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School System and school refusal in Japan

School refusal or Futoukou is often related to Hikikomori and, according to Kageki, teacher at Tokyo Shure University, it is likely that a school refusal situation, if not treated rightly, will develop into the state of Hikikomori. It is estimated that there are presently more than 130.000 school drop-outs in Japan.

There are a variety of reasons for school refusal; some experts claim that bullying is the primary reason. According to Sadatsugu Kudo this is however debatable, stating that at the most 10 or 20 percent of children drop out for that reason. Furthermore he claims that 80 percent don’t remember their initial reason for leaving school.

A more obvious reason could be that Japanese pupils are exposed to considerable pressure and stress from a very early age. The educational system is build around entrance examinations, and passing or failing largely determines a child’s future. To enter a certain university, it is often necessary to graduate from a specific high school, then again from a specific undergraduate school etc. In some cases even the status of the kindergarten has influence on this ‘elevator-chain’ - there are sometimes already entrance tests at kindergarten level. Ultimately this is decisive since many companies recruit directly from particular universities.

Pressure to succeed comes primarily from the parents, who quite normally send their children to Juku schools or cramming schools, which they attend during evenings and at weekends. Consequently the life of Japanese children is occupied with school and decisive exams. A former Hikikomori person from Shure expresses her experience with cramming schools:

“I couldn’t cope with the atmosphere. The atmosphere was very competitive and there were four classes ranging from superior to inferior, so everybody had to study very hard and the hierarchy was visible. The same graders were labeled and divided into bright students, dull students etc.”

This girl couldn’t cope with the stress, and generally the students emphasized that they found the constant strive for success to be meaningless and absurd. One of the students metaphorically described that she felt like “a cog in a big machine, living only to earn my living expenses.”
Moreover they generally articulated fundamental dissatisfaction with the Japanese teaching methods, methods that are characterized by being highly structured and mechanic, and focused on rote learning and powers of memorization, rather than creativity or critical thinking. The lessons are typically based on one-way communication from teacher to pupils. They seldom get a chance to ask questions and the possibility to be active in the learning process is minimal.

Until about 10 years ago school refusal was seen as an illness or disorder. But although this is not the case anymore, the matter is still considered with shame and as a sign of weakness.
Once they drop out of school they feel very guilty. In addition they blame themselves for being a disappointment. The pressure from parents and from the school leaves the child more or less alone with its problems – a pressure that presumably reinforces the need to withdraw. This seems to be the consequence of the conformity of Japanese society: there is only one right direction to follow, a linear direction; and once a person falls beside this line he think of himself as a failure with no alternative ways to go, and is moreover often treated as such by the surroundings.



Collectiveness

Wa or group harmony is an important concept in Japan. Already in kindergarten children are socialized to put group identity above the identity of the individual. Consequently there is only little room left for developing independency and individuality.

Activities in Japanese schools are organized around teaching students to work together collectively and to put aside own interests on behalf of the group. Later, these principles are applied to the workplace, where the group might be defined by a specific department of a company. A former Hikikomori girl from Shure University recognizes the collectivism in school:

“At school the class is like a society. The atmosphere of collectivism is very strong there. So it is very difficult to get out of that society. It is very, very difficult to be free from the atmosphere of collectivism.”

From the beginning of the school Japanese children are taught two basic ideas Uchi (inside) and Soto (outside) where the state of being inside is good and outside is bad. These ideas and the ideal of harmony are thouroughly inculcated in the minds of the children, so being a docile part of the group, and not an outsider is very important. If an individual starts to differ or withdraw from the group, the other children will put pressure on him to re-enter the group and thereby not disturb the harmony. This is what happened to the same girl from Shure, when she first started her school refusal:

“Everyday the school-nurse came to my house for one month. Then my schoolmates came to visit me every day for one and a half years. My mother didn’t protect me from the pressure, I was weeping and crying but the schoolmates pulled my hand and told me I should come to school.”

The common opinion among the students at Shure University was that collectiveness is an important mechanism that reinforces the pressure from school and family.
Talking to these students left the impression that the spirit of collectiveness has a considerable influence on Hikikomori. The inability to feel independent and the pressure from and responsibility towards the group in the end resulted in a “mental breakdown”.

All in all we can summarize that there are considerable drawbacks from the homogenization and collectiveness and that in this context Hikikomori seems like an act of desperation and despair over not being understood and accepted as an individual person.



Family Structure

The affluence of the Japanese society makes possible for young people to stay with their parents - often for as long as it suits them.
That is to say it’s economically possible for the youth to withdraw from society, in contrast to most parts of the West. This might explain the high number of Hikikomori individuals found in Japan.

There is no government based financial support for students; therefore they often live with their parents until graduating. According to Mr. Otaki, who does comparative studies between the Japanese and Scandinavian welfare system, Japanese adolescents tend be dependent on parents longer than their Western peers. Because they are taken care of by their parents, they are not forced to take responsebility for themselves. Moreover students from Tokyo Shure University feel this causes problems when developing ones own individuality. Taking care of children unregarding their age is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture. Consequently parents cannot easily tell their kids off, and so Mr Otaki emphasizes that: “Parents can’t just throw a Hikkikomori person out of his room”

Another problem concerning this family pattern is that young people have no privacy. Yuji, an ex Hikikomori from Shure says:

“And at those days I felt I was not understood by the others. So I couldn’t be myself. It was very hard for me. Now I think the reason why people do Hikikomori is that for such people there are no place where they can be themselves.”

Japanese mothers are known to be quite eager to help their children succeed in the educational system; they even have a designation; Kyôiku mama or educational mothers. This is something also acknowledged by Sadatsugo Kudo who in his unpublished book talks about the strong mother-child relationship which “…disturbs their independence.”

The majority of Hikikomori people are males. Some explanation to this might also be found specifically in the Japanese patriatic family structure. The roles of gender are still quite old fashioned in comparison to the West. Men are working long hours, and scarcely see their children, while being a fulltime housewife is prestigious. The future perspective for an average Japanese boy may seems pretty much settled: a long hour workday, a constant expectation to succeed and finally a being posted to a workplace away from family and friends. If this does not seem appealing for some people Hikikomori is a more convenient alternative.



Is Hikikomori a Unique Japanese Phenomenon?

There are several unique elements of the Japanese society which makes Hikikomori a reality, though similar problems might be developing in many other western countries. Mental disorders are an increasing problem in the West and social withdrawal is one of the symptoms.

“…young people the world over fear school or suffer agoraphobia. But
hikikomori is a specific clinical condition that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
(BBC, 20th October 2002)

The BBC documentary by Phil Rees which has been shown in many countries around the world created the picture of Hikikomori as a unique and strange Japanese phenomenon. "There's nothing like this in the West." states American Dr. Henry Grubb who thereby adds to the overall impression that it is a strange phenomenon in an unusual country almost beyond the reach of our imagination.
This view of Hikikomori as a condition that is without comparison needs to be investigated further since we believe there are similarities outside Japan.
Let’s look first at the main factors justifying the view of Hikikomori as a phenomenon that exist in Japan only:

● Komori: This part of the word Hikikomori has a religious and traditional undertone thereby indicating that social withdrawal has roots in the Japanese cultural and history.

● Sekentei: The social shame and the tendency to conceal family problems are certainly stronger in Japan than in other countries.

● School system: Pressure to succeed, uncreative and uncritical teaching methods, crammed schools etc. are specific Japanese reasons for social withdrawing.

● Family structure: The family structure, the mother child relationship, and the tradition where the adolescents continue to live with parents etc. might be specific circumstances that facilitates Hikikomori.

● Collectiveness: Pressure and expectations caused by the group mentality in the class, the company, and the family is also a special characteristic in the Japanese culture. Especially the adolescent’s inability to be themselves and to be independent can be one of the reasons for social withdrawal.

These factors may explain why Hikikomori exists in such an extreme form and magnitude in Japan and overall it should also be acknowledged that Hikikomori does not exist in the same scale in other countries and is in that sense uniquely Japanese. However this does not mean that it can not be a tendency that is emerging in many other countries.

After Hikikomori became known through the BBC documentary there have been many debates on the matter in internet newsgroups. Many of the reactions are from people who can in one way or another personally relate to the Hikikomori phenomenon. Here are a few comments from the BBC website:

“It is not just in Japan! My daughter, 18-years-old hasn't gone out for over a year now!”Isabelle Fleming, England

"Well my ex has a daughter who stayed in her room for 6 months having food passed in and watching TV, sleeping all day and he could tell you how they forced her to school in her pyjamas. My own daughter refused to go to school for 6 weeks and was reclusive. So there are sure to be lots of cases to study in the UK.
Anon, UK

“I do not believe this is uniquely Japanese. My own son had locked himself away for the past two or three years. Even as a psychologist I found it difficult to reverse the process I saw before me. I have heard of another Westerner who has experienced the same with her son and I suspect there are many, many more here... It is time to start researching this in our own culture.”
Dr Erica Warner, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, UK

In the Australian organization called ARAFMI “social withdrawal” is a problem discussed specifically. It is defined here as “the apparent reluctance to participate in “normal” interpersonal contacts of day to day life and retreat into one’s own comfort zone”. Among other things it is also emphasized that it is: “…important to prevent social withdrawal becoming a habitual way of life.

These examples suggest that social withdrawal actually exists outside Japan. Still we do not know in what degree and if these are only rare cases.
It is though a known fact that mental illnesses is an increasing problem in many western countries and that many of the specific mental illnesses include the symptoms of social withdrawal.
Kamma Kaspersen chairperson of the Danish Anxiety Communion has suffered from sociophobia herself. She explains that many people who suffer from a mental disorder like sociophobia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder will arrange their life to avoid as much social contact as possible. Simple activities like going to the supermarket or the post office can be a serious challenge. She explains further that many of these people would prefer to socially withdraw if they had the possibility.

As Kamma Kaspersen indicate social withdrawal and avoidance of daily contact with other people is a well known effect if one suffers from a mental disorders. Especially the so called non-psychotic illnesses which include phobias, anxiety, depression, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder includes the tendency of isolation and is a growing problem in many western countries. In a country like Denmark that normally boasts about its welfare-system a report from the Danish Psychiatric Association suggests that about 20% of the adult population suffers from a well-defined non-psychotic mental illness. It is further suggested that about one half of them, 10% of the population, is receiving treatment.

We can at least say that there is a large group of people in other western countries that suffers from mental disorders that potentially or if possible lead to social withdrawal. We believe this means that social withdrawal is also an issue outside of Japan and is something to be aware of in industrialised countries in general.

When comparing the situation in Japan with other countries it is also important to know what the situation in Japan really is. One important piece of information provided by the research by Dr. Motohiro Sakai and others suggest that only around 10% of the individuals in Hikikomori are not able to leave their house. This means that in most cases the Hikikomori person does actually show “outing behaviour” although this is probably limited to the night time or to certain places like 24th hour shops, video rentals etc.
This is however not the picture that has been created in the medias where the seclusion was described as definite. Although the intention here is not to neglect the Hikikomori problem or to say that it is a less serious matter. We still consider the fact that they do often leave the house important information when comparing the situation with other countries. With this outing behaviour in mind finding similarities between Hikikomori in Japan and people in other countries with mental disorders seems more likely.

Conclusively we can express our opinion: that there are specific issues in the Japanese society that reinforces Hikikomori as an epidemic that is not seen in the same magnitude anywhere else. We believe, though that there are still many similarities and tendencies in other countries that can be compared with Hikikomori.




Psychological Aspects

Can Hikikomori be explained in psychological terms such as sociophobia, agoraphobia or schizophrenia? Maybe it can, but hikikomori can not be reduced to a mental disorder. There are many different symptoms and the culture and social background is crucial.

An obvious approach is to explain hikikomori in psychological terms and there are many reasons to suspect that the person in withdrawal suffers from a mental disorder. But in reality not many of the hikikomori individuals receive professional treatment. Under half of them are diagnosed psychologically, only about 40 percent. The family normally does not like the idea of clinically labeling the child. A parent explains:

“I think that there are a large number of people who are not explained by the clinical known hikikomori and also that both the affected and his family tend to strongly dislike the idea of becoming “explainable” by it.”

A former hikikomori and now student at Shure University in Tokyo expresses a similar opinion:

“Hikikomori is not a disease I think. They are not understood, they are not accepted by society so they have a very hard time. Then they get these kind of symptoms and because of these symptoms experts label them sociophobia or something like that. Originally they did not have a disease.”

One should keep in mind that mental disorder can be the reason for isolation but isolation can also be the reason for mental disorder.
Whatever the cause is, it is known that hikikomori individuals often do have, or develops unusual behaviours. Behaviours such as washing the hands all day long, not being able to throw out garbage after it has been touched, obsessed by cleaning the room etc. These behaviours can generally be seen as an indication that the person has an obsessive compulsive disorder. A statistical research by Mr. Sakai and others suggests that hikikomori individuals are diagnosed with a variety of such psychological disorders. The most common of such disorders are obsessive compulsive disorder, depressive disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorder, and social phobia.
In the same research it is concluded that early treatment based on adequate diagnosis is important. This is very reasonable and very important. But at this point we would like to emphasize that the hikikomori persons are not sick or abnormal. In most cases one can assume that the psychological disorder has a logical reason from the individual’s life, society, culture and personal environment. After meeting them in person the impression left, is that they are normal persons that has faced an abnormal pressure from their society and culture.




Mental Focus

What are Hikikomori individuals spending their time on in their self-imposed isolation? What are they focussed on? The answer is not clear. It may be an escape from reality, or perhaps an important time for recovery.

There are no statistics on what people in Hikikomori spend their time on, but the stories told by parents and by themselves indicate that their activities vary a lot. They watch TV and videos, play computer- and videogames, surf or play on the internet, study, read etc.

At a local meeting for parents of Hikikomori children, a father tells us about his son who has now been withdrawn for twenty years:

“I think his condition is a typical one. He sleeps in the day and get up in the evening. And watch TV listen to cassette and CD player and sometimes go to 24 hour convenience store and by comic book carton etc. But he has no friend he cut of his friend many years ago. So now he has no friends and he doesn’t receive any letters from the outside.”

Beeing awake in the night and asleep in the day is not an unusual behaviour related to Hikikomori and if they do at all leave their house it is often in the night-time.
But they do use their time on some activity; they don’t just sit there doing nothing. Therefore Mr. Sadatsugo Kudo, who has started the Youth Support Centre for recoveries of Hikikomori, tells us that the Hikikomori person will in fact try to focus his or her energy on only one thing. He says that they do this because they try to avoid thinking at all and therefore tries to be absorbed by one single activity. So whatever specific activity they spend their time on, it seems that this activity is used to distract them from thinking about themselves and their life. However these questions of what they do focus mentally on is not quite clear. Yuji Sunaga was Hikikomori for two and a half years and is now a student at the Shure University in Tokyo. He tells a slightly different story:

“The two and a half years was very important for me. It’s was the most important time in my life I think. The experience of Hikikomori was a very positive experience for me.
When I did school-refusal, teachers, relatives, parents, neighbours didn’t understand me. So I felt an enormous pressure to go to school - So I could not go. And during that time I had to ask myself who I am. I had to ask myself why I should go to school and why I don’t go to school. So the time was very important for me.
… So now I think like that, but when I was doing Hikikomori or school refusal, it was a very very hard experience for me.”

It seems that for some persons who experience Hikikomori the time spend in withdrawal can be a way to “find oneself” - a necessary process for developing personally. But although this is probably true in some cases, thinking about oneself for two years or more seems a very long time, and at some point one has to acknowledge that it has become a condition where the person is no longer developing positively. Everyone has a need to be alone, to withdraw and to recover, especially when the outside world is filled with stress and pressure. But in the case of Hikikomori this time of recovery often develops into a critical mental condition where the outside world becomes gradually more and more alienated.




Sekentei

A kind of social shame is permeating the Japanese society. It affects parents, organisations, counsellors, and not least the person in hikikomori. It is an invisible but collective feeling within the Japanese society called sekentei.

Is there not a kind of social shame in every society? Of course there is always a tendency towards social shame, problems hidden from the public, or unspoken taboos. But in Japan this tendency is perhaps more significant than anywhere else and the term sekentei is said to be the keyword.
It is not easily translated, at a local meeting with hikikomori-parents it was explained that each part of the word has the following meaning:

Se:
The world, the society
Ken:
Space, distance
Tei:
Appearance, eyes

It is an emotion of shame directed upon other people’s eyes. A kind of social distance between the private and public sphere due to a fear of what other people will think. Strangely this fear is somehow manifested in the attention to other people’s eyes.

Sekentei is a value that is working on many levels throughout the Japanese society. The general consequence is that many matters are taken care of privately instead of through official or professional institutions. An example of this is the fact that only 0.8% percent of divorces in Japan becomes a juridical dispute. This is very few compared to other countries and may be seen as a result of sekentei. The social stigmata connected with divorcements prevent the couple to deal with it officially. Such problems are preferred to be taken care of privately. Another example more relevant here, is that Japanese people are more reluctant to seek mental treatment. Compared with many other countries it is still somewhat taboo to consult a psychologist in Japan.
This of course also has an impact on hikikomori in the sense that it is a problem often sought to be solved within the family. Thus sekentei seems to be the reason why hikikomori is so often concealed and hidden from the nearby community.


That sekentei has an impact on hikikomori is apparent from research done by Dr. Motohiro Sakai and others. The survey shows that 40% of the families with individuals in the state of hikikomori had sought professional help. In the same survey the average time in isolation was calculated to 5.6 years. So considering the seriousness of the problem, the amount that has received professional help seems very few.

We can thus assume that sekentei is a keyword to understand the general concealment of hikikomori and the reluctance to address the problem professionally, but sekentei is also an important mental factor for the individual in hikikomori. Following is a selected extract of a text given to us by Mr. Sadatsugo Kudo who explains what he typically, as a counsellor, says to the hikikomori individual:

“You’re worried about the people’s eyes around you, right? It’s scary and you don’t like to see the people that you know. You want to go outside. But even if you want to go out, your body stops working, right? Everyone else has the same feeling, because they are worried about other people. But, if you go to a place far away from your home, not even one person will know you. They won’t even know that you dropped out of school, and you can feel comfortable, and your body will work again. You can go anywhere, the convenience store, the bookstore, CD shop, and video rental. Anywhere. All because no one will know who you are…”


If we are convinced that Mr. Kudo, with his many years of experience, has good reasons for expressing himself like this, then the extract gives an indirect idea of the hikikomori person’s mental condition. More precisely we can recognise that Mr. Kudo tries to help the person to overcome the sekentei. It also seems to reveal the nature of sekentei in the sense that the fear is not a fear of human beings in general but a fear of being seen and judged among people who already know you. This is also consistent with the common description of sekentei: it is not directed upon the family or upon strangers far away, it is directed towards the group in the middle: the neighbours, classmates, colleagues or anyone else that is part of the local community. Going far away is therefore suggested as a way to overcome the fear from being seen in the local and known environment.



Digital Medias

Are technology and videogames the reason of social withdrawal? It might be obvious to draw such a conclusion since Japan is known technologically to be ahead of the rest of the world. But the answer is not that simple. New internet communication forms may on the contrary prove to be part of the solution.

It is quite common that Hikikomori persons do play either videogames, computer-games, surf- or play on the Internet. So naturally this is an activity that they will use a huge amount of time on and one might ask if there are mechanisms in these activities that contribute to a passive and unsocial behavior. The social and possible addictive effects from using computers is an increased debate in many countries and although there are no final scientific conclusions, it seems a relevant topic when studying the Hikikomori phenomenon.
There are different researches on the effects of playing computer- or videogames some clinical and some sociological. The clinical approach tends to be focused on whether the dopamine level in the brain is increased when playing computer-games. Thus an English research indicate that the dopamine level does in fact increase three times the normal level and that this means there is a probability of addictiveness.
The sociological approach tends to look at the social effects from playing computer-games, how long they play, how this affect their social network etc. A Danish report finds that computer-game usage under certain circumstances can lead to addictiveness. This however only applies to a minority and it is not a general tendency from computer-game usage. It is though advised that one should be aware of extensive use of computer-games especially if this results in abandoning social relations. In other words the digital world must not become an escape from reality.

Despite of this research it is not clear how computers affect the Hikikomori persons. The research mentioned has no direct connection to Hikikomori, and even though there is an indication that computer-games may have negative social effects this does not necessarily apply to Hikikomori persons. What is negative for one group might prove positive for another and in respect to Hikikomori, computer-games might contain positive elements. The otaku culture seems to be a group that has successfully established a social culture based on common interests such as computer-games, the internet and so on. In respect to Hikikomori one could hope for the same effect and especially the internet could prove to be a positive step towards some kind of communication.

For Hikikomori counselors and experts videogames is not believed to be negative or part of the reason for withdrawing. These games are merely seen as a way to kill time thus Mr. Kudo states: “It is nothing more than the child playing to waste time.
Another argument is that since Hikikomori already surfaced in the late 20’s it is unlikely that computer-games are the original and main reason behind the problem. On the other hand the proportion of the Hikikomori phenomenon has been gradually increasing alongside with the digital revolution, so it could still suspected that the new technology is now “fueling” the problem. Still it seems right to say that computer- and videogames is not the primary reason why Hikikomori exist but rather the manner in which the problem appear.

As mentioned the possibility of playing and communicating over the Internet may prove to be positive for the Hikikomori persons. For counselors and organizations it can be a way to reach both parents and Hikikomori persons themselves. Because Hikikomori is often connected with some kind of social shame, sekentei, the anonymous nature of the internet can also be an advantage.
Dr. Sakai explains that this is one of his main focuses: to create strategies of how to address parents and Hikikomori persons via the internet.

We may summarize that computer-games can have the negative qualities of addiction and escapism. And although this is not the reason behind Hikikomori, it seems like a factor that is important to have in mind when trying to deal with the problem.
Secondly, using the Internet as a way to establish contact and break down social barriers may prove very important. In that case the challenge for the person in Hikikomori seems to be how to move from a virtual world and out in the real world.



Otaku Culture

The so called Otaku culture is sometimes associated with Hikikomori. Having some of the same social tendencies one might suspect that otaku is a lifestyle that eventually leads to Hikikomori. Closer inspection, however, does not support this comparison.

The Otaku concept, despite the word’s original meaning, is used to describe a youth popular-culture who is fanatic about different hobbies like, Manga, Anime, Computer-games, and the Internet. They are often seen as somewhat geek-like persons who are living in their own fantasy- and virtual computer-world. One might say that Otaku is a kind of counter-culture, shaped by teenager’s who create their identity through these different Medias. They share some of the tendencies we see in Hikikomori, being socially isolated from the society in general, but they also seem to recognize themselves as part of a unique group and they have some pride in their identity as Otaku.
Although the Otaku culture does have similarities with Hikikomori, in the sense that they withdraw socially, the big difference lies in the fact that they do have a culture. They do have a social network although it is perhaps limited to other like-minded, to other otaku people. On the contrary one rarely talks about a Hikikomori-culture, or that the Hikikomori person identifies himself as a part of a larger group. Therefore it is quite clear that Hikikomori can not be compared with Otaku and that Otaku in contrast is actually an example of a group that in their own way has been able to adapt to the modern Japanese society.
Otaku and Hikikomori are thus very different phenomenons, but the otaku culture seems to clarify exactly what is missing for the person experiencing Hikikomori: a feeling of belonging to a social community.



Definition and Numbers

Hikikomori can be translated “social withdrawal” and refers to a situation in which a person engages in little or non social activities. There is no simple explanation of what this really implies. The specific condition of the individual and the circumstances may vary a lot. The time in isolation may be from just a few months to many years and the degree of isolation varies also. Some are able to leave their house occasionally, some only in the night time, and some live all the time in a single room and don’t even see parents or relatives.
The condition can be described as a condition where the person is in isolation and wants to go outside but is at the same time for some reason incapable of doing this.
Dr. Tamaki Saito defines it as the condition where the affected stays withdrawn to his home and does not participate in social activities for more than six months, without any obvious mental disorder being the primary factor for that.

There is no short and simple definition of Hikikomori, as the claim that Hikikomori do not involve psychological disorders is still an open question. From the point of view of western psychology, it would be more correct to say that it is not actually one condition but a set of different conditions which all result in a social isolation. But Hikikomori is not really a psychological term it is referring to a situation of social withdrawal, what has lead to the social withdrawal can of course be discussed in terms of psychology.

Because of the above uncertainties the word “Hikikomori” is used in many different ways. Sometimes the word is used, identifying a person like “I am Hikikomori” and sometimes it is referring to the situation, “I was in the state of Hikikomori.
Mr. Sadatsugo Kudo explained that Hikikomori if split in two has separate meanings. Hiki signify social withdrawal in its universal form, and komori signify social withdrawal with the connotation of traditional Japanese solitude. Komori is in this sense associated with, monks living an austere life in a temple, samurais training alone out of the public eye, meditating in solitude etc.
It should though be mentioned that Hikikomori as a meditative, traditional, religious behaviour does not seem to fit the general picture of Hikikomori. Hikikomori persons typically feels guilt and shame of being isolated and although they want to outside they are still not capable of doing it. So it seems unlikely that the reason for withdrawing can be the traditional approval of a life in solitude.

What is essential here is that a very large group of the Japanese youth do not take part in society which is becoming a serious and growing problem in Japan. The magnitude of the problem is hard to tell in numbers, but an estimation made by Dr. Saito suggests that there are over one million Hikikomori individuals in Japan. This estimation is has been doubted because it is based on questions asked among Hikikomori relatives which can not be considered a statistically neutral source (Kageki, Shure University). A standard statistical approach is nearly impossible though, because Hikikomori as a phenomenon is somewhat concealed. Many parents or relatives hesitate to speak openly about it. The actual number of individuals in Hikikomori may lie between a few hundred thousands to over a million.

In spite of the uncertainties concerning the overall number there are official statistics by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare concerning gender, age and number of school refusals. According to these statistics 80% of the Hikikomori persons are male, it is stated that the average age is 26. So although Hikikomori is primarily seen among the youth, it is also a problem amongst the middle aged population.
The number of school refusals is 130.000 at compulsory level and since school refusals is often considered to be Hikikomori it gives an indication of the overall number. The average age of persons in Hikikomori is higher than the school age and we can therefore assume that the total number of Hikikomori persons is considerable.



Introduction

In Japan, a large group of people has lost contact with the outside world. They live withdrawn, isolated and hidden away from society. Some of them only leave their home at night, some only manage to stay in their own house, and some again seclude themselves to a single room for many years. It is the group called Hikikomori – or roughly translated “the social withdrawn”. This strange and sad phenomenon is the subject and focus of this website, and hopefully it will serve to widen the knowledge and understanding of why and how this is possible in a highly advanced society like the Japanese.


Many people, if they know about Hikikomori, have seen the BBC – documentary by Phil Rees, but the program leaves many questions unanswered and it seems that some of the points made in the documentary may also be disputed. One of the statements made in the BBC documentary by the American Dr. Henry Grubb is that “There is nothing like this in the west” thereby limiting Hikikomori to being a unique Japanese phenomenon only. This however will remain an open question on this site, in fact, part of the intention with this site is to provide and gather information about hikikomori on an international basis. So hopefully this site will also serve to clarify the question of whether Hikikomori is a Japanese phenomenon only.

There are many Japanese websites and books about Hikikomori, but it seems there is a lack of information and communication on the matter in English. And since Hikikomori in its nature is a somewhat closed phenomenon, hidden from the surface of society, the Internet seems to fit the purpose of communicating freely about this problem.

Hikikomori is a complex phenomenon and it is not easy to pin down the reasons behind it. The information on this site, besides the limited material available in English, is therefore based on conversations and interviews with people who have different approaches towards Hikikomori – some personal, some practical, and some theoretical. Although these are our sources it is in any case important to note that ultimately everything written is of course our own views and opinions.


Some people might argue that it is pointless to seek the reason behind Hikikomori and that pointing fingers of who is responsible or what caused it can even be harmful. We will however seek the reasons behind Hikikomori with the philosophy in mind that understanding what causes the problem is necessary if one wants to solve the problem. Of course we do not hope to solve the problem, but has made this website believing that information and debate about social isolation is important in both Japan and in any other country.



The Initial Stage

How does hikikomori start? And why don’t the parents just knock down the door and pull their child out in the first place? These are obvious questions, but in reality hikikomori does not begin from one day to another and it is not easy to deal with.

It is often said that the withdrawal is triggered by things like failing an exam or getting bullied in school. We are thereby left with two impressions: Firstly that the person who withdraws or drop out of school is socially and scholarly weaker than other children, and secondly that the hikikomori condition starts suddenly without warning. Both of these perceptions are generally speaking not true.
The typical kind of person who becomes hikikomori is getting good grades and is very sensitive to his or her surroundings. They are focussed on doing well, on living up to other peoples expectations and are thereby worried about what other people think of them.
The other assumption that the social withdrawal is suddenly occurring is not true either. A parent explains:

“Hikikomori frequency increases month by month, year by year. After fighting a variety of problems, after defeated, they finally fall into the hikikomori condition.”

Mr. Sadatsugo Kudo, chairperson and counselor of the YSC youth center describes the typical scenario:

“Even the children whose friends come over to play, and who talk on the phone in the beginning of the isolation, gradually start to avoid their friends because the things they used to have in common tend to disappear. It is natural for children who have active lives outside of their home to have more interests and conversation topics, like school, fashions and fads, playing and hanging out. That difference creates sadness, bitterness and impatience, and gradually the child starts to avoid their friends.”

When they do gradually withdraw and drop out of school the parents and the school do react in one way or another, but it seems like parents are very doubtful about what actions should be taken.
Believing that the withdrawal is a necessary part of the persons own development, by saying for instance “give him time” or “he will grow out of it” is not uncommon and is perhaps very dangerous. It is often the attitude from doctors and psychiatrist that the right solution is to wait and see. This attitude however seems to neglect that Hikikomori is a real problem and that often the condition will last for many years. As Sadatsugo Kudo points out, the person who manages to get out of isolation and begin to live a normal life again may some day say: “Give my youthful days back to me”.

It is quite clear that just waiting for something to happen may result in a serious condition, which becomes very difficult to deal with. Therefore the question is often raised, not least in the BBC documentary by Phil Rees, why the parents don’t just knock down the door and pull their child out? Or why this wasn’t dealt with right away, forcing the child to go to school etc. The answer here seems to be that the parents do really make great efforts to get their son or daughter out, getting him to go school and so on, but nonetheless the person will resist heavily. It is also important, as mentioned, that Hikikomori is not occurring suddenly, but may be getting gradually worse and worse. Therefore the idea of just dealing with it, “knocking down the door”, is not a simple straight forward solution.



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