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Hikikomori: Japan’s Name for a Global Crisis

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Articles
September 25, 2018

The young man smiled shyly at me from across the computer screen. Let’s call him Hiro. For years, he’d lived alone, a recluse behind a closed door.

“I’ve never been good at participating in society,” he told me, “and my relationships at school didn’t go well, and eventually I became futoko [stopped going to school]. I became hikikomori when I was in my third year of middle school.”

What did that first day look like, I asked him, when you didn’t go to school?

Hiro glanced at his hands, which he had been wringing since our conversation began. “I felt a strong sense of guilt,” he said. “I felt like I was a bad person for not going to school, and that wasn’t just the first day, but also as I became an adult. There was a pervasive sense of guilt for staying home all the time.” He paused for a moment. “I’m doing better now.”

Hikikomori — acute social withdrawal — is a Japanese term that descibes both a condition and an identity. Afflicted individuals retreat like hermits into their homes or bedroom, shutting themselves away from the world for months or years at a time. Hiro is now in recovery, but many hikikomori are not so lucky. As his story made clear, the syndrome can be cruelly self-perpetuating: Feelings of inadequacy lead to withdrawal, which reinforces feelings of inadequacy.

Reports of social withdrawal date back to the 1970s, but the term hikikomori was popularized in 1998 when a leading psychiatrist, Dr. Saito Tamaki, wrote a book of the same name. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Saito and Hiro in July 2018, as I was researching how stakeholders and change-makers in Japan are combating social isolation and building belonging.

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