TOKYO — If his mother hadn't asked for outside help a few years ago, Jun Sakaguchi might still be sitting in his room, alone, killing time watching television, and never, ever seeing anyone.
"I lived by myself all the time. I didn't have any relations with anyone for three years," says Mr. Sakaguchi, a personable young man with classic Japanese good looks. Counting the two years at university he spent mainly in his dorm room, Sakaguchi's time of social withdrawal comes to 51/2 years, or almost a quarter of his life.
The Japanese call such people hikikomori, a term that implies closeting oneself indoors. Every society has its recluses, but Japan is discovering that it has a large number of people, many of them in their teens and 20s, who hide in their rooms day after day.
Some well-publicized crimes by people considered to be hikikomori have drawn media attention recently, but the problem has been around for years. Sadatsugu Kudo, who heads the privately funded Youth Support Center outside Tokyo, says this type of youthful social withdrawal is a "very Japanese phenomenon."
"In Japan you are trained to be the same as other people and that a single individual's existence is not seen to be very important, so these people feel it's very difficult to live here." He says that young people who feel they don't fit in or who see themselves as different from others sometimes pull back from society, living off the support of a concerned and confused family.
No one has done a study of the number of reclusive Japanese, but some experts put the number of totally isolated individuals at 50,000 to 60,000. Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist and author on hikikomori, estimates that 1 million Japanese suffer from some aspect of the phenomenon.
Self-imposed isolation has its national manifestations. Japan closed itself off from other nations for two centuries until the US forced a trade deal on the country in 1853. Stories of solitary wanderers are a staple of Japanese literature.
Mr. Kudo and other experts say hikikomori is first of all a response to the Japanese emphasis on conforming to the group, a dynamic that is already blamed for schoolyard bullying and suicides among young people.
Japanese schoolchildren also face heavy pressure to succeed from parents and teachers; those who don't succeed sometimes feel such shame that they are unable to deal with their peers.
And in Japan's post-World War II division of labor, men have generally removed themselves from the family to concentrate on work, while women have been expected to stay home and dedicate themselves to their children's education. Much is written and said in Japan about the intense closeness that develops between mothers and children, particularly sons. Sometimes, says Saito, mothers spoil their children and later on, "these families support grown-ups with no conditions."
As elsewhere, Japanese communities are rife with gossip and judgment, and Kudo has found that "the neighbors' eyes" are another force that can keep people indoors. Social pressure also slows parental intervention, since allowing a child to remain in hiding may draw less attention than doing something about it.
"The families of hikikomori people enclose them in their room, to keep them from other people's eyes, and make things worse," Saito adds. "I think in the US and Europe, young people live by themselves when they lawfully become adults."
These experts say the "triggers" that initiate periods of isolation are often innocuous, seemingly trivial events.
During Sakaguchi's first year of university he fell into a rut of staying up late watching television, oversleeping, and missing classes - something most American collegians do as a rite of passage. But Sakaguchi began to think he wasn't good enough to succeed in his new environment. "I just couldn't live with myself as 'not good enough,' " he says. "I just didn't want to show this to other people." A skin problem contributed to his social reticence.
So he stayed in his room, missing two-thirds of his classes that first year. The next year, while his parents continued to pay his expenses, he hardly went to class at all. He ate in his room, usually take-out meals he purchased late at night at a convenience store.
By 1995, the time had come to confess to his parents that he had closed himself off from classmates and teachers. He moved back into the family home, but kept to himself. He didn't even talk to his two siblings, a younger brother and an older sister. He told his parents he would get a part-time job, but he never did.
One Youth Support Center staffer says hikikomori people sometimes cannot break out of their isolation by themselves. "Their thinking goes something like this," he explains. "I should go out.... Should I get a part-time job?... What can I do?... A service job? No, no. I can't communicate with other people. A service job is out of the question.... What about working at a factory or someplace like that? But what if I make mistakes?... My boss would scold me. No, no, I can't stand that. So a job is out of the question. I cannot get out of here."
Sakaguchi's isolation was broken by his mother, who contacted a Tokyo-based group called the New Start Foundation. In late 1998 and 1999, he began to participate in the group's activities, alongside other young people who had isolated themselves, and gradually regained the confidence and inclination to rejoin society. Like a drug abuser turned counselor, today he helps other young people end their self-imposed isolation.
Kudo, who began helping isolated youths 27 years ago, says it is a mistake to equate the hikikomori phenomenon with either crime or mental illness. For one thing, he says, true hikikomori by definition do not have the wherewithal to venture into the world to commit a crime.
"They are not mental patients," he insists. "They are normal human beings. They just need to have normal human experiences, and so we provide these experiences as a form of a rehabilitation."
Mr. Kudo operates a dormitory for hikikomori people, a converted living quarters for auto workers. He and his staff arrange activities, help their charges find jobs, and attempt to restore their ability to function in the society at large. Rehabilitation is difficult in a person's own environment, he says, because of the need to escape "the neighbors' eyes."
*Monitor staffer Yasue Aoi contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society