The plight of Japan’s social recluses

Two recent cases of gruesome stabbings have shone a new spotlight on Japan’s ‘hikikomori’, a group of extreme recluses who have chosen to end all social contact, often refusing to leave their homes for years on end. Numbering upwards of a million, ‘hikikomori’ were thought, until recently, to be predominantly young men, in the 15-40 year old demographic. But a government survey published earlier this year. revealed that there are at least 6,13,000 Japanese, between 40 and 64 years old, who can be thus classified.

In a May knife attack in Kawasaki, a suburb of Tokyo, the assailant, Ryuichi Iwasaki, was a 51-year-old recluse, who lived with his aunt and uncle, both in their 80s. He attacked a group of elementary school students and their parents at a bus stop leaving two dead and 17 others injured, before taking his own life. Iwasaki’s ageing relatives had had 14 consultations with city officials about his reclusive behaviour in the years leading up to the attacks. Although Iwasaki rarely talked to his uncle and aunt, they prepared his meals and gave him money for spending.

A few days later, another stabbing, this time by 76-year-old Hideaki Kumazawa, former Japanese Ambassador to the Czech Republic, of his own 44-year-old son, shook the country. Kumazawa confessed to the stabbing, saying he was worried that his reclusive son would hurt others.

In the aftermath of these murders, ‘hikikomori’ support groups have been counselling against the stigmatisation of recluses, making it clear that the vast majority are not violent or dangerous. But what has become clear is that with the ageing demographic of ‘hikikomori’, a new set of challenges is arising, as parents and caregivers no longer have the financial resources or physical capability to look after them.

Nearly three-quarters of the older ‘hikikomori’ surveyed in the government report were male and more than half have been recluses for five years or more. Just under 20% said they had been socially withdrawn for over 20 years. Youngsters who become “shut ins” usually do so for a complex of reasons ranging from pressure to perform in school, job uncertainty, and failure in exams or relationships. Living up to the high, often rigid, expectations of Japanese society has become harder as employment has become more insecure. A culture of shame adds to the downward spiral.

As for the older ‘hikikomori’, 36.2% of those surveyed pin-pointed retirement as the trigger, followed by 21.3% who ascribed their condition to illness. Some became reclusive as young people and have remained so even as they have aged.

The term ‘hikikomori’, used interchangeably for the condition and its sufferers, was coined in the late 1990s by a psychologist, Tamaki Saito. Since then, it has become a widely accepted social condition in Japan. However, its precise contours remain debated, including whether it is primarily a medical illness, social disease, or even a cultural condition.

Role of technology

There has been much focus on trying to understand the role of technology in causing and enabling the condition. While the jury remains out on any causality, a large number of ‘hikikomori’ are prolific Internet and videogame users.

Some psychiatrists believed the connection between reclusiveness and technology is subtle. Computer games allow children to spend increasing amounts of time in easily controlled virtual environments, which can make the unpredictability of real life too difficult for them to handle. Moreover, the Internet, smartphones and social media have all enabled the illusion of connection for people who might be hopelessly alone in reality.

There is no foolproof treatment for the condition. Among the more peculiar “cures” is a programme called Rental Sister, where female volunteers visit the houses of ‘hikikomori’.

Specific policies or programmes to help recluses, however, have not been developed so far, given that the condition had mostly been associated with young people. And although Japan might be on the frontlines of battling the condition, the rest of the world could also learn valuable lessons from monitoring how it fares in the fight against extreme loneliness and isolation at all stages of life.

Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo.