We often watch anime without a deep consideration of the culture that it comes from. One such example is the problem of hikikomori. Its representation through anime is often misunderstood and full of misinformation. It is not uncommon for such a deep social issue to be played off with jokes about the sad nerds and their shameful lives. I ask you, however, how well do you know the hikikomori? Do you really understand the implications of hikikomori on not just Japanese society but the world as a whole? While Welcome to the N.H.K. might have garnered some our sympathies, I would imagine few truly realize what they are laughing at. Take a second and peep through the looking glass–you might be surprised.
Let’s imagine an imaginary Japanese youth and call him Kensuke. Kensuke does not have a job nor does he go to classes. In fact, Kensuke quit school years ago at fourteen with no desire to ever complete his education. Despite having no means to support himself, Kensuke luckily has his parents who would hate to see their son suffer. Month after month, year after year, they send him a portion of their salary to keep him afloat, hoping that Kensuke will one day snap out of his malaise. Unfortunately for Kensuke, he cannot remember the last time he saw the light of day. Bathed by the flickering glow of his computer monitor, Kensuke escapes everyday responsibilities through video games and anime, privately blogging his loneliness and despair to the wide expanse of the Internet. Kensuke sounds likesounds like an anomaly, one of those sad exceptions of youthful exuberance. In reality, however, his case is not all that rare, reported to the tune of perhaps a million in present day Japan. This striking social phenomenon has earned itself the name hikikomori, which translates to English as “withdrawn.”
Kensuke by himself might simply be a sad story, but a million Kensuke’s represent a serious social problem for Japan, especially for a country mired with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The inability for Japan to rejuvenate its increasingly aging workforce has meant older generations working longer and harder into their golden years. For a long time, it has been a tradition in many Asian countries for children to turn around in their adult years and take care of their parents, but the negative birth rate compounded by hikikomori phenomenon pose as serious dangers to Japanese society. While many older generations are both happy and willing to support their children late into their twenties thanks to Japan’s booming economy from decades ago, younger generations are finding it harder and harder to scrape by. In a recession officially recognized nearly 8 years ago on Nov 17th, 2001, many experts find it difficult to imagine Japanese parents continuing to support the hikikomori lifestyle. To make matters worse, there are no reasons to believe the hikikomori phenomenon will go away in the immediate future.
A million recluses leeching off their parents and shying from personal contact begs many questions. Who are the hikikomori and why have they come to be? Is there any hope for Japan’s misguided youths? The most important question, however, is the legitimacy of the idea that the hikikomori phenomenon concerns only Japan. For some commentators, “hikikomori is a culturebound syndrome that thrives in one particular country during a particular moment in its history”. The idea of a reclusive shut-in, however, should be no stranger to outsiders of Japan. Perhaps these folks are not as prevalent as Japan’s million, but it would be a folly to assume societal problems leading to the birth of the hikikomori are and will forever be uniquely Japanese. In exploring Japan’s social conditions and issues, not only will the hikikomori’s origin be revealed, but potential solutions will be explored and connections established between Japan and other first world nations.
The hikikomori’s reclusive and introverted nature stigmatizes the social problem, making it harder to help many recover. In the West, it is not uncommon to think of recluses as shut-in nerds and geek. For Japan, the situation is no different; misinformation from both the media and the government mischaracterizes the hikikomori, leading to more problems than often solutions. The sensationalizing media latches on to any new social ills and distorts the picture. Similar cases included enjo kosai, the act of compensating dating where school girls seeking to make a quick dollar exploit their sexuality to generally older men.
While enjo kosai certainly existed, it became a bigger problem when the media began painting every school girl as sexually promiscuous and bemoaned the lack of morals in contemporary youth, as most conservative commentators are prone to do. Likewise for hikikomori, the media portrayed them as perverts and social parasites. While the government’s stance is that hikikomori is a social problem (Krysinski 61), others are quick suggest that mental illnesses might contribute to social withdrawal.
Maggie Jones’ article “Shutting Themselves In” is insightful for its personal interviews with many sufferers of hikikomori, but it does the social problem a disfavor by implying any connection between mental illnesses and hikikomori when she includes an anecdote of a young man who obsesses over the cleanliness of his bathroom tiles. She acknowledges that mental illnesses such as “obsessive-compulsive behaviors… often… are symptoms—a consequence of spending months cooped up inside their rooms and inside their heads,” but then incorrectly asserts that “[in] some cases these psychological problems lead to hikikomori.” Her anecdote, while amusing in a pitiful way, does not indicate any trend regarding hikikomori behavior by itself, and quite frankly, contradicts her assessment earlier in the article that “most hikikomori are too trapped by inertia….” Krysinska argues that “hikikomori is generally seen as a problem that is not caused by individuals themselves” (63), suggesting that mental illnesses should, in most cases, play no causal role in the onset of hikikomori. The stigmatized media coverage, however, is prone to paint the individual sufferers as transgressors; hikikomori are sometimes seen as largely responsible for their problem.
The result of media stigmatization often leads to proposed solutions that oversimplify the hikikomori phenomenon. Popular anime Eden of the East focuses upon a young man Tanizawa Akira who was given ten billion yen (roughly a hundred million US dollars) to solve Japan’s social problems. He proceeds to kidnap a portion of the hikikomori population and ship them off to Dubai in order to save them from others who see the shut-ins as parasites that needs to be destroyed. In one particular scene, Tanizawa comes face to face with one of the people he saved. The former hikikomori reveals that life in Dubai cured him of the disease of hikikomori, implying that the solution to the social phenomenon could be easily solved with some elbow grease and a “pick up your bootstraps” mentality. Unfortunately, Eden’s simplistic solution is not uncommon in Japanese pop culture. If the solution could be so simple, it is hard to believe that there might be a million hikikomori in Japan today.
Japan’s shame-based culture means that hard, physical labor really only solves one of the hikikomori’s problems, i.e. employment, while ignoring other serious problems. Despite a steady rise in recent years due to an ongoing recession, Japan has one of the lowest crime rates for industrialized nations. Many have speculated on why Japan and other Asian countries suffer such low crime rates when compared to Western nations and some has suggested that this might be due to Asian cultures’ propensity to practice shaming as a deterrent. A child growing up in an Asian family worries more than about his or her individuality; they worry about possibly bringing shame to the family. A crime hurts not only him or herself but also the family, and the tight-knit community they reside in. While crime rates are held down as a result, the drawbacks are a lack of individuality and smaller margin for failure. Blue collar jobs might give employment to hikikomori who are unable to survive in Japan’s conformist corporate world, but the hikikomori continues to face the stigma of failing to meet the high expectations of parents and Japanese society in general.
Japan’s harsh academic environment produces immense pressure on Japanese youth. Due to Japan’s declining birth rate, many families often place their sole hopes upon one child. After all, it is this child who should, if he or she succeeds, turn around later in life and take care of the parents after they retire. Unfortunately, only the top graduates from the top universities can successfully vie for a shrinking corporate job market. To compound the matters, only the top test scores can get into the top universities. As a result, many Japanese youths spend their after school hours attending cram school to prepare for entrance exams. Even entrance into high school from middle school requires high test scores. As soon as a child is born, he or she faces immense burden to succeed in academia.
Imagine if American students were deemed failures for falling just short of Ivy League standards; the idea would be preposterous in the West, but this mentality is all too common in Japan. Live drama Dragon Zakura stars Abe Hiroshi urging his students to make into prestigious Todai University or be forever regarded as failures. In a school environment where test scores are not published anonymously, low performance faces ridicule and ostracizing from peers as well as consternation from parents and teachers. In a nation where high school education is not compulsory, it is no mystery therefore that many students buckle under the pressure and withdraw from society into their rooms: “The rate of ‘school refusal’… has doubled since 1990”. While blue collar jobs are seen with much pride in the West, they represent a mark of failure in the East, indicating to society those who were unable to survive, despite Japan’s harsh academic standards. Non-corporate jobs only solve the hikikomori’s monetary problems and, even then, only somewhat.
Proposed solutions to the hikikomori phenomenon are typically ex post facto approaches that are both costly and stigmatized. Numerous programs exist to provide counseling and treatment, such as New Start described in Jones’ article. These programs are costly, however, providing yet another source of drain upon the parents who usually foot the bill for their children. Since most hikikomori tend to be male, New Start employs “rental sisters” to try to bridge a gap between the troubled youths and mainstream society. Therapy, however, implies that something is fundamentally wrong about the hikikomori. While their reclusive nature might require counseling, it ultimately makes therapy a difficult pill to swallow for some too proud to accept help from outsiders. For other hikikomori, it is yet another source of shame because therapy implies mental illness.
The use of therapeutic approaches to the hikikomori problem rather than preventative indicates an inability of Japanese society to reflect on itself as the potential cause of youth discontent. Young men and women are treated ex post facto as a sign that they are broken and do not belong in mainstream society. Preventative measures, on the other hand, would address the root of the cause that lies somewhere in mainstream society. Experts such as psychologist Hattori Yuichi suggests that “hikikomori is caused by emotionally neglectful parenting.” Programs should therefore exist to provide information and education to parents, but deeper social issues prevent this reality. Asian cultures sense of filial and communal shame helps to curb delinquent activities, but it also provides what Krysinska calls a “gaze” that “impedes parental intervention” when a child strays from the norm “since allowing a child to remain in hiding would draw less attention than actually doing something about it” (73). By opting to “deal with the problem ‘quietly’ even though it may mean not solving it” (74), parents show their distrust and lack of confidence in their children to prevail and rectify their problems fitting in with mainstream society. The increasing social acceptance of children staying at home into their late 20s indicates parents’ lack of confidence that their children are well-equipped to survive in the outside world. It adds even more to the idea of hiding the shame by keeping their sons and daughters locked away at home rather than encouraging youths to take risks. Furthermore, parents unconsciously hint at the idea that their children bear sole responsibility for their failures by hiding and avoiding the problems rather than facing them head on.
With a lack of trust in the leadership of older generations, including one’s own parents, Japanese youth have nowhere and no one to turn to but social rebellion. For some, “aggressive rebellion by using violence… or by involvement in delinquent activities” might satisfy, but Japan, like most Asian cultures, feels great pressure for social conformity. Active, “aggressive rebellion” are often apolitical and latched upon by corporate interests hoping to make a quick dollar. In recent years, the rejection of the dominant male image of the selfless, hard-working Japanese “salaryman” has led to the feminization of young males. The obsession of body hair removal indicates a self-conscious desire to remain young and a disdain for older generations. Small youth “movements” such as this, however, have little voice in Japan’s largely conservative government. Corporate interests and exploitation renders these youth rebellions more as fad to the general public rather than a message that needs heeding. Instead, various industries immediately appeared overnight to cater to these youth discontent. Anime suddenly glorify youth and irresponsibility over the conformity of older programs such as Power Rangers. Beauty salons, once only for females, now aggressively target males. The end result is a neutered, muted rebellion.
Since aggressive rebellion offers little answers to the discontent of Japanese youth, their frustrations naturally turn inward. The implication is obvious: “passive resistance… such as withdrawal” (Krysinska 74) is often preferred, especially in a society that rather hides than meets its problems head on. Whereas youths in other societies “might join a gang or become a Goth”, Japanese youth are already facing problems due to shame. Sticking out further by being aggressively rebellious invites only more shame upon themselves and their families. Being a hikikomori might seem like a strange form of rebellion, but for many, it is the only option. With mounting academic pressure, a shrinking job market that disdains blue collar jobs, and parents who fear social ostracizing, many Japanese youth find themselves emotionally abandoned and alone. Naturally, this progresses to physical loneliness.
Frustration and discontent cannot remain bottled up forever and constant self-loathing is unsustainable, indicating a dark future for many hikikomori. Japan faces one of the highest suicide rates in the world, to the tune of “30,000 per year” that unfortunately “never [earns] more than a perfunctory official declaration that something must be done.” Hikikomori only lavishly spend their parents’ money on personal pleasure to hide the self-hate that lies within. When the personal shame becomes too much to bear, suicide is not uncommon. The convenience of technology might assist in making a hikikomori life that much easier. For instance, the availability of 24/7 “combini,” or convenience stores, allow some hikikomori to buy their own dinners and avoid facing their parents. The advent of blogging also allows a small outlet where “millions of young Japanese share their thoughts and despair,” but small bandaids thanks to technology are too limited to solve serious personal issues: “When [Tomohiro] Kato finally snapped and recorded the seven-hour countdown to the [Akihabara murdering spree] on his blog, his rants merely joined a million other howls of anguish and dejection floating through Japanese cyberspace.”
If passive rebellion only leads to self-destruction, and typical youth delinquency lends itself only to being neutered by capitalism, the only solution that remains for the hikikomori is political activism. Japanese social problems that lead to hikikomori are multi-faceted, but they largely persist due to an apparent lack of communication. After the turbulent 60s, the general Japanese population has remained apolitical for too long, allowing social problems to fester. Protests are often curbed by the desire not to stick out from the norm, but serious social ills such as hikikomori cannot be treated without serious commitment to activism because it is the lack of activism that exacerbated the problem in the first place.
First and foremost, the stigmatization of blue collar jobs must be addressed. With Japan’s economy stuck in a recession pothole, the corporate job market will only continue to be viciously competitive and demanding. Blue collar jobs offer a way out for those who cannot or refuses to conform to corporate standards. Yet physical labor jobs are seen as failure because they often are not enough to sustain a living in Japan’s high priced market. The lack of unions results in the exploitation of workers by employers, leading to low wages, unfair hours and working conditions, and sexual harassment. For many, who might have grown up in Japan’s booming economy that glorified the corporate salaryman, physical labor jobs is the last resort or, in the hikikomori’s case, not even a resort worth turning to. Unfortunately for Japan, “unionism was tantamount to communism, which used to be far too subversive for Japanese comfort.” This is a reality that needs to change and it can only come through political activism from the currently voiceless and despondent youths.
Second, political activism must challenge traditional sex roles in Japanese society. Hikikomori is largely a male problem largely because of the expectations placed upon young men to succeed early and often in order to acquire lucrative jobs that are needed to support not only himself and his family, but his parents as well. The tradition of children growing up and taking care of their parents is an honorable one but it is unsustainable when faced with a negative birth rate. The solution should be an extensive safety net for older generations so that they are not required to work late into their old ages nor become a burden upon their children. For the conservative Japanese parliament, however, this solution might be too socialistic. The government has opted instead to run campaigns promoting marriage and child-rearing, but these insensitive, short-sighted solutions fail to recognize a modernizing group of young men and women who do not want to conform to Japan’s traditionally defined sex roles. Unfortunately, a communication gap between generations continues to exist and only political activism will allow voices to be heard.
If hikikomori is a product of excessive parental and societal expectations, an economy mired in recession, and increasing social acceptance for children to stay at home, the social phenomenon does not necessarily have to be culturebound. Other industrialized nations face similar mounting problems. Recent editorials and articles in American media constantly point to the difficult job market that current generations will face as fresh graduates. Throughout the Western world, parents face “the growing reluctance of… twenty- and thirtysomethings to fly the parental nest….” One missing factor for Western cultures is the immense expectations and burdens placed on youth that is all too prevalent in Japan, but as the job market continues to grow competitive, it is only natural that academic success becomes a larger measuring stick in determining who to hire. Western youth luckily have a more individualistic streak, and perhaps hikikomori may not spread to other nations like it has grown to a million in Japan, but to suggest that the problem is culturebound is short-sighted and dangerous. The increasingly apolitical Western youth should alarm more than it has not, especially in an age of constant warfare, terrorism, and violation of human rights through torture. Without our voices, what else will we give up?
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Am I really the only one commenting on this? Darn.
Anyway, I must say that this is an amazing article. Extremely well-written and researched.
I posted this pretty much at the very start of the blog’s creation. We had no readers back then. But I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Thank you for writing this E Minor, and thank you for commenting outsidethebox. If I had not seen this in the ‘recent comments’ section I would have missed out on reading it, which would have been a great loss.
I haven’t really anything interesting or insightful to add, but I will say that I also recently read The Fin’s Koizumi Political Primer for Anime Nerds post, and the two posts make a great accompaniment in gaining an insight into Japanese affairs.
I hope more people find this post.
It’s been a couple years since I re-read that post. There are some things I’d probably change in it to reflect what I’ve picked up over all this time. Still, thanks for reading.
Excellent post that still holds up.