fever, and is sleeping at home. She is a NEET!" the woman coolly blurts out, using the acronym for a youth not in employment, education or training.

In junior high, her daughter would often skip school due to unexplainable fevers.

The woman says her own bad marriage might have influenced her daughter's behavior but she does not blame herself since she did her best to raise her. Now her daughter is thinking of studying architecture at another university.

"As long as she has a standard for how she lives her life I'm not sure there is anything wrong with shutting herself in. I believe in my daughter," the woman says before briskly walking off.

A Cabinet survey found that while the cases of people shutting themselves in their homes fell from about 696,000 in 2010 to around 541,000 in 2015, the ratio of those who have been isolated from society for seven years or more reached its highest ever level of 34.7 percent. While studies had been limited to younger age brackets, Japan has seen a rise in the number of middle-aged hikikomori in recent years.

In the street interviews conducted by Kyodo in April, 19 of the 41 people interviewed, ranging in age from their teens to their 70s, said they knew people close to them who are hikikomori, with some even revealing their own stories of social isolation. They were also questioned about the best ways of coping with people who have turned away from society.

When asked the image they hold of hikikomori, some said they envy them because their families show understanding or even give them financial support, while others said they have a "negative image" of such social recluses, who are often the subject of television news reports.

A 40-year-old man who lives in Saga Prefecture and is now a lawyer said he stopped attending school for a period in high school.

"Although I didn't study in junior high I was at the top of the class, but in high school it didn't work that way and my grades suddenly began to drop," the man says, explaining that his motivation dropped proportionally and he stopped going to school.

It was his school supervisor who gave him the support he needed.

"My teacher was very passionate and would often come visit me at home and give me advice," he says.

Most people questioned on the street who said they were struggling to cope with life issues cited problems in personal relationships, for example interaction with people at work.

"I want to shut myself in, and there are times when I just don't want to relate with other people at all," says a 29-year-old male civil servant from Hokkaido Prefecture, adding that lately his on-the-job stress has intensified.

A 35-year-old female temporary employee said that she went through a period of isolation as a student when she shut herself in at home because she was being bullied.

She began going to a psychiatric clinic the school had referred her to, but what really saved her was finding a passion in life, she says. Once she started attending live music performances by her favorite artist, this provided her with an opportunity to start relating with people again and she made friends.

"The biggest thing for me was being able to find something that I really enjoyed," she says.

Shutting oneself in is not the only way people deal with their issues, the interviews showed.

"I have never been a hikikomori but when I am having a difficult time I cut my wrists," says one 15-year-old female high school student. She resorts to inflicting injuries on herself when stressed because she can find no other means of release, she says.

Although she is willing to seek advice from people with the same experience whom she meets through the internet, she says, "I don't want to worry my parents, so I'm not able to speak to them about it."

A 58-year-old female part-time worker says she never had a choice to take time off when growing up, unlike many social recluses these days.

"My parents taught me that taking off from work isn't good." Her two sons who are in their 20s were raised the same, but she says the fact that they are regularly employed now is purely "by chance."

"In this society anyone can have struggles in life, but if it drags on people end up becoming social recluses," she says as she watches people hurry along in the busy Shinjuku district.

A man in his 40s who works in sales says parents need to help their children who have shut themselves in, while a female part-timer in her 50s says, "I hear about (hikikomori) on TV and in the news, but I don't have any idea how to deal with them."

Opinions are sometimes split, causing a rift in families.

A woman in her 50s whose son became a truant in junior high school says she thought it better not to force him to attend school, although her husband and in-laws disagreed. "They asked me why I don't make him go," she says.

Most of those interviewed said acquiring a job was not a prerequisite for shut-ins since "it is good to have various lifestyles," and that demanding that people who have isolated themselves find work does not seem to be effective. Even so, they acknowledged that people have to make a living.

A man in his 40s from Okinawa Prefecture who was in Tokyo on business said he hired a person in his early 20s who had been a social recluse to work for his airport-related company.

He said the man was timid at first, just as the employment agency had described, but gradually opened up. "He has a high level of ability but his communication skills are probably lacking."

He said he instructed his other employees to smile "almost as if you're going to hug him" when interacting with the new hire. After about a week, the man had dropped his guard. "He is very serious. I think we can use him as a resource for recruiting future employees."

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