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Hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引き籠もり Hikikomori?, lit. "pulling away, being confined", i.e. "acute social withdrawal") is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive individuals who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement due to various personal and social factors in their lives. The term hikikomori refers to both the sociological phenomenon in general as well as to individuals belonging to this societal group.
Although there are versions where the hikikomori may venture outdoors,  the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines hikikomori as individuals who refuse to leave their parents' house, and isolate themselves away from society in their homes for a period exceeding six months. While the severity of the phenomenon varies depending on the individual, some youths remain in isolation for years, or in rare cases, decades. Often hikikomori start out as school refusals, or tōkōkyohi (登校拒否) in Japanese.
According to psychologist Tamaki Saitō, who first coined the phrase, there may be one million hikikomori in Japan, twenty percent of all male adolescents in Japan, or one percent of the total Japanese population. Saito later admitted in his autobiography (Hakushi no kimyo na shishunki) that he made up this number to draw attention to the problem and that it had no factual basis. He had based the figure on the number of schizophrenics found in Japanese society. His clinical work had convinced him that there were at least that many hikikomori. After the syndrome was officially recognized, the number of reported cases turned out to be in the low thousands.
Though acute social withdrawal in Japan appears to affect both genders equally, due to differing social expectations for maturing boys and girls, the most widely reported cases of hikikomori are from Japanese families with male children who seek outside intervention when a son, usually the eldest, refuses to leave the family home.
While total social withdrawal has been claimed to be mainly a Japanese phenomenon, there are reports of similar phenomena developing in South Korea, Taiwan and China. When a BBC program claiming that hikikomori was a Japanese phenomenon was aired in Britain, the BBC home page received numerous messages from viewers in the United Kingdom saying that they had personal experience with hikikomori and that it was hardly a phenomenon particular to Japan. Even the most casual search of anglophonic materials will show similar phenomenon may be found in the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain, etc.
Sometimes referred to as a kind of social problem in Japanese discourse, the hikikomori phenomenon has a number of possible contributing factors. Young adults may feel overwhelmed by modern Japanese society, or be unable to fulfill their expected social roles as they have not yet formulated a sense of personal honne and tatemae - one's "true self" and one's "public facade" – both of which are needed to cope with the daily paradoxes of adulthood.
The dominant nexus of the hikikomori issue centers on the transformation from young life to the responsibilities and expectations of adult life — indications are that advanced capitalist societies such as modern Japan fail to provide sufficient meaningful transformation rituals for promoting certain susceptible types of youth into mature roles within society.
As do many advanced capitalist meritocracies, Japan exerts a great deal of pressure on adolescents to be successful and perpetuate the existing social status quo. A traditionally strong emphasis on complex social conduct, rigid hierarchies and the resulting, potentially intimidating multitude of social expectations, responsibilities and duties in Japanese society contribute to this pressure on young adults. Historically, Confucian teachings de-emphasizing the individual and favoring a conformist stance to ensure social harmony in a rigidly hierarchized society have shaped much of the Sinosphere, possibly explaining the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon in other East Asian countries.
In general, the prevalence of hikikomori tendencies in Japan may be encouraged and facilitated by three primary factors:
Also, it should be noted that the hikikomori phenomenon is similar to the social withdrawal exhibited by some adults with Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs) in western cultures, a group of disorders that include autism, PDD-NOS and Asperger syndrome. Japan has the highest incidence of PDDs in the developed world, recent epidemiological studies carried out indicate that PDDs affect between 1.2 to 2.2% of children in Japan. This is significantly more than in the UK, for example, where a 2002 study determined that 0.6% children in Cambridgeshire have a PDD. Indeed, in Nagoya, Japan, 3.3% of boys were found to have a PDD according to DSM-IV criteria. This has led some western psychiatrists to suggest that people with hikikomori maybe affected by PDDs or other disorders that affect social integration, but that their disorders are altered from their typical western presentation due to the social and cultural pressures unique to Japan. However, this suggestion has been rejected by Japanese psychologists who associate hikikomori with emotionally distant parenting that causes children to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to Michael Zielenziger's book, Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation, the syndrome is more closely related to PTSD. The hikikomori studied and interviewed for Zielenziger's book were not autistic, but bright intelligent people who have discovered independent thinking and a sense of self that the current Japanese environment cannot accommodate. For the most part they have no one to talk to. They are victims of the social and cultural pressures of Japan.
The education system
The Japanese education system, like those found in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, and similar to the school systems in India, puts great demands upon youth. A multitude of expectations, high emphasis on competition, and the rote memorization of facts and figures for the purpose of passing entrance exams into the next tier of education in what could be termed a rigid pass-or-fail ideology, induce a high level of stress. Echoing the traditional Confucian values of society, the educational system is still viewed as playing an important part in society's overall productivity and success. In this social frame, students often face significant pressure from parents and the society in general to conform to its dictates and doctrines. These doctrines, while part of modern Japanese society, are increasingly being rejected by Japanese youth in varying ways such as hikikomori, freeter, NEET (Not currently engaged in Employment, Education, or Training), and parasite singles.
Beginning in the 1960s, the pressure on Japanese youth to succeed began successively earlier in their lives, sometimes starting before pre-school, where even toddlers had to compete through an entrance exam for the privilege of attending one of the best pre-schools. This was said to prepare children for the entrance exam of the best kindergarten, which in turn prepared the child for the entrance exam of the best primary school, junior high school, high school, and eventually for their university entrance exam. Many adolescents take one year off after high school to study exclusively for the university entrance exam. The higher the prestige of the university, the more difficult the exam, the most prestigious university with the most difficult exam being the University of Tokyo.
Since 1996, the Japanese Ministry of Education has taken steps to address this 'pressure-cooker' educational environment and instill greater creative thought in Japanese youth by significantly relaxing the school schedule from six day weeks to five day weeks and dropping two subjects from the daily schedule, with new academic curricula more comparable to Western educational models. However this may be too little too late, as highly competitive Japanese parents are sending their children to private cram schools to 'make up' for the newly lax curricula in the Japanese public schools.
After graduating from high school or university, Japanese youth also have to face a very difficult job market in Japan, often finding only part-time employment and ending up as freeters with little income, unable to start a family.
Another source of pressure is from their co-students, who may harass and bully some students for a variety of reasons, including physical appearance (especially if they are overweight or have severe acne problems), wealth, educational or athletic performance, or even having lived overseas for a short period. Some have been punished for bullying or truancy, bringing shame to their families.
While many people feel the pressure of the outside world, and may feel uncomfortable in public (or "social anxiety"), a hikikomori reacts by complete social withdrawal to avoid all outside pressure. In some cases, they may lock themselves into their bedroom or another room of their parent's house for prolonged periods of time, sometimes measured in years. They usually have few, or no friends. A hikikomori's days are characterized by long spells of sleeping, while their nighttime hours are often spent watching TV, extensively playing computer games, surfing the Internet, reading, trading the stock, forex, derivatives markets (i.e. stock future indices) or other non-social activities. One of the most prominent cases of a hikikomori who lived in his parents home is the Japanese individual who traded the JASDAQ Securities Exchange with 1.6 million yen (apr. US$14,000) as capital, whose alias is B.N.F (J-Com man). Starting in 2000, Takashi Kotegawa (Japanese: 小手川 隆) managed to exponentially grow his account 10,000 fold in 7 years up to 17 billion yen (apr. US$152 million).  He first gained fame on the Japanese mass media when he managed to profit 2 billion yen (apr. US$20 million) in a window of 10 minutes on 8 December 2005 from a Mizuho Securities order misplacement blunder. Although rare, ironically some of the adult-onset hikikomori people have succeeded in becoming extremely wealthy and in achieving financial freedom, in contrast to their more conformist salaryman counterparts.
Refusal to participate in society and fulfill their expected roles makes hikikomori an extreme subset of a much larger group of the younger Japanese generation that includes parasite singles and freeters. All three groups seem to be rejecting the current social norms society has placed upon them in their own unique ways, with lifestyles considered deviant by society at large.
The withdrawal from society usually starts gradually. Affected individuals may appear unhappy, lose their friends, become insecure, shy, and talk less. Those in their teens may be bullied at school, which, atop the already high pressures of school and family, may be the final trigger for the withdrawal.
Hikikomori often set their own sleep schedule, typically waking in the afternoon and going to bed in the early morning. While they are awake, they may engage in a variety of activities shared with other people of their age, including listening to music, surfing the Internet or actively posting in Internet forums like 2channel, which has become famous for its hikikomori population. While hikikomori favor indoor activities, most of them do venture outdoors on occasion, though they may prefer to do that at night.
On the individual
The lack of social contact and prolonged solitude has a profound effect on the mentality of the hikikomori, who gradually lose their social skills, social references and mores necessary to interact with the outside world. They may immerse themselves into the fantasy worlds of manga, anime and video games, which in turn become their only frame of reference. Due to a lack of interpersonal stimulus the hikikomori may developmentally stagnate into routine behaviors as time passes, sleeping all day and staying up all night only to sneak out into the kitchen for food when the family is asleep. In extreme cases, the hikikomori eventually abandons all diversions of books and TV and simply stares into space for hours at a time.
Should a hikikomori decide to give up his or her seclusion, whether on his or her own or through the aid of a care worker, they may face the problem of lacking social skills and years of education that their peers already possess through normal daily interaction with society. Also making reentry into society difficult is the recent social stigma that has come to be attached to the condition due to mass media attention since 1998. As a result, some former hikikomori might be afraid that others will discover their past, adding to their feeling of insecurity around people, especially strangers, in how they should act. Also detrimental is the fact they lack a work history, making anything beyond menial jobs difficult to acquire.
On the family
Having a hikikomori in the family is often considered embarrassing, so usually it is acknowledged as an internal private matter of the family, and many parents wait for a long time before seeking help from a third party within the hikikomori support industry. Also, in Japan the education of the children is traditionally done by the mother, and the father may leave the problem of a hikikomori to the mother, who feels very protective of her child. Initially, most parents simply wait and hope that the child will eventually overcome his problems and return to society by his own will. They see it as a phase the child has to overcome. Also, many parents are uncertain about what to do with a hikikomori, and wait simply due to lack of other options. An aggressive approach by the parents forcing the child back into society is usually not taken or only after a considerable waiting period.
In some cases, school homeroom teachers and social workers make inquiries, but usually do not get involved with the situation. In recent years, due to widespread media attention, having a family member who is a hikikomori has come to have a social stigma attached to the condition akin to mental illness. Due to this stigma and the resultant shame, many families strive to keep their child's hikikomori condition a secret from those in the community, thus further delaying parents from seeking outside intervention for their child.
Hikikomori gained increased worldwide attention when the media attributed a number of high profile crimes to it a few years ago. In 2000, a 17-year-old labeled as a hikikomori by the press hijacked a bus and killed one passenger. In fact, it was discovered later that the hijacker had originally been a hikikomori, but his parents, in frustration, had committed him to a mental hospital for two months of observation. Allegedly, the boy felt betrayed by his parents as a result of his hospital admission, and some argue that the violence during the bus hijacking was directed at his mother by proxy. In the ensuing days, the media characterized other extremely violent crimes as having been perpetrated by hikikomori, such as one man who kidnapped ten-year-old Sano Fusako and held her captive for nine years and two months, or Tsutomu Miyazaki, who in 1989 killed four young girls. As a result of this negative media attention, hikikomori acquired a social stigma of being violent and mentally ill that persists to this day.
In 2004, 29-year-old Japanese-Dutch film school student Danyael Sugawara made a film based on hikikomori called “Tamago" ("Egg"). 
The hikikomori's fear of social pressure and concurrent inability to effect change in their situation may turn into frustration or even anger. Some hikikomori have physically attacked their parents, though most of the time anger manifests in other ways, such as nightly harassment by banging on walls while the rest of the family sleeps.
This hostility often arises when parents continue to exert pressure on the hikikomori to come out of their rooms after many months of isolation, despite the fact that a status quo has been allowed to develop between the parents, usually the mother, and the hikikomori. This status quo, called the Strange Peace, occurs because parents passively allow their child to stay withdrawn. It can have many causes but mostly centers on an amae relationship between mother and son, the fear and social stigma of the local community knowing the family has a hikikomori, and the notion that it is better to have the child in the house even in isolation than as a runaway.
When hikikomori came into the public spotlight, mass media sources initially argued that the loss of a social frame of reference might lead hikikomori to commit violent or criminal acts. However, hikikomori experts maintain that true hikikomori are too socially withdrawn and timid to venture outside of their homes, let alone go outside the home and attack someone. If hikikomori physically attack anyone, it is usually family members.
There are different opinions about the treatment of a hikikomori, and the opinions often split into a Japanese and a western point of view. Japanese experts usually suggest waiting until the hikikomori reemerges, whereas western doctors suggest dragging the hikikomori back into society, by force if necessary.
While there are a growing number of doctors and clinics specialized in helping hikikomori, many hikikomori and their parents still feel a lack of support for their problems on an institutional level and feel that society at large has been slow to react to the hikikomori crisis. In the last several years, a hikikomori support industry has sprung up in Japan, each with its own style or philosophy in treating hikikomori cases. Despite this diversity, there seem to be two general camps for treatment:
In contrast to the approach of treatment, some may argue that the Hikikomori status is a personality type or lifestyle to be accepted, or resolved, within the respective families, as long as this choice doesn't lead to criminal or violent behaviour. Some argue that there is a tendency in societies — especially those, like Japanese society, that emphasize conformity — to label people who differ from the norm "pathologically ill," and urge greater concern for the wishes of the individual. (Similar issues have been raised about Asperger Syndrome and Schizoid Personality Disorder.)
In some cases a Hikikomori partially or completely recovers in time when given a free house or apartment of his own.
References in pop culture
Related Japanese topics
Medical diagnoses for hikikomori behaviors
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Hikikomori". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|