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Support for older shut-in 'hikikomori' in the spotlight following stabbing incidents

(Mainichi)

TOKYO -- A spate of recent murders in Japan involving middle-aged shut-ins who have withdrawn socially, known as "hikikomori" in Japanese, has brought renewed attention to questions regarding what to do to help this large, aging population of isolated individuals and their families.

Former top bureaucrat Hideaki Kumazawa, 76, was referred to prosecutors on June 3 for the suspected murder at home of his eldest son Eiichiro Kumazawa, 44, a socially withdrawn shut-in, who his father claims inflicted domestic violence upon his parents when they lived together. The murder appears to have been carried out partly in response to a mass stabbing the week before by a middle-aged shut-in in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.

But the father didn't consult the police or administrative bodies regarding their problems. An official with the Nerima Ward Office, Tokyo, where the family resides and the incident took place, said, "Unless we receive contact from those involved, there's no way we can learn that the household has problems." The question of how to deliver an SOS message for urgent help to administrative institutions has come under debate.

"He may have kept his concern only to himself, thinking it was a problem that ought to be solved at home," Eiko Ishio says, positing Kumazawa's thought process. Ishio, 86, is a representative of "Group Cosmos," an organization established by some 20 parents with shut-in offspring, based in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. She has a socially withdrawn son in his 50s. "Although it doesn't inconvenience those outside the family, those involved tend to think the wider community judges them as having an irregular household with members who don't fulfill expectations to attend work or school," she said.

The nonprofit organization STEP Kitakyushu, based in Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, southwestern Japan, offers face-to-face over-the-counter consultations. Miho Tanaka, a director for the service, said the hurdle to seeking advice becomes higher as shut-ins reach middle age and older. "They may be afraid they'll be criticized and asked questions like, 'Why did you leave the problem unattended for decades?'" she says. In cases where domestic violence is a factor, parent-child relations are more complicated, making it more difficult to raise the subject, she added.

Regarding Hideaki Kumazawa's mindset, Tanaka speculated, "With both parent and child getting older, perhaps negativity toward his son's situation reached its limit, and the Kawasaki stabbing incident (involving a shut-in the week before) was the spark to take action." On potential solutions, she proposed, "First, one way is to participate in exchanging experiences of the shut-in phenomenon at family associations made up of people with direct understanding of it."

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's regional shut-in support centers across prefectures and ordinance-designated cities dealt with a total of 102,412 consultations in fiscal 2017. Figures are not broken down by age group, but according to data from the Cabinet Office, there are an estimated 541,000 shut-ins in the young adult cohort (ages 15 to 39) and some 613,000 in the middle-to-elderly-age category (ages 40 to 64).

According to an official at the labor ministry, older shut-ins such as those whose lifestyles appear to be supported by their parents' public pensions are less inclined to seek help. Each support center is carrying out initiatives including holding sessions at different places to receive consultations.

(Japanese original by Hironori Tsuchie, City News Department, and Tomoko Mimata, Local News Group)

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