Asia Life | Society | East Asia

What’s Behind the Rise of Recluses in Japan?

A lack of economic ambition is increasing the trend of “hikikomori” in Japan.

By Xiaochen Su for
What’s Behind the Rise of Recluses in Japan?
Credit: Pixabay

The proportion of hikikomori, or recluses choosing complete withdrawal from all social interactions, has grown as part of Japan’s population over the past few years. In July 2019, psychiatrist Tamaki Saito, an expert on the subject, stated that Japan may be host to some 2 million hikikomori, more than the official Japanese government estimate of 1.15 million. Saito further warned that as new hikikomori emerge and older ones continue their reclusive lifestyle, the total number of Japanese foregoing all physical social interactions may top 10 million.

The prospect of hikikomori becoming older and more numerous places burdens upon both society and the hikikomori’s families. Official government estimate states that currently, 613,000 hikikomori are between the ages of 40 and 64, thus begging the question of just how many of the elderly hikikomori will survive after their parents, who provide for all their daily needs, pass away or become incapacitated. Some elderly parents of the hikikomori have even resorted to murder to prevent their reclusive children from suffering after their deaths.

Past studies argued that the primary reason for the increasing prevalence of hikikomori in Japan is related to the country’s rigid social structure, which expects all individuals to conform to certain socioeconomic norms. Those who are unable to become economically productive members of society, and in so doing handle the hierarchical superior-subordinate personal relationships characteristic of Japanese public settings, escape from all social interactions as they buckle under pressure. The failure of Japanese society to help such individuals recover has created a hikikomori population.

However, while this argument is certainly on point with regard to the lack of systemic support for those who cannot keep up with rigid social interactions, it dismisses an equally valid reason for people to become hikikomori. Instead of trying and failing to become part of a stressful social hierarchy, some hikikomori may simply think that the benefits of partaking in real-life social interactions are not enough to compensate for all the personal stress. After all, the typical hikikomori today is not under severe economic difficulties. Analyses point out that most are from middle-class families, with parents financially capable of providing for them. In the internet age, some even earn a living online through activities such as software programming. Given a certain level of economic comfort, such hikikomori would see no immediate reason to venture back out into the physical world.

Yet, there are only so many productive economic activities one can conduct without any face-to-face social interactions. For people who are ambitious about increasing lucrative employment prospects, old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and networking remain essential even in the internet age. Hikikomori miss out on such career advancement opportunities.

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Career ambitions, however, are increasingly lacking among a new generation of Japanese youths. An international survey of 18-year-olds across the world found that the Japanese are by far the most pessimistic about their own and their country’s future. The majority of Japanese youths in the survey also expressed a lack of any desire to talk about important social issues with those around them and change their society for the better by becoming responsible adults. In other words, compared to their counterparts in other countries Japanese youths are much more likely to grow up shunning interactions with others while being content with current situations. The combined lack of desire for social interaction, for economic advancement, and to be seen as adults creates the perfect condition for youths from middle-class families to socially isolate themselves when the stress of the Japanese work environment hits, further swelling the ranks of hikikomori in the future.

As hikikomori becomes a more pressing social issue, Japan needs to tackle the problem from several angles. Schools, companies, and the government all need to institute specific measures to prevent discrimination toward individuals who are less capable of social interactions and strict adherence to hierarchy. Policies need to be put into place that help hikikomori address mental stress that makes it difficult for them to step out of their homes. But most importantly, education and socialization of youths need greater emphasis on instilling a culture of personal ambition, rooted in more frequent and productive face-to-face communications.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.