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Editorial: Treating 'hikikomori' social recluses, families as outcasts solves nothing

It must have been unbearable for any family of a "hikikomori," or social recluse, of middle- or advanced age to hear the news that broke only recently.

A 76-year-old former vice-minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries was arrested on suspicion of fatally stabbing his 44-year-old unemployed son at their Tokyo home. Ahead of the killing, a 51-year-old man in the city of Kawasaki south of Tokyo who had remained withdrawn from society for an extended period went on a stabbing rampage, killing two people and injuring 18 others before taking his own life. The former vice-minister was quoted as saying, "I became worried that my son might harm other people."

Following the Kawasaki killing, criticism started brewing online, with people making comments such as, "If you're going to die, go ahead and die by yourself." There was also a surge of comments from people viewing social recluses as would-be criminals, which stirred controversy.

Just because someone has withdrawn themselves from society, it does not mean that they are going to commit any crimes. There have been cases in which those withdrawn from society have resorted to domestic violence and acted tough by making threats such as "I'll kill you," but they rarely ever harm anyone other than their family members.

Harboring prejudice against such people or treating them as outcasts only drives them or their families into a corner. Society needs to share level-headed and accurate information.

It is estimated that there are about 613,000 people in Japan between the ages of 40 and 64 who have withdrawn themselves from society. Not all of them bury themselves at home after being bullied at school or being physically punished. There are some in the post-economic bubble "employment ice age" who have not been able to find good jobs, or who have become withdrawn after being subjected to power harassment at their workplaces or long working hours. We need to understand that people cannot be blamed for shutting themselves off from others.

A total of 67 local bodies currently have regional support centers for people who have become withdrawn from society, but measures to support hikikomori of middle or advanced age are lagging. There is a need to provide information and create an appropriate environment so that families and the persons themselves can talk about their situation.

To date, support measures for those suffering from social withdrawal have focused on helping the person become independent through work. But after a long time away from regular society, the person starts to lack social skills. And there are some who suffer from disabilities or illness. These people must not be unreasonably forced into training to get them into work.

Being there for people in the difficulties that they face in life rather than rushing to demand that they get jobs or become independent is referred to as "accompanying support." A long-term effort is required with this approach.

Societal values that demand excessive self-responsibility from families also need to change. Let us improve the current situation where full responsibility is heaped upon aging parents until their children become middle-aged or older. We have to create a society in which families and those suffering from social withdrawal can send out SOS signals with a sense of security.

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