Yes, Japan is a land of hard workers, generally polite, and gaman tsuyoi (strong willed, perseverant) people. But, there is another group of people in Japan that hide themselves from this world of outgoing and helpful souls. They are known as hikikomori — the social hermits who withdraw from external life — in extremes they lock themselves into their home for years.
Most have few, if any, friends. They may venture outdoors, but that is rare. While no one knows the official number of hikikomori in Japan World Health Organization (WHO) estimates put the number at 700,000 to one million (roughly 0.5 to 1% of Japan’s total population of about 121 million).
Although hikikomori is akin to the behavior seen in people with certain pervasive developmental disorders such as Asperger’s or autism, Japanese hikikomoris’ disorders are distorted due to the social and cultural pressures that are, for the most part, unique to Japan.
According to Shun Kobayashi, himself a former hikikomori, there are a variety of reasons why people withdraw from society, but the major reasons are:
1. They could not fit into their workplace (being seen as a team player is important in Japanese companies)
2. They failed in their search for a job
4. Truancy from school (they may dislike studying or been bullied)
5. They failed high school or university entrance exams
6. They could not fit into their classes at school
“In my case it was a combination of truancy and having failed in university entrance exams,” Kobayashi said. “I had been very lazy since I was at junior-high school. But I was also extremely bored with the education I was receiving. The classes were so dull that it was painful to take them.”
He added that rote memorizing that is so common in the Japanese education system. Some of the teachers’ poor presentation skills also added to his feeling of boredom and disinterest. Because of his own lack of self-discipline, coupled with the brain numbing memorization of lessons forced upon him, his academic scores suffered and he failed both his high-school and college entrance exams. His poor performance brought him to the point where he became a marginal hikikomori as he lived in dread of taking another university entrance exam and after failing the exam he became a full-fledged hikikomori.
“It was a dreadful experience, almost like being trapped,” he told Majirox News. “I knew I had to get out of it, but both because of being ill-disciplined and the enormous difficulty of getting out of the situation, I kept escaping from the reality by staying in my room, watching TV or playing video games so that I didn’t have to think about it.”
However, Kobayashi finally broke free of this self imprisonment. He wanted to become a soccer coach. To do so, he joined a one-year program in London where he could learn how to play soccer and learn English. This program was organized by Barefoot, a non-profit organization. Unfortunately, his dream of becoming a soccer coach went by the wayside when he injured his back one month after joining the program.
He was fortunate, though, to have a host family in London that he respected and they became his role models.
“The experience of getting out of Japan itself was hugely refreshing,” Kobayashi said. “And I was able to re-evaluate my life and understand that there are different ways to succeed – not just going to university in Japan. I also found learning extremely interesting and fun through the A-level education. It wasn’t just about memorizing ‘facts,’ but about learning different perspectives as well as learning how to think logically and critically.”
After returning to Japan in 2006, he still struggled with readapting to Japanese societal pressures and found himself drifting back towards his old hikikomori lifestyle. The pressures of searching for a job after completing an internship in a Diet member’s office were almost too much to take. During the six months between leaving that job and entering his new employment he became marginally hikikomori again. Fortunately, he found a new job as a product instructor for an international information company he likes, with bosses and teammates he respects, which drew him out of the hikikomori shell.
So just what can be done to overcome this social issue in Japan? Kobayashi’s opinion is that there are two things that need to be done: education in Japan must be made more interesting, with students taught how to think and be creative, not just how to memorize. Then, give more chances to those who fail.
“Japan is a failure-intolerant country in many ways,” he said. “And this has to change, not only for those who are hikikomori, but also for the challengers, like entrepreneurs, who need some space for failure to take risks.”