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Online 'hikikomori' meetings for shut-ins across Japan welcoming more participants

The collated responses to the concerns and questions raised by hikikomori shut-ins at an online meeting are seen in this screen capture. (Mainichi/Takuya Murata)
Participants at an online meeting held by Sana Guild are seen interacting without showing their faces in this partially modified screen capture.

TOKYO -- Shut-ins, or "hikikomori," across Japan have increasingly been connecting with one another through online meetings for people in similar situations amid the novel coronavirus pandemic -- a move some say could bring them a step closer to returning to society.

    In the online meetings, people who have been staying home to avoid infection, or because they struggle to leave the house, can participate without showing themselves on-screen, lowering the hurdle for them to take part.

    Some groups have been welcoming more participants into online meetings thanks to the "online effect" of the pandemic. For people looking to get back into work and return to participating in society, speaking with others face-to-face and leaving the house are important, and the manager of one of the groups said they hoped the online meetings would serve as "the first step (to re-engaging with society)."

    Members of hikikomori groups tend to be either people who have been staying indoors for extended periods, or who have done so in the past and are looking for a way to reenter society. Across the country, 42 of the groups are registered across prefectures including Tokyo, Osaka, Miyagi, Saitama and Tokushima. Online meetings are reportedly hosted by around half of the registered groups found on the website Hikikomori Platform, which introduces users to hikikomori-friendly forums and organizations.

    Hikikomori Platform was launched in 2019 by Takahiro Tajima, 40, who is involved in work to support people with impairments in finding work. He said that before the spread of the new coronavirus, more than 90% of registered groups on Hikikomori Platforms were holding meetings where people gathered to speak face-to-face at venues. But from around March, the number going online began to increase, and by the end of May, when the state of emergency declaration over the coronavirus was lifted, around half of the groups were holding online meetings. From around the time infections briefly dipped in June, groups started to use a variety of systems, including some running both online-only meetings and physical ones in which infection prevention measures are taken.

    Sana Guild, a registered group that centers its activities on the west Japan city of Sakai in Osaka Prefecture, holds about four online meetings each month. At a gathering on Sept. 7, participants thought about and responded to questions and concerns written by shut-ins. The replies were then collated online, and then the responses were arranged on a document for the inquirers to read.

    Those who take part in the meetings can choose to appear with images other than their own faces, and some took to the chat function to exchange honest messages about their concerns, including about engaging with other people. One wrote, "It took many years before I could open up to people about being a hikikomori." Another offered advice, saying, "When I introduce myself to people for the first time, I say I am a hikikomori. I think it's better to tell people the truth without worrying about whether your friends are going to pull away from you."

    According to Sana Guild's representative, 31-year-old Tetsuya Nakatani, since making the switch to online meetings from March, membership has increased by around 1.5 times, to around 50 people.

    At Hikikomori Shufukai@Kansai, another registered group based in the Kansai region in west Japan, meetings have been held online since the spread of the new coronavirus made it impossible to have in-person gatherings. Following the lifting of the state of emergency, the group put out a call for participants to attend a planned trip to an art gallery, which went ahead in July.

    Kyoko Hayashi, director of Hikikomori UX Kaigi, a general incorporated association made up of people with experience as hikikomori shut-ins and others, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Face-to-face meetings require people to spend a long time in one place, and to speak directly to other people. Clearing these hurdles is a very important step toward returning to society. Online meetings could become a step preceding participation in physical meetings."

    (Japanese original by Takuya Murata, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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