Guest Posts

Guest Post: Hikikomori During A Pandemic

The great lockdown of 2020 shocked the world, and will forever leave a mark on those living through this iconic time. The rate at which COVID-19 spread, caused many people around the world to live under social restrictions to avoid unnecessary human interactions. An almost impossible task, while living in the 21st century, but not for everyone.

Japan’s hikikomori are those who shut away from the normalities of life such as work, school, friends, hobbies, and socialising in general. It translates to ‘pulling inward’ and often referred to as ‘modern-day hermits.’

The issue that was first labeled in 1998 by Japanese psychiatrist Tamaki Saito. Since then, the hikikomori phenomenon has gained worldwide attention and has become a growing issue with Japanese youth. 

Several suggestions point to the root cause. One of which, the demand for education and job prospects as Japan’s work rate exceeds most countries, and some individuals cannot deal with the pressures of life and shut themselves away, eventually losing all interest in the outside world. Other factors consist of bullying, anxiety, depression, and lack of confidence.

They often spend their days playing video games, reading, and only communicating outside the home via the internet. Most hikikomori live with their parents, so the majority comes from middle-class families as a need for financial support.

Sam Louie is a psychotherapist based in Seattle who focuses on Asian cultural shame, trauma, and addictions. He explains “hikikomori is most prevalent in Japan due to the cultural factors impacting the country.  Due to middle-class affluence, Japanese households have the financial ability to support and feed an adult child.”

The Japanese government claims over one million hikikiomoris are living in Japan. Its minister of health, labor, and welfare states, if an individual shuts themselves away in isolation for 6 months or more, they are classed as hikikomori. Japan’s high expectations among its people make it difficult for hikikomoris to re-establish themselves back into society, as they fear being viewed as ‘slackers.’

Ages can be anywhere from 15 years old to people in their 40s. Those living with their immediate families, often cause much distress. Louie notes “Japanese parents are concerned about abandoning their children and may feel shame if they did so.  Consequently, the codependency of not being able to draw strong boundaries also plays a role.”

 So do hikikomoris exist outside of Japan?

It’s difficult to draw comparisons as nowhere else labels it a medical condition. Mental illnesses like social anxiety and agoraphobia are issues in their rights but are not parallel to hikikomori.

A 2008 survey was done by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito to determine if hikikomori existed in other countries.

He emailed 124 mental health professionals from eight countries around the world, asking them if they were familiar with this condition, many of which stated they had never heard of it. 

In countries like Britain and the US, a strong sense of individualism is valued, so it’s quite uncommon for children to continue living with their parents after a certain age.

The closet condition in the US  is ‘failure to launch’ syndrome. Britain has whats known as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Both have similar symptoms but will unlikely develop into a hikikomori trend due to differences in cultural identities. 

Louie states “ I’m sure the U.S. and Britain can have similar conditions that look and resemble the hikikomori but due to the parents who value individuality, I doubt it would ever lead to the numbers or severity of Japan.”

History shows that hikikomori numbers rise during a recession like in 2008 when many Japanese people lost their jobs and struggled to adapt to society.  Now with many economies being affected worldwide, it’s fair to say that if this phenomenon was to become global, it would be now.

Due to cultural difference, it’s likely to remain, mostly an Asian-related problem. Louie notes “I see this mostly as an Asian-themed issue due to the commonalities of cultural shame, collectivism, and a desire for parents to still present a positive image in the community.”

Western cultures have different values while living with fewer demands in terms of work and social expectations. 

“In Japan, the hikikomori are rejecting the rigid and accepted values of what it means to be successful.  It’s very different in Western countries as we have more flexibility on success as well as a greater recognition that we don’t have to work for a company our entire lives unlike traditional Japanese” Louie adds.

Cultural identity has prevented hikikomori from becoming a western trend as Japanese society demands much from its people, which seems to play a part in the hikikomori phase. As many of us are living similar lives in 2020, perhaps we can reassure that this doesn’t become a lifestyle choice, once the world is back on track.

Bio: Richard Young is an Irish, freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
Through traveling and living overseas, cultural and social differences are
a go-to topic, as well as the social changes throughout multi-cultural

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