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Young Japanese retreat to life of seclusion

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2000


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.

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"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.