Why Are Some Men In Japan Not Leaving Their Rooms For Decades?

Ryan Fan

There is absolutely nothing that made me feel like I was going crazy than staying at home all day, not going outside, watching TV or playing video games, and not socializing or talking to any friends. I’m glad to have left my childhood home and now be in a continual state of trying to advance and improve myself, not just because of ambition, but for my own mental and emotional well-being.

However, I see reasons why people withdraw from the world and from social circles. It’s the default coping mechanism for when life is hard for so many of us. There were days in my darkest moments I didn’t want to talk to anyone and just wanted to stay in my room all day.

I’d felt hurt, wounded, and betrayed over and over and I didn’t want to deal with that pain or the possibility of that pain again. I didn’t want to expose myself to the risk. It was only after I felt worse from social withdrawal that I realized being around people wasn’t just something that was optional for me — it was mandatory for my sanity.

So that’s why it’s difficult for me personally to judge the hikikomori (being confined in Japanese), a word for people in Japan who go through extreme social withdrawal, which has usually been used to describe predominantly young and middle-aged men (despite there being a lot of women hikikomori as well).

I could have seen myself becoming a hikikomori with one or two bad breaks in my life. But the hikikomori are not just young men who play too many video games and spend too much time on the Internet, as there is actually no causal link found between Internet addiction and the hikikomori.

The hikikomori don’t just stay in their rooms for a whole weekend. According to Dr. Albert Teo and Dr. Albert Gaw at the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, the hikikomori withdraw from school or work for months, years, or decades. They are entirely reliant on their parents for survival.

Here’s why the hikikomori is a social phenomenon and issue so unique to Japan, and solutions some are trying to get the hikikomori to end their long periods of isolation.

The problem

A lot of people in a lot of countries live at home, are unemployed, and live with their parents. But it’s a whole other level in Japan, and you have to understand the pressures young people face in Japan and in the workforce in general. I’m not Japanese, but I was raised in Asian culture and worked a summer in Japan. Success in your education and career is not just a reflection of you as an individual. In collectivist societies like Japan, Korea, and China, success or failure is a reflection of the family, and success is a mark of honor for the family, but the other side of the coin is also true: failure is a huge blemish to the family’s reputation.

Work culture in Japan is also super, super intense. I worked in an organic chemistry lab over the summer and some guys in the lab worked from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. and worked through weekends. I saw them on “vacation” coming in only from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. It was a work-hard, play-equally-as-hard culture where drinking parties would lead to some guys getting absolutely toasted, only to repeat that same workday the next day. I don’t think it was the most productive way to work, and there were a couple of people who followed a more European model of working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and spending time with their families or significant others.

They wouldn’t necessarily be looked down upon, but they wouldn’t be spoken of with as high a level of respect (even if I respected the ones able to set those boundaries as a foreigner and exchange student). It wasn’t the actual productivity that was rewarded, per se, but the appearance of extreme hard work and productivity (to be clear, however, the guys who worked from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. did have a ton of published papers and were incredibly productive by our western standards, too).

A Japanese cabinet survey in 2016 estimated that there were 541,000 young Japanese people aged 15 to 39 who never leave their homes or interact with others for at least six months. Some experts believe the number is much higher, including psychiatrist Tamaki Saito, the originator of the hikikomori term. In 1998, Saito speculated there were as many as a million hikikomori in Japan, leading some to criticize him for engaging in scare tactics, but Saito himself pointed to the stigma of many parents of hikikomori not wanting to admit their kids were undergoing this extreme social withdrawal publicly.

Tiffany Kary at Psychology Today partially blamed the old-fashioned values of Japan and its work culture for hikikomori. Not performing to academic standards or seeing career failure is a mark of societal shame and failure and much more traumatic in Japan’s super intense and conservative society than in the West. And if you think standardized tests are intense and not a good thing in the West, in Japan it’s much worse — one exam is fully responsible for whether high school students get into college or not and what college they get into. Some students in Japan will study for years to perform well on that exam.

Although Kary and others speculate that either mental illness or neurodivergent conditions like autism spectrum disorder have something to do with hikikomori, stigma in Japan and other East Asian countries for seeking therapy or other kinds of mental health support is worse than it is in the West. That being said, it is important to note that 37.9% of hikikomori did also have a prior history of psychiatric treatment.

Indeed, some hikikomori start their withdrawal as a protest against being bullied, crazy academic pressures in school, or a toxic work environment. And since the global economic recession in 2008, many young Japanese people who graduated from university could not find a job amidst economic turmoil.

But it goes deeper than just societal factors. Researchers Roseline Yong and Kyoko Nomura at Akita University did a review study finding that the strongest area of difficulty for the hikikomori was interpersonal difficulty, particularly anxiety related to being around people, anxiety about being humiliated, and phobia around being in school. The transition from high school to college is the most common time period people withdrew and became hikikomori.

In the West, it’s very easy to criticize the hikikomori and their parents. Why don’t parents just kick the kids out? Why don’t parents just hold their kids accountable and force them to fend for themselves? In Japan, some hikikomori have now exiled themselves well into their 40s, 50s, or 60s, which Japan Powered is calling “the 2030 problem” of what will happen when the hikikomori’s parents start to die and the hikikomori have no means of surviving for themselves. Right now, Richard Reeves, author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, notes that a third of hikikomori are over 40 years old.

In East Asian cultures, however, as much pressure and crazy academic and career expectations parent place on their children for the sake of reputation and saving face, there is an equal amount of devotion to children in the form of excessive caretaking in a collectivist culture where family is emphasized. It’s strange to a lot of my colleagues who grew up in the Philippines, for example, that in America turning 18 is seen as a sign of independence and a time when a lot of kids are expected to move out of home. It’s not uncommon to my colleagues for children to live with their parents until they’re well into their 30s or 40s under one roof. Kicking your adult child out of your house is a much bigger deal in East Asian cultures than it is in the West.

And Emma Young at Aeon notes that most hikikomori surveyed are “acutely aware of their own pain” as well as the pain they subject their family to. In fact, the vast majority feel even more suffocated by their continued isolation and withdrawal. Maika Elan, who photographed many hikikomori for the National Geographic, says the continued isolation makes hikikomori only more aware of social failures. There is often shame from both the children and the parents — the children believe they failed in society, while parents believe they failed their children. And since it’s a topic that’s somewhat taboo to discuss openly, who knows how many hikikomori are unaccounted for?

Solutions and takeaways

Some in Japan are so desperate they are resorting to a company that offers to “rent-a-sister.” The company, Family Romance, rents out staff members that pretend to be friends with the hikikomori and (as of 2017) charged a price of 15,000 yen ($135) for three hours of friendship. The company obviously doesn’t cater to just hikikomori, but lonely people all around.

Since it’s an issue that has only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, personalized mental health support is critical. One program, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), educates family members on how to support hikikomori they live with who suffer from depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, treatment for the hikikomori is difficult given the reluctance to go outside to a medical health center or community social center, but therapy is beneficial not only for the hikikomori but family members of hikikomori.

As such, some experts have proposed a home visitation program where experienced workers visit the homes of the hikikomori to help, which a 2022 study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry found could be successful under certain conditions, like making sure communication is consistent, preparing the surroundings for reaching out to the hikikomori and expanding the range of activities and relationships between the hikikomori and home visitation workers.

Regardless, I think it’s important to acknowledge there are no simple solutions and it’s important not to judge. It might be hard to imagine, but a lot of us have been through stages of our lives where it may have been difficult to leave our homes for months (pre-COVID-19), and when we underwent periods of extreme social isolation. Perhaps the familial structure and societal constraints of Japan makes it easier for someone to stay home for months or years and withdraw and may even push a lot of people to want t odo so, but it’s also important to note it’s not an ideal situation for anyone, and that the answer isn’t as simple as “Japan has lackluster mental health care and that’s the reason behind the problem,” although that certainly is a part of it.

At the core of the hikikomori are people who didn’t see a future for themselves in the outside world, or who were so traumatized by that outside world they withdrew entirely. Every person is different, and some become hikikomori out of a sense of rebellion, while others may have not seen opportunities for themselves within the rigid academic and career framework of Japanese society.

It’s obviously not just a Japanese problem either, and the problem for each person likely comes from a whole combination of cultural constraints, mental health struggles, and biological factors. But as the problem is so multi-faceted, the solution is, too, and it will take a village for each individual hikikomori to break free from their extreme withdrawal and isolation.

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Believer, Baltimore City IEP Chair, and 2:39 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire"

Baltimore, MD
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