SINGAPORE, Singapore — The term “hikikomori” refers to a socially isolated individual and the sociological phenomenon of growing social isolation among the youth and elderly in Japan. While “there are several core features of hikikomori,” the essential ones include physical isolation for a minimum period of six months, the active avoidance of any situation that may involve social interaction and feelings of inadequacy or despondence. Based on these features, about one million people are affected by hikikomori in Japan. However, the actual number is believed to be significantly higher given that not all people experiencing hikikomori seek help immediately.
An Obsession with Perfection
The nature of Japanese culture is to strive for perfection and productivity. One is expected to fulfill all social obligations to the highest possible standard. This hyperfocus on efficiency has inadvertently led to the creation of a culture of shaming and the stigmatization of failure. The obsession with perfection has proven to be particularly toxic to the student population of Japan. The pressure to excel in examinations and secure a well-paying job takes a heavy toll on students’ mental well-being. Those who fail to conform to this status quo often find themselves driven into becoming hikikomori to avoid public humiliation, or worse, resort to committing suicide.
The Negative Impact of Modern Technology
There is insufficient evidence to establish a causational relationship between exposure to technologies (such as the internet, video games and social media) and hikikomori. However, there is enough research to suggest that technology exacerbates the issue. A psychiatrist and researcher from the Catholic University of Daegu, TaeYoung Choi, reported that technology can aggravate antisocial dispositions, worsening the plight of hikikomori.
Further, there is ample evidence that suggests that, in the digital era, the decline in face-to-face communication deteriorates interpersonal skills, reducing the ability to socialize comfortably in public settings. While technology is not solely responsible for the perpetuation of hikikomori and may also have the potential to offer solutions, it has made the issue harder to resolve by providing hikikomori with an excuse not to leave the “bell jar” of their isolated reality.
It is imperative to note that more factors contribute to hikikomori. For example, dysfunctional family dynamics and co-occurring psychiatric or developmental disorders are factors. Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, remarked that “one of the reasons hikikomori is fascinating is that there’s no one explanation. It’s a lot of factors coming together.”
The 8050 Problem
Hikikomori became a widely observable phenomenon in the 1990s when Japan’s economy was going through a period of stagnation. This subjected a young and eager population to uninviting work conditions, begetting their social withdrawal. Today, many of these hikikomori have entered their 50s and remain financially dependent on their parents who have entered their 80s. The media has coined the phrase “the 8050 problem’’ to describe this dire situation. As the parents of these aging hikikomori retire, their children cannot fend for themselves financially because they have spent too much time as recluses. As such, they find themselves susceptible to the cycle of poverty.
It is estimated that by 2030, one-third of Japan’s population will be at least 65 years old and one-fifth of the population will be at least 75 years old. The growing labor shortage places Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, in a precarious position. Under these conditions, hikikomori further suppresses Japan’s economic potential. If the youth continue to succumb to social pressures and isolate themselves, Japan faces a problem in replacing retirees and aging workers.
Initiatives to Combat Hikikomori
- Appointing a Minister of Loneliness: In February 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as Japan’s first minister of loneliness. The decision came after a rise in suicide and depression rates engendered by the economic and social hardships of COVID-19. The new minister is eager to alleviate social isolation in Japan and learn from the U.K.’s experiences in this field.
- Support Centers for Hikikomori: In the Japanese city of Fukuoka, the Yokayoka Room, or the “take it easy’’ room, provides a safe space for hikikomori to gather and share their struggles. Meeting in groups also creates opportunities to rebuild social skills and increase confidence. The expansion of such support centers could help alleviate the stigma surrounding hikikomori and facilitate their gradual reintegration into society.
- The Rent-A-Sister Program: Newstart is a nonprofit organization in Japan that specializes in the alleviation of hikikomori. A part of the organization’s efforts is its rent-a-sister program. The program employs young women to converse with hikikomori in their homes. These “sisters” gently befriend and encourage hikikomori to leave the confines of their bedrooms. As of April 2020, Newstart reached 1,500 hikikomori, proving that such initiatives can make a significant impact.
While the moral imperative to address hikikomori may be up for debate, the economic imperative is unambiguous. With experts in the field, such as Saito Tamaki, suggesting that the population of hikikomori in Japan could exceed 10 million, a greater sense of urgency must be brought to conversations about abating hikikomori. Programs to decrease hikikomori will prevent Japan’s economy from collapsing under the weight of an aging populace and a disappearing youth population.
– Vyas Nageswaran