Society's shut-ins are getting older

TOKYO —

“Kanzo” (as we’ll call him) had an education, a job and a family. He seemed set for life. Suddenly it all turned sour. He’s not sure why. Nothing specific. There were vague physical ailments and violent mood swings. He quit his job and locked himself in his room. That was two years ago.

His condition is known as “hikikomori,” a word suggesting total withdrawal from all social and economic activity. It surfaced as a social issue in the economically shriveled 1990s. In 2010 a government survey counted 696,000 sufferers nationwide – a figure that merely scratches the surface, says Shukan Josei (July 8), since it includes only those aged under 40. True, in earlier years it was almost exclusively a youth problem. But shut-ins, like everyone else in this rapidly aging society, are getting older. Some “hikikomori” victims in their 40s and 50s, like 41-year-old Kanzo, are relatively new to the condition. Others have been in it for 20 or 30 years. Many are dependent on their parents – who are also getting older.

“I’d hear a police car siren and think they were coming to arrest me,” Kanzo says. “They’d be laughing on TV and I’d feel they were laughing at me. There were days when I’d go around saying to people, ‘I want to die, kill me.’”

He’s unusual in that he sought, and currently receives, counseling from one of the several NPOs and local government offices that have arisen to deal with the problem. But generally speaking, Shukan Josei points out, counselors have a hard time making contact with people whose prime symptom, after all, is morbid suspicion of all human contact, including sources of help.

“First,” explains Yoichiro Saito, director of Mental Communication Research (MCR), “we must have numerous conversations with the family, who will say to the patient, ‘On such-and-such a day a counselor is coming to see you’ – but with ‘hikikomori,’ the simplest things can become complicated. The patient goes into a sulk, there are quarrels – and it happens over and over.”

MCR was founded 10 years ago to help children having problems at school. That’s where “hikikomori” most commonly starts. In simpler times you could pretty well count on that being the origin, and formulate a counseling program accordingly. It’s more complicated now, experts agree.

Rapid social change destabilizes personal lives, and society has never changed as rapidly as it is in the process of doing now. At work and at home, people are more aware than ever of how expendable they are. Moreover, says Kaiyo Ikeda, director of the NPO National Hikikomori KHJ Parents Group, “it’s people with low communication skills who are particularly susceptible to becoming ‘hikikomori.’ In the past there were always clerical jobs that these people could do – the sort of jobs that are now all computerized. Now almost all work involves communication.”

It’s a revolution many people find agonizing to adjust to.

“I envy parents who hear from their (adult ‘hikikomori’) children, ‘I want to die! It’s all your fault!’” says the 63-year-old mother of a 36-year-old man who’s been shut in for 15 years. “There’s no rebellion at all in him, nothing. What can he be thinking? I have no idea.”

Shukan Josei introduces the 73-year-old mother of a 49-year-old man who’s been a “hikikomori” for 20 years. One day she got an idea whose novelty was stunning. If her son wouldn’t leave the house, she and her husband would. Perhaps the shock of his parents’ absence would force him to take stock and put his life on a somewhat more active footing? It seemed worth a try.

It’s not clear how long ago this was. In any case, the parents are still waiting, hoping for the best but so far seeing no sign of it.

Japan Today

  • 7

    Frungy

    “I’d hear a police car siren and think they were coming to arrest me,” Kanzo says. “They’d be laughing on TV and I’d feel they were laughing at me. There were days when I’d go around saying to people, ‘I want to die, kill me.’”

    At first glance this looks a LOT like paranoid schizophrenia. Starting in his 40's is a bit later than normal, but still within diagnostic range, and they do say that these are the minority of cases (i.e. towards the far side of the bell curve).

    I wonder how many other "hikikomori" are actually just undiagnosed schizophrenics, and how many genuinely have social anxiety disorder?

    The sad irony here is that the low quality of mental health care in Japan, as typified by slapping the "hikikomori" label on every case, is resulting in these people not getting any treatment, and their chance of resuming a normal life is zero.

  • 1

    kimuzukashiiiii

    The very last woman has the right idea. Far too much enabling of adult children in this country.

    I am, on the whole, very sympathetic to those with depression or other mental diseases, but "Kanzo" is a complete selfish lump. A job, education and family and he just decides to quit one day? What were his family going to do, while he is stuck in his bedroom playing video games? Im assuming that he is not helping out with the childcare, cleaning or laundry, and did not go the doctor for any kind of help either?

    The thing about most hikikomori, which is not mentioned in the article, is that they do, actually, go outside. They go to the convini in the middle of the night when no one is around to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

  • 1

    Tessa

    I think there a varying degrees of "hikikomori-ness" and I also think it's more common than believed. For example, my student's brother (who graduated from a big-name college and worked for a big-name company) became depressed after his marriage broke down. Then he quit his job and went freelance, which didn't work out too well. Now he lives with his parents and is virtual recluse, rarely going outside or speaking to anyone who isn't a family member (my student commented that whenever she tries to talk to him, his feelings get hurt and they end up arguing). He's 47 years old! I hear stories like that all the time.

    I wonder how many other "hikikomori" are actually just undiagnosed schizophrenics, and how many genuinely have social anxiety disorder?

    I think the social structure of Japan makes it quite easy for families to conceal and even encourage hikikomori behavior. Some hikikomori, of course, are the Western equivalent of guys living in their parents' basements and taking advantage of the free rent and laundry - they're just lazy or unmotivated. Others are, as you mention, mentally ill or clinically depressed, but families in Japan tend to be very secretive about these things, and won't come out about it until there is absolutely no other option. Kanzo, mentioned in the article, might have been displaying very odd behavior for years and years that was tolerated by his family and even colleagues. We all know people a bit like that, right? Lot of undiagnosed issues here.

  • 3

    oikawa

    Frungy, you took the words right out of my mouth. I wonder how many of these people are actually suffering from mental illness but due to social stigma don't seek help. I witnessed a young man have a breakdown here with increasingly violent episodes, and the professional medical advice? Take up karate to relieve your anger. Mmmmm......

  • 2

    Educator60

    Being a part-time instuctor and having too many students in each class, there is little I can do to help them, but every year I notice some of my university students have great difficulty in communicating with other people. I often have the feeling that even if they get a job (and the rate of graduates from this school getting jobs is extremely high), at some point they are going to end up as hikikomori.

    As an aside, just a few days ago I read part of an article (was too busy to read to end) on a British site about parents being charged and fined if their children do not attend school. Wonder what effects would be seen on the hikikomori problem here from something similar?

  • 0

    Silvafan

    I remember a time when the undiagnosed mentally ill and the freeloading adult children were sent to NOVA! There is a business opportunity waiting to be exploited once again.

  • -1

    Lowly

    These are sad people. It's too bad there's no way to help them. I imagine once you've tried a little hikikomoriness, you can't stop, as things just get exponentially more scary, and anxiety-ridden.

  • 2

    samwatters

    "Shukan Josei introduces the 73-year-old mother of a 49-year-old man who’s been a “hikikomori” for 20 years. One day she got an idea whose novelty was stunning. If her son wouldn’t leave the house, she and her husband would. Perhaps the shock of his parents’ absence would force him to take stock and put his life on a somewhat more active footing? It seemed worth a try."

    JapanToday, I would really, really appreciate an update on this woman and how her situation turned out.

  • 0

    Vast Right-Wing Conspirator

    Sorry, but there really is no such thing as a true "hikkikomori". Answer these simple questions:

    a/ Do they bathe/crap/pee in their rooms? b/ Do they do their laundry in their rooms? c/ Do they cook/eat in their rooms? d/ How do they get money to buy smokes, games, snacks, etc?

    There is a whole lot of enabling going on, by families who are far too generous and understanding. Simple solution, lock/nail the door shut when the hikikomori goes out to Lawson's, takes a bath, eats lunch. Then, have a counselor standing by to talk to them. If they talk, they can go back to their room. If not, the door is over there, and have a nice life...

  • 0

    Tim_Fox

    In the US or Canada, the family could involve the police working in conjunction with emergency health care professionals for forced removal of the family member suffering this condition. These individuals would be cuffed by police and sedated by a doctor, and taken to a mental health facility for 2-3 months for rehabilitation. While this may sound completely invasive and sounds like it goes against human rights, this process could greatly shorten the period of time individuals suffer this condition and the suffering for the whole family. Wouldn't this be better than 10 years of agony for the entire family?

  • 1

    bonestructure

    Handcuffing sufferers would only make their condition worse. However, these people do need help and therapy. And, unfortunately, I do think removing them from the home would benefit not only them, but their families, who surely must need a break badly. I don't feel that it would violate human rights as these people are obviously not in control of their lives and mental faculties. And they cannot receive the help they require if one leaves them in the environment that, at least partly, is a big part of the problem.

    I think it would be both interesting and enlightening to investigate whether this problem occurs in other countries or if it is unique to Japan. It appears a unique mental illness to me, but perhaps in other countries it is responded to differently and doesn't make the news, unlike Japan where, it seems to me, people genuinely care for the welfare of others.

  • 2

    Vast Right-Wing Conspirator

    Social anxiety happens everywhere, but IMHO the response in Japan is different. The emphasis here is on keeping the family name clean and avoiding embarassment, rather than on treating the afflicted.

    Mental health issues in general are not well understood here.

  • 2

    Michelle Klein-Hass

    Tim_Fox: no, you can't do this in the US. Haven't you read about the difficulties the mother and father of the Isla Vista Mass Murderer had getting help for their adult son? You have to be an IMMEDIATE DANGER TO SELF OR OTHERS in order to get committed for a 72 hour 5150 observation. And that has become a very high bar to jump.

    I have an uncle who for about 20 years lived under pack rat conditions in a house without water, power or telephone service. It's a long story. We are attempting to relocate him to an assisted living facility. The first one was not to his liking so he basically ran away. Hopefully the next one will be more to his liking and he'll be able to settle down. We cannot FORCE HIM to live there. We have to prove that he is entirely unable to handle his own affairs, in front of a judge, in order to force him to stay someplace. It is exceedingly hard to prove a person is incompetent here in the US. I don't know about Canada, I only know about my own experiences here.

  • -10

    thepresident934

    The social role of males used to be the sole household breadwinner. Two unsustainable things changed this: (1) the rise of independent, breadwinning females and (2) government spending more money than it takes in to support the elderly and poor.

    These are unsustainable. For women to displace males from breadwinning careers, they had to stop having children. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and twice as many 60 year olds as babies. No society can exist without children. Female education is inversely correlated with number of offspring. This is simply biology folks. Fertility is a narrow window.

    I propose a solution. Kick females out of the work force and give their jobs to the hikikomori. Then the females need to get married, and the hikikomori have value and a respected social role as the breadwinner once again. Suddenly, babies start appearing again, and the females have a respected social role as mothers, males have a respected social role as breadwinners, and everyone is happy and the economy is growing.

    Problem solved. How many will listen?

  • 3

    Tessa

    Kick females out of the work force and give their jobs to the hikikomori.

    You don't get it. Females in Japan have never been a major part of the (measurable) workforce. And I do strongly believe that indulgent, stay-at-home-mothers are largely responsible for the presence of hikikomori males. I've seen this dynamic in action many, many times (not only in Japan, by the way).

    You seem to long for a return to the Showa era. But if those days were so wonderful then why aren't we living in them now?

  • -1

    Frungy

    Tim_FoxJul. 14, 2014 - 08:42AM JST In the US or Canada, the family could involve the police working in conjunction with emergency health care professionals for forced removal of the family member suffering this condition. These individuals would be cuffed by police and sedated by a doctor, and taken to a mental health facility for 2-3 months for rehabilitation. While this may sound completely invasive and sounds like it goes against human rights, this process could greatly shorten the period of time individuals suffer this condition and the suffering for the whole family. Wouldn't this be better than 10 years of agony for the entire family?

    You're talking about "involuntary commitment". And yes, I completely agree that this is a good option, however it doesn't need handcuffs and police. Normally my M.O. is to go by and do an initial assessment to confirm that there is a legitimate problem and that the person may pose a risk to themselves or others.

    If that's the case then I go back and consult with the parents and describe possible treatment plans, the most extreme of which is involuntary commitment, but I push gently for them to give less extreme options a try first. If these fail then a strong sedative is put into the food or drink, with medical backup on hand in case of a reaction, and they're transported sleeping to the psych ward and wake up in a private room with their parents there to explain things. They normally get angry, the parents leave then I come in and explain how the treatment is going to work, and explain that they're not leaving until they're well enough to not be a risk to themselves or others, and the quickest and best way to get back home is to behave well and be calm. Normally they're not happy, but most patients come around within a day or two and consent to therapy.

    In 2 weeks to a month most are ready to go home, but generally about 50%~60% relapse and need to come back again for another stay. Very few need a third stay, and overall the success rate is nearly 80% with this method.

    I know that "involuntary commitment" may seem like an extreme option, but it isn't a first option and it is the only reliably successful treatment model in more extreme cases where the patient sees no need for therapy.

  • -3

    tmarie

    First world problems. My parents have so much money and mommy stays home and coddles me so why bother going out and getting a job? You don't hear about this kind of issues in developing nations do you? Why not? Because families can't afford it. I do think there is a mental health issue but so many mental health issues get worse when enabled.

  • 0

    Frungy

    tmarieJul. 15, 2014 - 05:14PM JST First world problems. My parents have so much money and mommy stays home and coddles me so why bother going out and getting a job? You don't hear about this kind of issues in developing nations do you? Why not? Because families can't afford it. I do think there is a mental health issue but so many mental health issues get worse when enabled.

    Tmarie, you're way off base on this one. Schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder are international problems and are largely invisible because serious mental illness is stigmatised internationally. Oh yes, it is very popular to have "minor" problems like mild depression, mild anxiety, or even a child with mild Aspergers or mild ADD, but you won't find people with major disorders talking about them much.

    I don't know many campaigners for schizophrenics' rights, although there are a few in some countries. Up until very recently the "solution" for conditions like schizophrenia was to expect the family to keep them at home, and if the police picked them up for anything then the most often ended up in a mental institution for life. This has only really changed in the last 3 decades. I can remember one of my profs at university talking about when he was working at a psychiatric institution and their only choices for schizophrenics were either a life-time sedatives or early neuroleptics which had horrific side-effects and low success rates.

    This isn't a "first world problem", it is an international problem, but the difference is that Japan is still in denial, and people trivialising the problem doesn't help.

  • 1

    tmarie

    There are Schizophrenia and social anxiety disorders and then there are lazy, coddled NEETs who stay at home because they are allowed to by their parents. Don't confuse them as I know I certainly don't. Schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder are issues everywhere. Lazy NEETS who have mommy do everything for them and get callled a special name is a Japanese thing - and increasingly a Korean and Chinese thing. Folks with mental health issues vs those who are allowed to sit around and do nothing.

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    @tmarie

    Yes, but surely a NEET can be regarded as being mentally not quite right? Anyone who spends their days glued to the internet, living of their parents, needs a bit of guidance. People are fragile, some respond to "a kick up the bottom", others need a kinder aproach.

    I see it with my own university students all the time..

  • 0

    Frungy

    tmarieJul. 15, 2014 - 08:48PM JST There are Schizophrenia and social anxiety disorders and then there are lazy, coddled NEETs who stay at home because they are allowed to by their parents. Don't confuse them as I know I certainly don't. Schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder are issues everywhere. Lazy NEETS who have mommy do everything for them and get callled a special name is a Japanese thing - and increasingly a Korean and Chinese thing. Folks with mental health issues vs those who are allowed to sit around and do nothing.

    ... you do realise that the term NEET actually originated in the U.K., right?

    And in this particular article the person referred to is showing classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia. I can't make a conclusive diagnosis without meeting the person, but I've seen enough cases to say I'm reasonably sure in this case. You may not know, but that doesn't mean that no-one else does.

  • -2

    tmarie

    Yes, but surely a NEET can be regarded as being mentally not quite right?

    Why? Many are lazy. Not all that different than those who live off benefits and see no point to getting a job. I don't doubt that some do have mental health issues but they all don't. I see it with my uni students all the time as well and a lot of the problems I see are due to parents being overindulgent and not having any expectations of their kids.

    Frungy, yes, I do. But we aren't talking about NEETS but taking it one step further to Hikkokomori. NEETS, more so in the UK, go out and are social - just sponge off their parents and system. Hikkokomori aren't a well known issue in western countries - and I think this is because many parents will not support them like parents do here.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    tmarie. Maybe you don't hear about this type of thing in a developing nations (i'm not sure that is the case but anyway) because they have much greater issues that we win the 1st world hear about. starvation, slavery, war, unemployment, poverty etc etc. Bet there are plenty of psychological problems stemming from those.

    Laziness may be a factor but a lot of this is genuinely psychological issues. It is tempting, but not sure that just throwing them out on the street to fend for themselves is either the right or the socially acceptable answer.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    see, I'm so not NEET that i posted twice!!!

  • -3

    Frungy

    tmarieJul. 16, 2014 - 11:34AM JST Frungy, yes, I do. But we aren't talking about NEETS but taking it one step further to Hikkokomori. NEETS, more so in the UK, go out and are social - just sponge off their parents and system. Hikkokomori aren't a well known issue in western countries - and I think this is because many parents will not support them like parents do here.

    Frankly tmarie I'm surprised at you. Often you make sense, but this time you're just spouting nonsense.

    The prevalence of so-called "hikkokomori" in Japan is about 0.55% of the population. Under this general title of "hikkokomori" the real causes include undiagnosed and untreated autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders. The prevalence rate of severe social anxiety disorder in the U.S. across 12 months is 2% of the population. The difference between Japan and the U.S. is that people get treatment and get back outside again. In Japan they simply don't get any treatment.

    The "hikkokomori" syndrome is nothing more than a symptom of a country that would rather shut away its mentally ill than take any real move to help or heal them.

    The solution advocated by some is to throw these severely mentally ill people out on the pavement, which would just result in avoidable suicides, deaths (not always the mentally ill person's) and a general disaster.

    So, tmarie, I beg you to reconsider your position and show a little compassion. Consider for a moment that that show are just spongers, like NEETs in the UK, live full and active social lives. If these people were just spongers they would be down at the local izikaiya or out playing baseball with their friends. The difference is that hikkokomori in Japan aren't doing this, and the reason is simple, they're sick. You can't simply throw them out, any more than you'd throw a kid with cerebral palsy out on the side of the street.

  • 0

    tmarie

    Frungy, I have not said it is a "wide spread" problem. What I have said is that it is more of a problem in Japan (Korea and China as well) and I believe this is because of how parents coddle their kids in these nations.

    I have plenty of compassion for people who are clearly suffering from mental health issues. I do not, however, have sympathy for a family who has allowed a spoiled child to become a spoiled adult and is free to do what they like - and in many cases, that means closing the door, playing games, going on line and then having food brought to them.

    Wakarimasen, do YOU hear about cases like this in western nations like you do in Japan? We have ALL of the issues you mentioned as well. The difference is that 1st world nations have parents that spoil their kids whereas many developing nations have kids working or in education FT.

    I don't suggest "just throwing them out". I suggest parents take back power and get them involved in something - be it work or education. Then get them out once they are able to deal with it.

  • -5

    Frungy

    tmarieJul. 17, 2014 - 09:11AM JST Frungy, I have not said it is a "wide spread" problem. What I have said is that it is more of a problem in Japan (Korea and China as well) and I believe this is because of how parents coddle their kids in these nations.

    Actually tmarie, you did say "many". You also equated all hikkokomori with NEETs ("But we aren't talking about NEETS but taking it one step further to Hikkokomori.").

    I honestly don't see why people can't realise that their previous comments are still on the screen, and that I WILL look back to see what they wrong before. The only person you're fooling here is yourself.

  • 0

    tmarie

    No, I did not "equate" all hikkokomori with NEETs and the () sentence makes that very clear. I guess "one step further" means something different to you?

    I'm not trying to fool anyone. Suggesting all these losers have mental health issues is a joke. Suggesting part of the issue isn't the parenting style here is a joke. Suggesting that other western nations have a similar number of cases is a joke. Not fooling, just calling a spade a spade.

  • 2

    Paul Richards

    Tim_Fox wrote; "In the US the police working in conjunction with emergency health care professionals for forced removal of the family member suffering this condition."

    Interesting worldview.

    When we look at the USA and see they have the planets largest prison population by far.

    Why would Japan look to the US and their putative adversarial model to work in this unique culture?

  • 0

    JapanGal

    I agree with Paul, but what is Putative?

  • 0

    Chimao Honda

    I wonder what this condition is called in English?

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