Hikikomori: Shut away from the world

The term hikikomori (引きこもり, shut-in) literally means ‘pulling away’ in Japanese. It refers to an extreme version of social withdrawal that is especially prevalent in Japan and affects hundreds of thousands of young men.

Illustration by Galia Offri

Hikikomori is a diagnosed mental disorder in Japan. While every country has its share of people who hide away from the outside world and its social obligations, it’s extremely common in Japan, a country whose people are known for their shyness.

You’re officially a hikikomori (the term refers to the person as well as the phenomenon) if you spend more than 6 months in your room. 5 months and 2 weeks could just be a blue spell. This extreme social withdrawal affects people of all ages but is especially common among teenagers (no surprises there) and young adults. Around 80 percent of hikikomori are male.

Estimates put the number of young men hiding out in their rooms at anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000. One noted psychologist estimates that there are a million. It’s impossible to get accurate figures because of the level of denial among family members. In any case, it’s a fairly high portion of the population when compared to the shut-ins of other countries.

The daily life of a hikikomori

Hikikomori don’t go to school, don’t work and rarely ever leave their tiny rooms. They occasionally leave to buy food at the konbini (コンビニ, convenience store), visit the library, eat meals with parents or go shopping for CDs or manga. They spend their days listening to music, watching television and reading. A hikikomori may shut himself up for a few years or as long as half a lifetime.

Is mother to blame?

There are lots of reasons why some of Japan’s brightest young men shut out the world and stay in their rooms watching anime. Too much pressure from school, an inability to communicate well with others and the lack of jobs are all commonly cited reasons. Some hikikomori suffer from undiagnosed mental illnesses that cause them to become depressed. Most feel that they have no way to join society, and so they withdraw from it.

As more psychologists study the hikikomori phenomenon, a common theory has emerged that the family is to blame, and mother is the main suspect. In a Western family, the parents would tell the kid to get out of the house, or at least take them to see a doctor. But in Japan, this would bring shame to the family.

There is a tradition in Japan of handling family problems by just not doing anything about them and pretending they don’t exist. Japanese television is rife with stories of families that rearrange their entire lives to accommodate their son who won’t leave his room. Most families just don’t know how to handle it.

Hikikomori started to become a media topic in the early 1990’s. After a spate of twisted crimes by otaku (オタク, lifeless nerds), many of whom had been hikikomori, the media went on a hysteria spree painting these young men as psychopaths. Today, there are lots of TV shows about the phenomenon that treat it much more sensitively as what it is—an acute mental disorder.

The increased media attention in recent years has led to an entire hikikomori treatment industry. There are halfway programs, support websites, outreach programs, job training programs and therapists who specialize in treating hikikomori. The aim of these programs is to get them back into society and interacting with others.