Hikikomori is a term used to describe individuals who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often to an extreme degree of isolation. The word literally means “pulling away, being confined,” and was first used by Japanese psychologist, Dr Tamaki Saitō in his study of sufferers. Dr Saitō believes the cause of the problem lies within Japanese history and society, as there has been a cultural tradition that celebrates the nobility of solitude. This together with the fact that until the mid-nineteenth century, Japan had cut itself off from the outside world for two hundred years.
Dr Saito points to the relationship between mothers and their sons, and has shown how most hikikomori sufferers are male, often the eldest son. “In Japan, mothers and sons often have a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship. Mothers will care for their sons until they become 30 or 40 years old.” This dependency causes the sufferer to be unable to interact with the outside world, and often he will escape into the fantasy world of computer games and on-line activities.
According to Dr Henry Grubb, a psychologist from the University of Maryland, hikikomori is specifically Japanese, as there is “nothing like it in the West.” Part of the problem stems from Japan’s subservient and passive/aggressive culture. Most consider hikikomori a problem within the family, rather than a psychological illness.
Recent Cabinet Office statistics in Japan, put the number of hikikomori at some 696,000 nationwide, making it a national social problem.
The Cabinet Office recently announced that an estimated 696,000 youths nationwide are hikikomori, shutting themselves inside their homes for six months or longer. According to the same report, 1.55 million youths claimed they could sympathize with the inclination to isolate oneself from society. It looks like for the time being, the government will claim the official figure for hikikomori as approximately 700,000.
In reality, the estimated population of hikikomori varies from year to year. According to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry surveys conducted between 2002 and 2005, the number of affected households was an estimated 410,000 in the first year. The number continued to fall in subsequent years, with a 2005 figure of 260,000 households.
Over the years, there have been many reports of Hikikomori sufferers becoming violent. In 2000, “a 17 year old hikikomori sufferer left his isolation and hijacked a bus, killing a passenger. Another kidnapped a girl and held her captive in his bedroom for nine years.”
Hikikomori - The Silent Sufferers looks at a selection of hikikomori sufferers, examining their lives and how they and their families cope.