“Hikikomori?” I hear you ask. For those of you who don’t know, Hikikomori refers to the uniquely Japanese social adjustment disorder where young men (and a few women) lock themselves away in their bedrooms for long periods of time, unwilling or unable to engage in the world around them.
Here at JLCC (Japanese Language and Culture Centre), we occasionally do book reviews, and this time my random choice was very interesting. The book is called Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation and is written by Michael Zielenziger. While it was published 10 years ago now, with some things certainly having changed, as it focuses on how the unique situation of Japan’s history, politics, economics, culture and social expectations have come strategically together to create the social adjustment disorder known worldwide as ‘Hikikomori’, it remains relevant and extremely helpful.
Zielenziger built relationships with a handful of young Hikikomori men. These intimate interviews bring depth, life and insight to the sensitive issues many Hikikomori face, and give the reader a perspective that is not usually seen. Zielenziger’s thorough analysis of the economic and political influences is interesting, well written and thought provoking. I really enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it to anyone hoping to gain deeper understanding of the Japanese culture
The Author presents a wide and varied approach to understanding the issue of Hikikomori. He interviews hikikomori, psychiatrists and other health professionals, volunteers involved in serving the hikikomori community, parents of hikikomori and many other people. This really helps to create an overall perspective on hikikomori and the complex issues involved in this disorder. All of this information comes together to paint a clearer picture of the reasons behind why young Japanese men might become hikikomori.
10 Things I Learnt About Hikikomori
- Hikikomori is both a noun and an adjective. You can say, “The majority of people afflicted with hikikomori are male”, and also, “Ken is (a) Hikikomori”. The Japanese term is written as ひきこもり or 引き籠りmeans to “pull away, withdraw”.
- Those afflicted by hikikomori often experience some kind of traumatic social experience as a trigger for the hikikomori-esque behaviour that later escalates into full social isolation issues.
- Violence towards parents is consistently an issue for hikikomori sufferers. Whether acted on or not, the desire to seriously harm, or even kill one’s parents is alarmingly present.
- The Hikikomori often has conflicting emotions about the world. Although they feel they cannot re-enter society, there is often a strong desire to do so. “I have two personalities,” he told me quietly. “One part of me doesn’t want to go out and the other does. They are fighting with each other constantly.” Kenji, pg 24
- The inability to navigate between one’s honne and tatemae – that is to navigate between your true self, feelings and opinions and the socially acceptable version of you is a key issue. For some it is more of an issue of social skills, or an inability to conform to what is expected of them. For others it is a frustration at the strict social rules Japanese people are expected to adhere to and an unwillingness to conform.
- Unsurprisingly, Hikikomori are only found in middle or upper-class families. A family must have the financial means to support an unemployed adult child, and a less well off family simply does not have the resources to do that. If a child in one such family begins to socially withdraw or quit school, they will be forced into the workforce out of sheer necessity.
- Many families are dysfunctional. An absent father, commonly due to extreme work hours accepted as normal in Japan, and a mother who thrives on her son’s dependency on her. As Zielenziger writes, ‘Few of the Hikikomori teenagers could recall ever being held or embraced by their own parents, and grew up emotionally starved. “The parents are incapable of communicating any emotion, especially love.”’ pg 85
- Due to the nature of shame in the Japanese culture, many families will not look for outside help for their children. This sense of shame causes the afflicted person to be even more acute of their situation, compounding their helplessness and frustration at the world.
- The Japanese government has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge hikikomori as a serious health issue, perhaps due to not wanting to answer the question, “Why is this problem uniquely Japanese?” Therefore, funding is low and help is not readily available.
- In a country where suicide is generally considered an honourable action, hikikomori is viewed as a more cowardice action. I personally have to disagree though, and think that these young people who are suffering so acutely from fear, frustration and a sense of oppressiveness show incredible bravery by not giving in to the option more readily available to them – suicide.
This is one of the best books I have read that addresses many varied different facets of the Japanese psyche. It has helped me to understand more about the social, economical and political influences over Japan in the past, and also more recently. These issues have also been pertinent to the development of hikikomori. While I have presented these 10 points somewhat simplistically, it is a complex and tragic issue with no solution in sight. May we all keep praying for Japan, and in particular for these people who suffer, who lack support and who desperately need the hope that only Christ can bring to them. I hope that in time Japan itself will realise that this lost generation has a voice that needs to be heard, and that these voices may have things to say that may be painful, but that are necessary for Japan to heed if they hope to move forward in the future.Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation,
- Michael Zielenziger, Random House Inc., New York, United States.