Hikikomori: Why are so many Japanese men refusing to leave their rooms? (2023)

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Hikikomori: Why are so many Japanese men refusing to leave their rooms? (1)Image source, Unknown

By William Kremer and Claudia Hammond

BBC World Service

As many as a million young people in Japan are thought to remain holed up in their homes - sometimes for decades at a time. Why?

For Hide, the problems started when he gave up school.

"I started to blame myself and my parents also blamed me for not going to school. The pressure started to build up," he says.

"Then, gradually, I became afraid to go out and fearful of meeting people. And then I couldn't get out of my house."

Gradually, Hide relinquished all communication with friends and eventually, his parents. To avoid seeing them he slept through the day and sat up all night, watching TV.

"I had all kinds of negative emotions inside me," he says. "The desire to go outside, anger towards society and my parents, sadness about having this condition, fear about what would happen in the future, and jealousy towards the people who were leading normal lives."

Hide had become "withdrawn" or hikikomori.

In Japan, hikikomori, a term that's also used to describe the young people who withdraw, is a word that everyone knows.

Tamaki Saito was a newly qualified psychiatrist when, in the early 1990s, he was struck by the number of parents who sought his help with children who had quit school and hidden themselves away for months and sometimes years at a time. These young people were often from middle-class families, they were almost always male, and the average age for their withdrawal was 15.

(Video) Rent-a-sister: Coaxing Japan’s hikikomori men out of their bedrooms - BBC News

It might sound like straightforward teenage laziness. Why not stay in your room while your parents wait on you? But Saito says sufferers are paralysed by profound social fears.

"They are tormented in the mind," he says. "They want to go out in the world, they want to make friends or lovers, but they can't."

Symptoms vary between patients. For some, violent outbursts alternate with infantile behaviour such as pawing at the mother's body. Other patients might be obsessive, paranoid and depressed.

When Saito began his research, social withdrawal was not unknown, but it was treated by doctors as a symptom of other underlying problems rather than a pattern of behaviour requiring special treatment.

Since he drew attention to the phenomenon, it is thought the numbers of hikikomori have increased. A conservative estimate of the number of people now affected is 200,000, but a 2010 survey for the Japanese Cabinet Office came back with a much higher figure - 700,000. Since sufferers are by definition hidden away, Saito himself places the figure higher still, at around one million.

The average age of hikikomori also seems to have risen over the last two decades. Before it was 21 - now it is 32.

So why do they withdraw?

The trigger for a boy retreating to his bedroom might be comparatively slight - poor grades or a broken heart, for example - but the withdrawal itself can become a source of trauma. And powerful social forces can conspire to keep him there.

One such force is sekentei, a person's reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels to impress others. The longer hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure. They lose whatever self-esteem and confidence they had and the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more terrifying.

Parents are also conscious of their social standing and frequently wait for months before seeking professional help.

Image source, Kadokawa Shoten

A second social factor is the amae - dependence - that characterises Japanese family relationships. Young women traditionally live with their parents until marriage, and men may never move out of the family home. Even though about half of hikikomori are violent towards their parents, for most families it would be unthinkable to throw them out.

But in exchange for decades of support for their children, parents expect them to show respect and fulfil their role in society of getting a job.

Matsu became hikikomori after he fell out with his parents about his career and university course.

(Video) Japanese men locked in their bedrooms for years | 7.30

"I was very well mentally, but my parents pushed me the way I didn't want to go," he says. "My father is an artist and he runs his own business - he wanted me to do the same." But Matsu wanted to become a computer programmer in a large firm - one of corporate Japan's army of "salarymen".

"But my father said: 'In the future there won't be a society like that.' He said: 'Don't become a salaryman.'"

Like many hikikomori, Matsu was the eldest son and felt the full weight of parental expectation. He grew furious when he saw his younger brother doing what he wanted. "I became violent and had to live separately from my family," he says.

One way to interpret Matsu's story is see him as being at the faultline of a cultural shift in Japan.

"Traditionally, Japanese psychology was thought to be group-oriented - Japanese people do not want to stand out in a group," says Yuriko Suzuki, a psychologist at the National Institute for Mental Health in Tokyo. "But I think especially for the younger generation, they want more individualised or personalised care and attention. I think we are in a mixed state."

But even hikikomori who desperately want to fulfil their parents' plans for them may find themselves frustrated.

Andy Furlong, an academic at the University of Glasgow specialising in the transition from education to work, connects the growth of the hikikomori phenomenon with the popping of the 1980s "bubble economy" and the onset of Japan's recession of the 1990s.

It was at this point that the conveyor belt of good school grades leading to good university places leading to jobs-for-life broke down. A generation of Japanese were faced with the insecurity of short-term, part-time work.

And it came with stigma, not sympathy.

Job-hopping Japanese were called "freeters" - a combination of the word "freelance" and the German word for "worker", arbeiter. In political discussion, freeters were frequently bundled together with "neets" - an adopted British acronym meaning "not in education, employment or training". Neets, freeters, hikikomori - these were ways of describing the good-for-nothing younger generation, parasites on the flagging Japanese economy. The older generation, who graduated and slotted into steady careers in the 1960s and 1970s, could not relate to them.

"The opportunities have changed fundamentally," says Furlong. "I don't think the families always know how to handle that."

Image source, Getty Images

A common reaction is for parents to treat their recalcitrant son with anger, to lecture them and make them feel guilty for bringing shame on the family. The risk here is that - as with Hide - communication with parents may break down altogether. But some parents have been driven to extreme measures.

For a time one company operating in Nagoya could be hired by parents to burst into their children's rooms, give them a big dressing down, and forcibly drag them away to a dormitory to learn the error of their ways.

Kazuhiko Saito, the director of the psychiatry department at Kohnodai Hospital in Chiba, says that sudden interventions - even by healthcare professionals - can prove disastrous.

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"In many cases, the patient becomes violent towards the staff or the parents in front of the counsellors, or after the counsellors have left," he says.

Kazuhiko Saito is in favour of healthcare professionals visiting hikikomori, but he says they must be fully briefed on the patient, who must know in advance that they are coming.

In any case, the do-nothing approach has been shown not to work. Tamaki Saito likens the hikikomori state to alcoholism, in that it is impossible to give up without a support network.

His approach is to begin with "reorganising" the relationship between the patient and his parents, arming desperate mothers and fathers with strategies to restart communication with their children. When the patient is well enough to come to the clinic in person he can be treated with drugs and therapy. Group therapy is a relatively new concept to Japanese psychology, but self-help groups have become a key way of drawing hikikomori into wider society.

For both Hide and Matsu, the journey to recovery was helped by visiting a charity-run youth club in Tokyo known as an ibasho - a safe place for visitors to start reintroducing themselves to society.

Both men have made progress in their relationships with their parents. Matsu has been for a job interview as a computer programmer, and Hide has a part-time job. He thinks that by starting to talk again with his parents, the whole family has been able to move on.

"They thought about their way of life in the past and in the future," he says. "I think that before - even though they were out working - their mental attitude was just like a hikikomori, but now they're more open and honest with themselves. So as their child I'm very happy to see them change."

Many parents of hikikomori visit the ibasho even though their children may never be well enough to come with them.

Yoshiko's son withdrew from society very gradually when he was 22.

At first he would go out to buy shopping, but she observes ruefully that internet shopping means this is no longer necessary and he no longer leaves the house. He is now 50 years old.

"I think my son is losing the power or desire to do what he wants to do," she says. "Maybe he used to have something he wanted to do but I think I ruined it."

You can listen to The Truth about Mental Health: Hikikomori on the BBC World Service at 14:30 GMT on Friday 05 July.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook.

(Video) Hikikomori: Why Are Japanese Men Locking Themselves Inside for Years?

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What do hikikomori do all day? ›

Definition. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare defines hikikomori as a condition in which the affected individuals refuse to leave their parents' house, do not work or go to school and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months.

Why hikikomori is so common in Japan? ›

Often, a triggering academic or social failure prompts young men and women to withdraw from society and become hikikomori. It's also been speculated that this social phenomenon is due, in part, to a culture of shame surrounding mental health issues.

What is the Japanese word for shut ins who do not leave their rooms and stay in their homes avoiding society? ›

A form of severe social withdrawal, called hikikomori, has been frequently described in Japan and is characterized by adolescents and young adults who become recluses in their parents' homes, unable to work or go to school for months or years.

Which country has the most hikikomori? ›

Background: Hikikomori is a form of severe social withdrawal that is particularly prevalent in Japan.

Are there female hikikomori? ›

Those who socially withdrew for six months or more (n=164 (6.7%); 53.7% men, 46.2% women) were classified as being hikikomori; of these, 45.7% had been withdrawn for more than 10 years.

Can a hikikomori have a job? ›

Japan's Shut-Ins, Hikikomori, Are Living With Their Parents and Have No Jobs.

How do hikikomori afford to live? ›

Most hikikomori come from wealtheir families or at least a household that can afford to support their child while he or she does not work. If a hikikomori works, it is usually online or if it is in a store they are more likely to work.

How do hikikomori sustain themselves? ›

By and large, Japan's hikikomori are depressed young people who have -- either willfully or through inaction -- shut themselves off by imprisoning themselves in a small apartment (usually a one-room flat) and never leaving, for as long as a decade or more. They buy their daily necessities online.

Are hikikomori violent? ›

There are an estimated 50,000 to 1,000,000 hikikomori in Japan. Many experts explain that those hikikomori who resort to violence are not representative of the group at large. Most of the youth, they maintain, simply engage in antisocial behavior without being violent.

What causes people to become hikikomori? ›

While many become hikikomori due to bullying or harassment from teachers, it is highly rare for the cause to be abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder. Once someone has entered the “hikikomori system” over the longer term, they fall into a vicious cycle, which Saitō expressed with the diagrams below.

What causes hikikomori syndrome? ›

The invention of the Internet and subsequent changes to the way people interact with and within society may also be major factors contributing to hikikomori (26). For instance, a preference for online communication may play a role in the development of social withdrawal in certain individuals (26).

Is hikikomori autism? ›

Hikikomori, a form of pathological social withdrawal, has been suggested to have comorbidity with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Do hikikomori have depression? ›

Hikikomori is not depression

Researchers have in fact demonstrated the existence of a "primary hikikomori", a hikikomori that develops before and apart from other diseases; a withdrawal that was not derived from any pre-existing mental disorder.

How do you treat hikikomori? ›

Listen to the person without judgement and encourage them to take support from experts. Individual support: This includes support from doctors and other healthcare practitioners who can help the person deal with the condition. Assessment of triggers and therapy: This may include individual and/or group therapy.

Do hikikomori have social anxiety? ›

The authors identified a group of psychiatric disorders characterised by hikikomori-like features including psychosis, social anxiety disorder, avoidant personality disorder, depressive disorders, Internet addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is the difference between hikikomori and NEET? ›

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare defined NEETs as “people who are not employed, not in school, not a homemaker, and not seeking a job” and defined Hikikomori as “those who are neither in work nor school, do not have social interactions and are socially withdrawn for more than 6 months.” To assess the ...

What percent of hikikomori are male? ›

According to Japanese data the hikikomori would be 90% male.

One hypothesis is that the pressure for social realization, that is to say the root cause of hikikomori, is culturally greater for men.

What countries have hikikomori? ›

“Hikikomori is Uniquely Japanese”

Similarly, there have been hikikomori case studies from several countries outside Japan including, Spain, Oman, the United States, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Is it lonely living in Japan? ›

It is no trifling contradiction that Japan, a nation built on collectivism and structured around some of the world's most populated urban areas, is one of the world's loneliest countries.

Can you live in an abandoned house in Japan? ›

Buying a property in Japan, abandoned or otherwise, does not grant you automatic residence status. And while a foreigner can buy one of these homes, there are restrictions to keep in mind. For example, some contracts to purchase an akiya require the buyer to live in the house permanently.

What is the percentage of hikikomori in Japan? ›

A community‐based survey published in 2010 reported that the prevalence of hikikomori was approximately 1.2% of the Japanese population2, and in 2016 a Japanese cabinet report estimated people with hikikomori to be about 541,000 within the age range of 15‐39 years.

Is hikikomori and social anxiety disorder are similar? ›

Clinical characteristics of secondary hikikomori derived from a comparison of social anxiety disorder (SAD) patients with or without hikikomori were as follows: i) SAD onset preceded or coincided with hikikomori, ii) hikikomori SAD patients subset appeared to have a more severe form of SAD, and iii) hikikomori SAD ...

How do hikikomori get groceries? ›

Many hikikomori sufferers live with their parents, who may make them food and provide other basics. They may also go out to buy food at convenience stores in lieu of depending on mom's cooking.

Why do Japanese isolate themselves? ›

The Shogun believed that Christianity (which had been introduced largely by the Portuguese) and other foreign influences were a threat to the newfound stability of the country. The policy of seclusion or 'Sakoku' (鎖国 lit.

How do I know if I'm a hikikomori? ›

Characteristics of hikikomori

Hikikomori is diagnosed when a person displays severe socially avoidant behaviours for at least six months, causing distress and dysfunction. These behaviours include refusal to go outside of the home, to work, or to attend school, as well as withdrawing from social communication.

Is hikikomori a mental disorder? ›

Hikikomori is currently viewed as a sociocultural mental health phenomenon, rather than a distinct mental illness. Given at least 1.2% of the population (around a million people) are affected, hikikomori is a significant social and health problem. Hikikomori is also increasingly being identified in other countries.

Are hikikomori schizoid? ›

Kondo 7 reported that schizoid pathology is commonly found among hikikomori cases. Kinugasa 8 indicated that most hikikomori youth have schizoid personality disor- condition in which young adults avoid social activities. It may be caused by depression, anxiety disorder or some personality disorders.

Do hikikomori still exist? ›

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare categorises hikikomori as someone who has not gone to work or school for at least six months, and rarely interacts with people outside their home. Government studies and surveys show that there are an estimated 1.1 million hikikomori across Japan.

What is the difference between otaku and hikikomori? ›

A hikikomori is different from an otaku because an otaku does not necessarily have social withdrawal symptoms and cuts themselves off from the outside world. Weeaboo is used to describe a non-Japanese (some say non-Asian) person who is excessively obsessed with Japanese culture to an unhealthy extent.

Does hikikomori exist outside Japan? ›

Psychiatrists in other countries opted for more active treatment such as hospitalization. Conclusions: Patients with the hikikomori syndrome are perceived as occurring across a variety of cultures by psychiatrists in multiple countries.

What causes people to be shut ins? ›

A shut-in is a person confined indoors, especially as a result of physical or mental disability agoraphobia.

Is loneliness a problem in Japan? ›

About 40% of people in Japan are "lonely" in their daily lives, and more people in their 20s and 30s feel this way than the elderly, the first national survey of its kind revealed recently. Observers have pointed out that there are social factors behind this situation.

Do you shower Hikikomoris? ›

Some become so exhausted by this internal struggle that they cannot even get out of bed. And the torment may continue for years or even decades. In serious cases, hikikomori almost never leave their rooms other than to use the toilet or shower.

How does a hikikomori earn money? ›

Most hikikomori come from wealtheir families or at least a household that can afford to support their child while he or she does not work. If a hikikomori works, it is usually online or if it is in a store they are more likely to work. late at night when they will not have to interact with many people.

What are the signs of a hikikomori? ›

Hikikomori has been defined by a Japanese expert group as having the following characteristics: (1) spending most of the time at home; (2) no interest in going to school or working; (3) persistence of withdrawal for more than 6 months; (4) exclusion of schizophrenia, mental retardation, and bipolar disorder; and (5) ...

How do you get out of a hikikomori? ›

Go out, engage in conversations, even if you feel awkward. You'll eventually feel less weirded out by social interaction, and might in time learn to appreciate it and enjoy it. Ask a stranger to help them, you'll feel rewarded once you do. Go out to a fun event in the city, alone or with someone else.

Do hikikomori go outside? ›

They are known as hikikomori – recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don't leave their houses for years at a time.

What percentage of hikikomori are men? ›

According to Japanese data the hikikomori would be 90% male.

One hypothesis is that the pressure for social realization, that is to say the root cause of hikikomori, is culturally greater for men.


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