TOKYO: It’s been almost 20 years since Japan first encountered its first case of Hikikomori when a 17-year-old teenager went outside for the first time in years.
After a 40-minute journey, he suddenly pulled out a butcher knife and hijacked the bus he was on, eventually killing one passenger and stabbing three in the neck.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has just this year defined Hikikomori as a condition, where individuals shut down from interacting with society and don’t attend school or have jobs.
They have limited communication outside of their families and generally stay at home for extended periods of over six months.
According to a study conducted by the Cabinet Office in March 2019, about 541,000 people aged between 15 and 39 shut themselves at home.
But the greater surprise was the trend of even more between the ages of 40 and 64 living as recluses, around 613,000 people. Over seven in 10 were male and half have been in this state for over seven years.
More Hikikomori middle-aged and seniors say they feel trapped at home and isolated from society than the younger generation, after losing their job or being unable to find one, according to the study.
This growing number of social recluses – of over a million - is one of the most serious social problems facing Japan.
The problem of Hikikomori has come under the media spotlight this year after a series of sensational news shocked the nation.
A 51-year-old man who had been living with his 80-year-old relative attacked elementary school students waiting for school bus in May in Kanagawa, leaving at least two dead and another 18 injured.
That same month, a 40-year-old Hikikomori son stabbed his mother and his younger sister after getting into an argument, killing himself shortly after.
Just days after, a former administrative vice minister at Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in his 70s murdered his reclusive 44-year-old son because he was afraid that his son might go on a wild rampage and hurt others like the case in Kanagawa.
But the oversimplification of the subjects’ reclusiveness and what led them to carry out those terrifying deeds has fuelled a stigma over the phenomenon.
CHANGES IN SOCIETY
Unemployment at 36.2 per cent has undoubtedly been the key cause of this phenomenon, which includes those laid off or contract workers who were not extended and have been unable to find re-employment in their job search.
In their struggles to find a job, many Japanese youths begin to fear meeting others. They find being alone in their own world easier to cope with and withdraw gradually from society.
This condition has been exacerbated as societal employment trends shift away from stable, lifetime employment during Japan’s glorious years of rapid growth towards a growing proportion of outsourced or contract employment today.
In Japan, people are very sensitive to how they are perceived and constantly compare themselves to others.
Someone living as a hikikomori is considered a social failure and seen as an embarrassment to their family. Family members try to hide this condition and refuse to seek help, which further perpetuates the problem.
THE 8050 PROBLEM
For a long time, Hikikomori was considered a social problem primarily experienced by listless youths, leading most government employment programmes to be directed at citizens 35 or younger. So those outside of this demographic were inadvertently missed out.
More recent studies point to a new phenomenon – that of Japanese seniors who suffer from hikikomori but can’t find ways to get help.
According to a study conducted by the Japanese Cabinet Office, one in three rely heavily on their elderly parents.
In some high-profile instances featured in Japanese media, 80-year-old parents provide care for their 50 year old Hikikomori children, a phenomenon many call the 8050 problem.
But as elderly parents age, their Hikikomori children face a situation of helplessness as they struggle to seek help from others and remain utterly dependent upon their parents’ limited income and social security benefits for sustenance.
In January 2018, a 82-year-old mother and her 52 years old Hikikomori daughter were found dead in their apartment in Sapporo from cold and starvation. The police reported that the mother died well in advance of the daughter who gradually weakened until death.
90,000 yen was found in the apartment, but she presumably found no way of using it.
In other morbid cases, after their parents die, those who suffer from Hikikomori get arrested for leaving their dead bodies at home.
FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC
It is essential for Japanese society to recognise that Hikikomori is no longer just a personal struggle with a mental disorder or a family matter to manage but an issue for society to help resolve in a more holistic manner.
The Japanese government should not only help those who have lost their jobs find re-employment, but also see how to aid them to re-connect with society and live with self-esteem.
Japanese society should also not look at Hikikomori as a dangerous or embarrassing phenomenon, but rather approach it with understanding and support for them and their families.
Yuka Hasegawa is a freelance journalist and researcher who writes on social issues and politics in Japan.