By: Sarah Munson
August 26th, 2022
Everyone goes through periods of not wanting to leave their bedroom or feeling unsatisfied in school and their workplace, but an estimated 1.15% of Japanese residents take this feeling beyond the light-hearted imagery of sweatpants and Netflix. They are suffering from “hikikomori syndrome,” which the Japanese government defines as a mentally stable individual willingly secluding themselves for more than six months.
With cases popping up in countries around the world, hikikomori syndrome doesn’t have a distinct, culturally-based problem and solution.
However, Japan’s responsibility in understanding its large hikikomori population may provide insight for countries with fewer cases.
Diagnosing a hikikomori often involves noticing if someone refuses to leave their home and struggles with socializing and employment. Despite limited research, medical advancements may take these diagnoses beyond general observation.
Japanese researchers saw a frequent overlap between hikikomori and avoidant personality disorder. This prompted comparative bloodwork, which found “lower uric acid (UA) levels in men and lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) levels in women compared with healthy controls.”
This is significant because uric acid and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol are both antioxidants. Lower oxidant levels, known as “oxidative stress,” have been linked to depression and social anxiety.
While the proposed medical causes of hikikomori are developing, the solution remains unclear.
On June 5, 2019, Japan Today posted a “Have Your Say” thread asking what could help Japan’s hikikomori.
The top comment, posted by a user named Shipwrecker, said that hikikomori is too broad of a label for an issue that encompasses “entitled brats” and those bogged down by “years of persistent bullying.”
Shipwrecker added that “a lot of cases could be handled by the families if they had access to expert, personalized advice. This [would] mean training counselors who understand the possible social and medical factors and putting an [accessible] system in place.”
A significant social factor is Japan’s strong focus on shame.
In the NHK documentary “Dying Out of Sight: Hikikomori in Aging Japan,” most of the interviewed hikikomori expressed dealing with severe guilt and “shame.”
One hikikomori divorced his wife because he did not want to be an unemployed father and set a bad example for his kids. Another hikikomori willingly lived with his father’s corpse for six months because he did not want to reveal his destitute situation to anyone.
A more systemic factor is the “8050 problem.” This term describes the pattern of 80-year-old parents nurturing 50-year-old children who lost entry-level job opportunities during an economic ice age in the 1990’s.
Social workers have tried to contact families and help hikikomori gain independence, but parents refuse assistance due to an old Japanese belief that “those who do not work do not deserve to eat.”
Interpretations of this belief say unemployed people haven’t achieved true adulthood and must cope with their struggle by relying on family instead of societal aid.
The shame of unemployment combined with the parental obligation to protect children makes it difficult to intervene in a hikikomori situation.
When Japanese social workers suspect someone of becoming a hikikomori, they must wait for permission to enter homes. Even if the person is dying of hunger, they cannot receive assistance until they openly ask for help.
Researchers Roseline Yong and Kyoko Nomura of the Department of Public Health at the Graduate School of Medicine at Akita University in Japan said, “The condition of hikikomori requires active intervention instead of the passive attitude stating that it is merely a lifestyle choice.”
To combat this, some people have tried unconventional tactics to reintroduce the recluses into society. In 2019, the BBC uploaded a video that covered the stories of rentable Japanese sisters who, despite their minimal training and absent medical qualifications, travel to homes and apartments and offer guidance.
According to the video, desperate family members will pay “about 100,000 yen a month” to fund these “weekly, hour-long visits.”
Ayako, a rentable sister since 2009, revealed that it was “actually quite rare for the client to have fun with the rental sister and enjoy seeing them.”
In a more extreme case, a recovering hikikomori named Ikuo actually fell in love with Ayako while volunteering at a rehab center. This rehab center, called New Start, houses hikikomori in dormitories and revokes their access to cellphones and private televisions.
After losing years to “staying alone in his bedroom, playing video games and feeling angry at society,” Ikuo went to a New Start and began working as a rental brother with Ayako.
Their shared passion for assisting hikikomori led to marriage — an unexpected positive outcome from the condition associated with severe hopelessness.
Called “Miterudake,” meaning “just looking,” the DVD features a compilation of 50 diverse women standing in a quiet and vacant space, staring into a camera while occasionally muttering.
The DVD targets those who have lost interest in the outside world and need preparation for something as automatic as eye contact. Creator Yosuke Ito was “not a hundred percent sure” someone could overcome shyness with his DVD, but he “hoped it would help somehow.”
An approach based on identifying strengths even uses video games. After the hikikomori takes a valid personality test, they “explore and appreciate their strengths by connecting them with their successes in video games or their own personal positive experiences in the past.”
Video games are applicable because of their ability to serve as a comfort zone while revealing positive personality traits, like working with others or strategizing.
This may seem unexpected given the internet addiction affecting many hikikomori, but a 19-year-old client underwent this treatment and began googling new subjects “at least once a day, which energized him because he was expanding and activating his curiosity with intentionality.”
Many of these solutions were proposed before the economic and social impact of COVID-19, and could not predict a sudden surge of international hikikomori.
The truth of the matter is that it requires more than material objects and rentable friends to prevent wanting to isolate from the world. Japanese hikikomori reflect a society ignoring its flaws and prioritizing productivity, while families are left to handle things on their own.
Research may provide detailed information about hikikomori syndrome, but those who perpetuate cases will only view it as a temporary phase caused by laziness and social awkwardness.
Sarah Munson is a senior in professional and public writing, with a specific focus on technical writing. In her free time, she enjoys studying film, comedy and history, as well as drawing and designing.