The Null Device

Life in the slow lane

The New York Times has a long and interesting article on the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, or of young Japanese dropping out of society and shutting themselves in their rooms for months at a time, emerging only to go to convenience stores at night or not at all:
A leading psychiatrist claims that one million Japanese are hikikomori, which, if true, translates into roughly 1 percent of the population. Even other experts' more conservative estimates, ranging between 100,000 and 320,000 sufferers, are alarming, given how dire the consequences may be. As a hikikomori ages, the odds that he'll re-enter the world decline. Indeed, some experts predict that most hikikomori who are withdrawn for a year or more may never fully recover. That means that even if they emerge from their rooms, they either won't get a full-time job or won't be involved in a long-term relationship. And some will never leave home. In many cases, their parents are now approaching retirement, and once they die, the fate of the shut-ins - whose social and work skills, if they ever existed, will have atrophied - is an open question.
In other societies the response from many youths would be different. If they didn't fit into the mainstream, they might join a gang or become a Goth or be part of some other subculture. But in Japan, where uniformity is still prized and reputations and outward appearances are paramount, rebellion comes in muted forms, like hikikomori. Any urge a hikikomori might have to venture into the world to have a romantic relationship or sex, for instance, is overridden by his self-loathing and the need to shut his door so that his failures, real or perceived, will be cloaked from the world.
By Japanese standards, his room was enormous, with a wall of delicate shoji screens leading to a rock garden. But it was hard to imagine what he did there all day. There were no stacks of manga, the popular Japanese comic books, no DVD's, no computer games, all things found in the rooms of most hikikomori. The TV was broken, and the hard drive was missing from his computer. There were a few papers on his desk, including a newsletter from New Start that Kawakami brought on her last visit. Otherwise, the only evidence that this was a hikikomori's room were three holes in the wall - the size of fists. Shut-ins often describe punching their walls in a fit of anger or frustration at their parents or at their own lives. The holes were suggestive too of the practice of "cutting" among American adolescent girls. Both acts seemed to be attempts to infuse feeling into a numb life.
By the time parents seek help, often their child has been shut in for a year or more. "When they call," Dr. Saito said, "I offer them three choices: 1) Come to me for counseling; 2) Kick your child out; 3) Accept your child's state and be prepared to take care of him for the rest of your life. They choose Option 1." He also offers poignantly simple parenting tips, like not leaving dinner at a child's doorstep. "You make dinner and call him to the table, and if he doesn't come then let him fend for himself." In addition to meals, parents often provide monetary allowances for their adult child, and in rare cases, if a child has become verbally or physically abusive, parents move out, leaving their home to the shut-in.
Parents of hikikomori now have support programmes to turn to, including volunteers known as "rental sisters", who try to befriend their children and coax them out of their rooms and into support centres, often over months or years.

There are multiple theories trying to explain the hikikomori phenomenon, but several frame it as a conscious rejection of the high pressure to conform and succeed placed on individuals in Japanese society; a conscious, if not particularly sustainable, decision to drop out of the traditional school-university-work career path.

On a similar note, Momus' latest piece in Wired News celebrates Japan's aging population and embrace of the "slow life".

There are 3 comments on "Life in the slow lane":

Posted by: steff http://ofterdingenandkropotkin.blogspot.com Sat Jan 21 23:52:17 2006

Fantastic article, thanks. Leads me to wonder how many hikikomori there are say in Melbourne or Hamburg.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/ Sun Jan 22 00:43:58 2006

Probably not too many, given that it's a culture-bound syndrome. Instead, we'd get self-cutters and more extroverted teenage nihilists.

Posted by: steff http://ofterdingenandkropotkin.blogspot.com Mon Jan 23 06:31:54 2006

I guess you're right. Perhaps the "advance" of online social activities is connected to these withdrawals from society? In which case the phenomenon may be found elsewhere at some stage, too. I wonder how exclusively culture-bound it is. Achorites, everywhere anchorites.

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