Kids Shutting Themselves In

One morning when he was 15, Takeshi shut the door to his bedroom, and for the next four years he did not come out. He didn't go to school. He didn't have a job. He didn't have friends. Month after month, he spent 23 hours a day in a room no bigger than a king-size mattress,where he ate dumplings, rice and other leftovers that his mother had cooked, watched TV game shows and listened to Radiohead and Nirvana. "Anything," he said, "that was dark and sounded desperate."

Takeshi, like hundreds of thousands of young men and women in Japan,suffered from a problem known as hikikomori, which translates as "withdrawal" and refers to a person sequestered in his or her room for six months or longer with no social life beyond the home. (The word is a noun that describes both the problem and the person suffering from it and is also an adjective, like "alcoholic.") Some hikikomori do occasionally emerge from their rooms for meals with their parents, late-night runs to convenience stores or, in Takeshi's case,once-a-month trips to buy CD's. And though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.
South Korea and Taiwan have reported a scattering of hikikomori, and isolated cases may have always existed in Japan. But only in the last decade and only in Japan has hikikomori become a social phenomenon. Like anorexia, which has been largely limited to Western cultures, hikikomori is a culturebound syndrome that thrives in one particular country during a particular moment in its history.

The Japanese public has blamed everything from smothering mothers to absent, overworked fathers, from school bullying to the lackluster economy, from academic pressure to video games. After 15 years of sluggish growth, the full-time salaryman jobs of the previous generation have withered, and in their places are often part-time jobs or no jobs and a sense of hopelessness among many Japanese about the future.

In addition to the economy, Japanese culture and gender roles play a strong part in the hikikomori phenomenon. "Men start to feel the pressure in junior high school, and their success is largely defined in a couple of years," said James Roberson, a cultural anthropologist at Tokyo Jogakkan College and an editor of the book "Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan." "Hikikomori is a resistance to that pressure. Some of them are saying: 'To hell with it. I don't like it and I don't do well."' Also, this is a society where kids can drop out. In Japan, children commonly live with their parents into their 20's, and despite the economic downturn, plenty of parents can afford to support their children indefinitely - and do. As one hikikomori expert put it, "Japanese parents tell their children to fly while holding firmly to their ankles."

Unfortunately the longer someone remains hikikomori the less likely it is they will fully re-enter society. 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.

The hopeful news is that Japan has several programs in which counselors try to coax hikikomori out of their rooms and into job-training programs. As the head of one program said, the hikikomori are “waiting for contact from someone.”

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by Maggie Jones for GenerationPulse

(Original Story Published in New York Times Magazine of January 15, 2006)

Maggie Jones is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, The Washington Post, and Parenting Magazine, among others. She writes primarily about women, families and culture. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Ms. Jones was a correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer for five years. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Journalism Fellowship in Child and Family and Policy at the University of Maryland, a Pew International Journalism Fellowship and a Sundance Institute Writing Fellowship. She holds a BA in American Studies from Vassar College.