Anyone who’s delved regularly in the world of manga and anime – Japanese comic books and animation respectively – would be familiar with the imagery, if not the term. Take a Japanese person who has developed an aversion to regular face-to- face contact with other people; add a crippling fear of going outside one’s home or even one’s own room; leave him be with any combination of a TV, a computer with an internet connection, a video game console and stacks of manga; and let stand for at least six months, to a decade or two.
This is the stereotyped lifestyle of a social recluse in Japan, those who have not gone out into the big wide world for at least half a year, dropping out of schools and jobs in doing so. The Japanese call them “hikikomori”, and despite a recent survey by the Japanese Cabinet Office indicating that they have decreased in numbers from a similar survey in 2010, they still comprise a staggering 541,000 teenagers and young adults – over half a million of the population – who have found life in the outside world unbearable and thus became recluses from society, according to a report by the Asahi Shimbun.
The environment and circumstances that turn people into antisocial shut-ins is rather uniquely Japanese. It’s no secret to the world that Japan is one of the most demanding societies in the world when it comes to discipline and performance, where “we” is prioritized over “I”.
When someone who is just slightly anxious or depressed, and had few social interactions outside of family, are then placed in schools that just tend to push students to excel in order to pass entrance exams into higher education, or in workplaces where the company comes first and little free time is given, that someone is more likely to be demoralized and ashamed to show their faces to anyone, spurring them to isolation in their rooms, usually with only popular Japanese media – manga and anime – to keep them engaged.
Fortunately some help has begun to surface for those who are trapped in the compulsion to be hikikomori. CNN reports that the 6-year decrease in their numbers has been attributed by the cabinet office to a rise in counseling centers to help shut-ins to cope and return to the outside world.
Kyushu University neuropsychiatry professor Takahiro Kato works in such a support center in Fukuoka, which uses methods such as group therapy to ease hikikomori back into society with lesser hang-ups. There’s even an accredited online “virtual high school” in Japan that caters to shut-ins, enabling them to keep up with their education without the “obstacle” of interaction in an ordinary school.
Kato however notes that ultimately, it’s the hikikomori himself who must take the first step back into an interactive life. At least they don’t have to face it on their own now.
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