“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.