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Hikikomania: existential horror or national malaise?

This study considers the Japanese psyche from the era of the atomic attacks to the contemporary hikikomori [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] phenomenon: the phenomenon of "socially withdrawn" youths. My research suggests that the hikikomori result from specific cultural, traditional, and situational elements of Japanese history. My research leads me to believe that Japan is the first true postmodern nation and that the pattern of social withdrawal points to a national existential angst. If young people continue to withdraw from society into the womb of their bedrooms, if the birth rate continues to decrease, and if the general pessimism of the Japanese persists, will Japanese society survive? Japan must acknowledge the hikikomori phenomenon before it can take steps to respond.

Consider a country in which nearly 1 percent of the population--one million youths--choose to withdraw into their own rooms. These youths seek to escape from a society that privileges harmony over freedom, sacrifices individuals to collective progress, imposes a nationwide, government-sanctioned school curriculum, and restricts immigration so that foreign thoughts do not taint the homogenous native ideology. The ocean walls that surround Japan mirror the four-walled room in which these social isolates express their alienation from a nation built on fixed social mores in a swiftly changing world. This may sound like the premise of an intriguing dystopian novel, but, in Japan, the hikikomori are real enough--silent rebels struggling for survival within a highly regimented Japanese society.

Hikikomori are generally perceived as lazy, incompetent, mentally diseased, or socially oppressed. Officially, a hikikomori is defined as a person in "a state of social withdrawal of more than six months in duration without psychotic symptoms" (Hattori 2006, 192). In reality, hikikomori are more like canaries in a coalmine: sensitive individuals searching for identity in a society that frowns on deviations from the norm. The hikikomori instinct-tively sense something wrong with Japanese society and choose to engage in the only kind of rebellion possible to them, a retreat into their rooms, equally blocking out the sun and the Land of the Rising Sun.


Building on extensive research both in Japan and the United States, this study examines the Japanese psyche after World War II. Factors contributing to the hikikomori phenomenon include the structure of Japanese society, the search for Japanese "essence," and the current economic climate. I use the research of psychologists, anthropologists, and social commentators who seek an understanding of Japanese culture. My research includes firsthand interviews with Japanese along with interviews conducted by others specifically on the subject of the hikikomori phenomenon. I hope to establish a more forgiving view of the hikikomori phenomenon as an existential search for personal meaning and not as a form of psychological malady. It is my hope that increased social awareness of the hikikomori phenomenon will lead to measures that address the pattern of social withdrawal.

Understanding the Japanese Psyche & Social Structure

Ruth Benedict's extensive survey of Japanese culture during World War II is perhaps the definitive study of traditional Japan. The United States government commissioned this research in 1944, seeking understanding of its enemy as the "great offensive against Japan" began to develop (Benedict 1967, 3). She begins her book by stating the intrinsic contradictions apparent in Japanese culture from a Western perspective:
   The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and
   unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and
   polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being
   pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative
   and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what
   other people will think of their behavior, and they are also
   overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep.

In my experience of Japan, all of these seemingly dichotomous behaviors and attitudes exist within contemporary society. Japan is an excellent appropriator, taking elements of other cultures and giving them a decidedly Japanese twist, which results in a loss of a distinct, easily identifiable Japanese "essence." (1) This dichotomous national identity, I believe, makes Japan the first postmodern country and helps explain the existence of the hikikomori.

Postmodernity involves the loss of absolute values and the pervasive sense of alienation. It is a state in which "anything is possible and nothing is certain," which was certainly the state of Japan following World War II. Postmodernism is particularly marked by the dissolution of the myth of progress, a development closely associated with the development of atomic weapons and the realization that humankind has the power to destroy itself. Japan understands most fully the possibility of complete annihilation due to the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it is with this in mind that I offer Japan as the first postmodern nation. Japanese have had to rebuild their identity through many situational events and circumstances. They have done away with a national essence, relying on their use of situational morality as a basis of a situational identity. However, Japan is still rooted in its traditions, which causes this dichotomy of identity and constitutes, I believe, one of the main factors in the hikikomori phenomenon.

Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane describes Japan as a vertical society, or tate-shakai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in which relationships have a hierarchical structure that emphasizes inequality. Each human interaction involves a calculation of inferiority and superiority of each person's place within a larger group (Nakane 1970). The Japanese define their identity through association with a group, whether a company or a family. This emphasis on group identification creates a distinction between people who are uchi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and soto [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], inside and outside, of one's group. As Michael Zielenziger writes in Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, "individual identity is deeply swathed in mutual interdependence" (2006, 18). Anyone outside of one's group is immediately distrusted, leading to the automatic alienation or ostracization of those who are different or have individualistic tendencies.

There exists a dichotomy in every Japanese self. This dichotomy can be explained in terms of honne [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and tatemae [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "true feelings" and "facade." Japanese people are very selective to whom they will show their honne, usually only to members of their uchi and sometimes not at all or only with the aid of inebriates.2 Individuals will not show their inside feelings to someone who is soto. Yuichi Hattori uses the terms "front personality" and "original personality" to describe this difference between the public and private self (Hattori 2006, 193). We might say that the hikikomori cannot maintain the integrity of their "original personality" in the context of Japanese society, while the "front personality" compulsively conforms to perceived expectations.

This repression of personal feelings and life of the facade can lead to many problems, including difficulty with intimacy and communication. In this sense, hikikomori can be described using psychological terms relating to their interpersonal problems. Many hikikomori experience dissociative identities, anthropophobia--fear of fellow humans (taijin kyofusho [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])--and emotional numbness (Hattori 2006, 186). However, many Japanese are able to switch effortlessly between their different facades. As one hikikomori puts it: "Regular [Japanese] people have an ability to hide their true feelings just to be able to get along with others in the world" (Zielenziger 2006, 24). This switching between manifestations of the self may account for the relatively low rate of multiple personality disorder in Japan. Japanese psychologist Yuichi Hattori says, "Because all of us Japanese grow up with multiple personalities, we almost never see this disorder in our patients" (Zielenziger 2006, 64). The percentage of the population that suffers from anxiety disorders is 18.0 in the United States and 5.3 in Japan, although Japan has fewer psychologists, so Japanese rates of anxiety disorders may be under-diagnosed (Zielenziger 2006, 64).

As a whole, Japanese society seeks harmony or wa [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as its "preeminent social value" (Reid 2000, 79). This emphasis permeates Japanese communication, which is pervaded by honoriics and forms of apology (Reid 2000, 81), and it manifests itself in all aspects of Japanese society, including the school systems and corporate world. "The hierarchical nature of the social architecture, the need to maintain group harmony, and the fear of standing out only make the tendency to acquiesce more powerful," says Zielenziger. In consequence, dissidents, those who pose a threat to wa, are crushed, according to the phrase "Deru kui wa utarareru" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" (2006, 128).

Social Factors Contributing to the Hikikomori Phenomenon

The hammering down of individuals begins in the school yard where ijime [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (bullying) is prevalent. Students who do not readily conform to the ideal of the Japanese schoolchild or are unable it in, for whatever reason, may be bullied by the group (Reid 2000, 130). This practice is not particularly discouraged by teachers or parents, as it promotes "behavior modification" that will help students it into the groups and prepares them for real life by developing skills to form and operate within the "cohesive social units and hierarchical relationships" upon which Japanese society is built (Zielenziger 2006, 50). Parents and teachers do not interfere, believing that the group has recognized within the bullied party some character aw that needs to be worked out (Zielenziger 2006, 51). The prevalence of bullying may explain a steady increase in school truancy. The rate of school refusal doubled between 1990 and 2006 (Jones 2006, 48). In 2005, the Education Ministry reported that 2 percent of the nation's school-age population does not attend school (Zielenziger 2006, 53). Yuko Tsuchiya is emblematic of Japan's new sub-culture of truancy. A school refuser since sixth grade, she disliked being grouped with other students and opted out of the groupist culture of the schools (Kano 2010, 3). Bullying and consequent truancy often precipitate hikikomori-style social withdrawal.

The smallest unit of traditional Japanese society is the ie [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or house/family. Traditionally, it is composed hierarchically. The irst son and his bride assume the family name and care for their elders and descendents until the next first-born son inherits these duties. The traditional ie consisted of a multi-generational household with men and women taking on gender-appropriate roles, the man acting as the "main pillar" (daikokubashira [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and the woman acting as a "good wife and wise mother" (ryosai kenbo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

As Japan has industrialized, the birthrate has fallen and the family has shrunk. The modern family typically includes husband, wife, and child. The members of the family still perform their gendered roles, with the father working late hours and the mother serving as primary and usually sole provider of childcare. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Maggie Jones notes that urban Japanese parents "lead increasingly isolated lives" in a community-based society. They are "removed from the extended family and tight-knit communities of previous generations" and therefore cannot effectively teach their children how to properly practice empathy, establish trusting relationships with others, and engage in healthy communication (Jones 2006, 49).

With father-igures scarce due to overwork, Japanese males are said to have become increasingly feminized. (3) This modernized family structure deepens the bond of the mother and son to a point of amae [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "dependency," a term proposed by psychoanalyst Takeo Doi in 1971 (Keys 1996, 93). This dependency is not perceived as negative, as it would be in Western and particularly American culture, but as part of the mother's role as nurturer and protector. Due to this interdependency, and to the social stigma of acknowledging a problem, mothers of hikikomori rarely help empower their children by pushing them back into society. Zielenziger says that "a person can spend on average four years in seclusion before parents set aside their shame to seek outside help" (2006, 65). The interdependency between mother and child only exacerbates the problems of the hikikomori.

While bullying, family dependence, and lack of proper communication skills partially account for the hikikomori phenomenon, another possible explanation for the pandemic of social withdrawal is an existential crisis and pessimistic turn in the Japanese consciousness. In a 2008 interview, Zielenziger states that the hikikomori phenomenon has emerged due to Japan's recent economic success and the resulting freedom to ponder questions of value and identity. Existential questions of meaning and identity traditionally manifest themselves in wealthy societies as focus shifts from self-preservation to introspection.

During the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s, according to Zielenziger, the pursuit of "material extravagance deliver[ed] emptiness rather than inner contentment," and the Japanese were "forced to confront deeper, more existential questions about meaning, value, self-affirmation, and moral purpose that classroom training cannot teach" (2006, 11). Many youths turned away from school lives that emphasized rote learning over critical thinking and the collective over the individual to search for their own identities, deined not by a group but by the self. They dropped out of society "to maintain [their] individuality" and "to protect themselves and their insides" (2006, 26, 32). As one hikikomori states, "I know it's going to be difficult for me to it in and I don't feel much value in fitting in. So I'm still thinking, 'How can I live a meaningful life?'" (Zielenziger 2006, 38). Tsuchiya, having recovered from her withdrawal, recalls asking herself, "Is there any reason to live?" (Kano 2010, 3). The individual is not respected in Japan. Feeling abused and optionless, any social deviants, however mild their deviancy may be, may choose to escape their oppression through self-isolation.

There has long been a search for the "essence" of what it means to be Japanese--a theory collectively known as nihonjinron [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In the postmodern world the idea of fixed essences has been abolished, foisting on individuals the need to craft their own identities. For the Japanese, caught within a web of diametrically opposed influences, torn between a culture that has borrowed heavily from the West and a tradition built on honor, groupism, and a settled aesthetic, the search for self-identity runs into conflicts between East and West, the group and the individual. Some social commentators propose, therefore, that the essence of the Japanese is "to have no essence" (Zielenziger 2006, 95).

Beginning as an agrarian country with close-knit communities focusing communally on rice cultivation, Japan developed its groupism in order to survive and proliferate. Workers banded together in pursuit of a common goal, and inevitably a deep trust between workers developed. Today the Japanese find a sense of identity through association with a group. Adults associate with a company or university, while youths affiliate themselves with pop-cultural sub-cultures, identifying themselves, for example, as "gothic Lolitas" or as kogaru [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (4)

For the Westerner, who generally seeks identity through independence and self-discovery, groupism may feel like a suffocating infringement on individuality and freedom. But the Japanese are a pragmatic, goal-oriented people, and within their group they can find their specific role and help achieve the group goal. Prior to the opening of Japan in the 1850s, one's role was usually fixed at birth; one inherited certain class roles such as daimyo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], samurai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or farmer. At the start of the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan was still largely rural and roles were still mostly fixed; however, the Japanese began to question their own essence as the country became inundated with Western culture and ideology.

Searching for identity in a society that "is not capable of accepting people with different attitudes" naturally calls for withdrawal, which explains why the hikikomori "barricade themselves in their rooms for protection rather than attempt to engage with a society they feel denies them any expression of self" (Zielenziger 2002; 2006, 11-12). As one hikikomori describes it, "I have an arrow pointed deep inside of me," indicating a need for the kind of introspection and self-expression that makes one an outcast in a group-oriented society (Zielenziger 2006, 16).

Do the Japanese cease to exist if they cannot find a place within a group? In Japan, all too often, they do. As Zielenziger says, hikikomori retreat to the "protective womb of their rooms rather than stake out an independent path that would eventually lead to self-awareness" (2006, 265). However, some do find self-awareness. Yuji Sunaga, now attending university after two-and-a-half years in seclusion, says his experience as a hikikomori was very important for him: "It was the most important time in my life, I think.... When I did school-refusal, teachers, relatives, parents, neighbors didn't understand me.... And during that time I had to ask myself who I am" (Mental Focus 2009). The time spent in solitude can lead to self-awareness, as the extreme restrictions and suffocations that Japanese society can impose are no longer operative.

Ultimately, the hikikomori are a warning that something is not right in contemporary Japanese society: "Like barometric gauges, they sense atmospheric changes most adults can't discern" (Zielenziger 2006, 78). When asked what they thought of Japan today, two young kogarus, or trend-setting teens, answered, "It's shit" (Karman and Jodice). Even if they cannot properly articulate it, Japanese youths are aware of a problem: the Japan that conquered the industrial era simply is not effective in a globalized post-industrial era. The ie or family was once the most important reality. As Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychologist in Japan, states, "In Japan, there is no God but the ie" (Zielenziger 2006, 70). The family as ie has been replaced, however, by the corporation or career as ie, resulting in an over-concentration on the career, which in turn has adversely affected the family.

The illusion of the old family life continued, however, with each member clinging to their roles, which had been bolstered by economic growth. When the economic bubble burst and did not re-in ate, the "traditional 'jewels' of the Japanese workplace--lifetime employment, company unions, and seniority-based wages," which once secured a man's status as daikokubashira within his family ie and made the "salaryman" an appealing social model, began to dissolve (Zielenziger 2006, 99).

Japan's bank-centric system began its downward spiral as the nation held onto its savings; the banks began riskier loan practices using then-rising land prices as collateral. After real estate prices climbed to ridiculous heights, the Bank of Japan was forced to increase interest rates, causing land prices to tumble and the entire economy to collapse (Zielenziger 2006, 108). Companies cut off excess assets to pay back the mounting debts, and the "jewels" were no longer there. Many middle-aged men, who had built their lives on the idea of lifetime employment, were now unemployed and filled with despair and shame. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Magnier notes that when the economy started to slump in 1998 "suicides jumped 25% to more than 30,000" (2001).

Growing up during the great recession, youths saw what happened to their fathers, and they have decided not to follow the same path. Masahisa Okuyama, a hikikomori activist and father of a hikikomori, says, "The Japanese system is showing signs of system fatigue. That's why our young people don't want to--or can't--become adult. They are afraid of participating in a society where there is no hope and no ambition" (Zielenziger 2006, 42). The hikikomori are saying "no, I don't want to be part of a system that doesn't work anymore" (Zielenziger 2008). And they are "aware that good old Japan will never come back" (Zielenziger 2006, 41). This pessimism permeates all of contemporary Japanese society.

Cultural Perceptions of the Hikikomori

The anime television series Welcome to the N.H.K. (2006) features a self-proclaimed hikikomori or NEET ("not in employment, education or training") who, after feeling the world has conspired against him, holes himself up in his room for three years. The first episode portrays the hikikomori tendency as a psychological dysfunction as the protagonist, Sato, hallucinates, hears voices, and indulges in conspiracy theories. Welcome to the N.H.K. defines a hikikomori as someone who cannot "adapt to their surrounding environment" and who suffers "a potential mental disorder caused by incompatibility with the external world" (Yamamoto 2006, episode 5). The series focuses on trying to "save" the hikikomori. Sato says he has "lost hope in the future" and that he does not "even know [him]self" (Yamamoto 2006, episode 1). Even though the hikikomori are miscast as psychologically unsound or as perverts, I believe this portrayal is in some ways positive, as it raises the issue and presents it before a wide demographic. As late as 2004, no peer-reviewed journal article had dealt with research on the hikikomori, and the phenomenon continues to be ignored by the scientific community, not to mention the proliferation of misunderstanding within the non-science community (Zielenziger 2006, 76).

Attempting to characterize the hikikomori, some conflate the hikikomori and otaku [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] phenomena. This is a misclassification that should be corrected. I have found that a person from any background with an intellectual bent can be labeled otaku ("fanatic," "nerd"); the only requirement is an obsession with a certain manifestation of popular culture. Generally, people described as otakus are obsessively interested in anime [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], manga [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or videogames. I believe that the hikikomori transcend this classification. There is a necessary level of intelligence and social awareness involved in the decision to become a hikikomori, on which basis I propose a distinction between the two. One hikikomori named Jun, for example, dropped out of society to maintain his individuality and study philosophy, and his conversation is duly peppered with quotations from Kant (Zielenziger 2006, 26). Obviously hikikomori suffer from a deep existential angst resulting from growing up in a postmodern world and being caught between the traditional and the modern, nature and technology. Growing up in the consumption-driven 1980s, these youths sensed the meaninglessness of materialistic goals enjoined by society. Up until that point, Japan had been driven collectively as a nation to reconstruct the society that had been destroyed by the war, sacrificing individually for the common national goal. Post-war Japan was concerned with rebuilding, catching up to the United States economically, and perhaps even beating the United States on a global scale. After Japan became prosperous and powerful and the goal of rivaling the United States became obsolete, Japanese citizens became hyper-consumers, searching for meaning in material goods. The hikikomori, I believe, recognize the emptiness of this mentality. Instead, they committed to the search for their own meaning and were ostracized as a function of Japan's groupist ethic. Unable to conceive a social role for themselves in this conformist context, the hikikomori withdrew into the inner world of their rooms.

Who Are Hikikomori?

Japan foments the hikikomori phenomenon not only through its groupism but also through the structure of the traditional family. The thirty-five hikikomori who participated in Hattori's case-study were all from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, with a predominance of these individuals being from traditional families and having fathers in traditional Japanese careers ("government employees, teachers, corporate executives, or business owners") (Hattori 2006, 192). This survey indicates that these individuals are educated, economically comfortable, and exposed to the conflict of traditional and postmodern cultural elements. Most importantly, perhaps, they have parents able and willing to support the hikikomori lifestyle.

The withdrawal from society obviously requires a benefactor of sorts, and a Japanese family is the perfect support; in an effort to maintain harmony and honor, many families are willing to keep secret their hikikomori offspring by providing them with food and shelter--and, in the process, perpetuating the problem. Japan leads the world in this kind of social withdrawal precisely because of the family system and the embarrassment associated with seeking help. In the United States, many young people remain in their childhood homes, but usually not without some kind of challenge. America tends to promote independence over community and thus frowns on this kind of dependence; moreover, relatively little social stigma attaches to psychological counseling, and many parents do not hesitate to seek help. Japan is perhaps the only first-world country in which codependence is so thoroughly accepted.

Female Hikikomori

While 80 percent of hikikomori are males, females have their own way of rebelling in contemporary Japanese society: they go on "womb strike" (Jones 2006, 48; Zielenziger 2006, 161). Females are choosing to focus on their careers instead of having children. Since Japan does not have a readily available daycare system to aid working parents and since men are not choosing to help with domestic tasks, women are forced to choose between children and their careers. Says Zielenziger, "For a woman, having a baby, having a full-time job, and doing housework is like committing suicide" (Zielenziger 2006, 167). The birth rate is dropping, creating the problem of an aging workforce. In 2008, Japan's population fell by 51,000, the largest population drop on record (Associated Press 2009). But job pressures are not the only reason women choose not to reproduce. Economics and pessimism play a role, as well. According to a Japanese government survey, 62 percent of women without children believe that raising children is too expensive, while one in ive of those women believe that present-day Japanese society is not a good environment in which to raise children (Zielenziger 2006, 170). Cynicism grips Japanese women of childbearing age.

As mentioned above, only 20 percent of hikikomori are female. One explanation of this gender disparity might be that females who remain at home under their parents' care are not as culturally alarming, and that the social disappearance of about twenty thousand females does not carry the same socio-political ramifications as the disappearance of one fifth of the male youth population. Another possibility is linked to a gender role reversal: as Japanese men become more effeminate and withdrawn, women could be stepping up to take their place in the workforce. Even though some psychologists believe both genders are equally implicated in the hikikomori phenomenon, public opinion has associated social withdrawal solely or overwhelmingly with young males.

Women who remain in their parents' home are becoming more commonplace, but, unlike the male hikikomori, these women have jobs and exhibit no overt symptoms of social withdrawal. They live at home primarily for economic reasons. Japanese popular culture has lovingly titled them parasaito [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "parasite singles." These parasaitos use the money they save on rent for the finer things in life: vacations, fashion, and general self-pampering.

Social Implications

The question that lingers is: If youths are retiring from society into the womb of their rooms, if the birth rate keeps decreasing, and if the Japanese pessimism continues, will Japanese society survive? Can Japan hold onto its status in the post-industrial world? In April 2005, a government-issued white paper predicted that without some formal response to the crisis Japan will have "an increasing number of people [who] lose hope" and will be "be left behind in globalization" to follow a "gradual but steady pathway to decline" (Zielenziger 2006, 269). The hikikomori have shut themselves off from the world much as Japan has shut itself off from further globalization, and new tactics of social reconstruction may be necessary.

As mentioned above, the possible repercussions of this crisis are manifold. Jobs are scarce, and many companies have cut their workforces in order to stay a oat. While the job market is contracting, so is the number of available applicants. The withdrawal of one million youths from society naturally impacts the workforce. As the Japanese population ages, this lack of "young blood" will become even more apparent, and Japanese companies will be forced to seek non-Japanese workers to ill the gap.

As the anime Welcome to the N.H.K. points out, there are possible solutions to the hikikomori crisis. Occasional success stories help increase awareness of the crisis and promote change. Grass-roots support groups are popping up across Japan, offering aid, information, and care to families who have a hikikomori in their midst. In 1999, Masahisa Okuyama formed a support group for families dealing with hikikomori that he called KHJ. (5) It brings afflicted families together for mutual support and advice. Hattori, through his research and work with hikikomoris, hopes to work directly with clients through a process of interpersonal development. His method includes four forms of personal development: (1) recovering emotions, (2) restoring one's "original identity," (3) forming a new attachment to one's "original identity," and (4) rehabilitation (Hattori 2006, 194). In a recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, former hikikomori Tsuchiya related her struggles within Japanese society (Kano 2010, 3). She was able to overcome her social withdrawal in order to help other people suffering from the demands of Japanese society. She is about to begin her teaching career in To kyo. But the problem is not merely a matter of psychology; this is a cultural and philosophical problem.

Unless Japan restructures some fundamental social elements, I believe that the hikikomori population will increase as the nation slips slowly but steadily into the chorus and out of the spotlight of the global theater. With the fog of pessimism only growing thicker globally, especially in Japan, the time is ripe for social reform. The 2009 election transferred power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan nearly continuously since 1955, to the Democratic Party of Japan. A new political era can only be promising. Perhaps this shift in governmental direction will prompt the country to reexamine its traditions and future.


Associated Press. 2009. Japan: Birthrate report shows it's not getting any younger. The Los Angeles Times, May 6.

Benedict, Ruth. 1967. The chrysanthemum and the sword. Cleveland: Meridian. Reprint, New York: Mariner, 2005.

Hattori, Yuichi. 2006. Social withdrawal in Japanese youth: A case study of thirty-five hikikomori clients. Journal of Trauma Practice 4 (3-4): 181-201.

Havel, Vaclav. 1994. The need for transcendence in the postmodern world. Speech presented at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4.

Jones, Maggie. 2006. Shutting themselves in. New York Times Magazine (January 15): 46-51.

Kano Akihiko. 2010. Ex-recluse becomes teacher. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 20.

Keys to the Japanese heart and soul: Japan - An illustrated encyclopedia. 1996. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Magnier, Mark. 2001. Japan's suicide epidemic. The Los Angeles Times, December 14.

Mental Focus. 2009. (accessed December 15, 2009).

Nakane, Chie. 1970. Japanese society. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Reid, T.R. 2000. Confucius lives next door: What living in the East teaches us about living in the West. New York: Vintage.

Yamamoto Yusuke, dir. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 2006. Welcome to the N.H.K. Gonzo studios. 24 episodes.

Zielenziger, Michael. 2002. Interview in Japan: The missing million. Dir. Darren Conway. Narr. Phil Rees. BBC, October.

--. 2006. Shutting out the sun: How Japan created its own generation. New York: Vintage.

--. 2008. Hikikomori and Japan's Role in the World. Interview by Devin Stewart. Carnegie Council: The Voice for Ethics in International Policy, 30 June.


Mary Baldwin College


(1) A good example of this Japanese-style appropriation is Japanese embrace of Indian curry. The Japanese muted the spiciness of Indian curry to suit the national taste. The dish is now prevalent.

(2) The Japanese Health Ministry estimates that there are over two million alcoholics in Japan. It is interesting to note that most business transactions are completed during drinking sessions with proteges. However, this kind of drinking is viewed as "social" and is entirely socially acceptable (Zielenziger 2006, 215).

(3) The proliferation of all-male bands that dress androgynously or femininely illustrates this feminization. So too does the male youth sub-culture's emphasis on fashion and personal manicuring.

(4) "Gothic Lolitas" borrow elements from Victorian sensibility, emphasizing "princess-like" mannerisms and cupcake-esque dress. Kogarus ("high school gals") are defined by their consumerism. Their preferences sway much of the Japanese market. They belong to the "popular crowd."

(5) KHJ amalgamates three Japanese psychological disorders: "K" stands for kyohakusei shogai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "obsessive-compulsive disorder"; "H" for higaimoso [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "paranoia"; and "J" for jinkaku shogai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "personality disorder." While I fully approve of a grassroots support group for these families, I hesitate to associate the hikikomori with these psychological dysfunctions.
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Author:Todd, Kathleen Hunter Lea
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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