Breaking out of the hikikomori shell


Shun Kobayashi

TOKYO (majirox news) — Following the Tohoku earthquake of March 11 the world came to know Japan as a land of stoic and brave people. Tales of neighbor helping neighbor, families offering accommodation to strangers, and thousands of volunteers traveling to the stricken areas have been in the headlines, online news stories, and blogs every day over the last five months.

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
3. Illness
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.”

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2 Responses to Breaking out of the hikikomori shell

  1. Hoshi Makiguchi on 04/20/2013 at 3:54 pm

    I cried today. Very unusual for me to do so. I went on Wiki and looked up what they had to say about us (hikikomori)I saw this beautiful man with a very expensive antique samurai sword in his lap. (Sort of a defensive posture. My love just poured out to him. I only wish I could meet this person for real and become one of his few trusted friends.

    I am one of the hikikomori that is living as an expat in the States. Here there is also a very growing social isolation problem. Japan is no longer alone in this phenomenon. So vast in fact that a new faculty has developed at the University of Washington in Seattle as to find answers for this unprecedented and expedential growing problem.

    It is ironic that I have become ‘self imprisoned’ in my small space because of the hostility and general rudeness of what most of the American people have devolved to become. I am looking to either return back to my own roots in Japan or go to Brasil which indeed is another ‘group culture’.

    I want to socialise, as a human I NEED to socialise to love and BE loved! I can’t find that here any longer in America (or Japan? I don’t know). Brasil looks like a good prospect for me as they have the largest Japanese population outside of Japan in the world. (2 million) I need to be with people who are kind and love to SOCIALISE and not be so Goddamn paranoid, rude, hostile, and fearful of other people! This is why ironically I have become a recluse myself, not out of fear, but disillusionment, frustration, and rejection! I hate it! I need to INTERACT with civilised people! Japan, Europe, or Brasil!

    Thank you (ありがとう)

    • Elaine on 06/25/2013 at 10:03 pm

      I am also a hikikomori, though I am one in the United States.

      I have long been lecturing about hikikomori in Japan and in other parts of the world and about how the hikikomori phenomena is growing all over the world. This kind of social withdrawal is no longer specific to Japan and more and more becoming a sign of social unrest and disillusionment. I have always found hikikomori to be a way of escaping WITHIN something you cannot escape … that the world itself and the people in it are just intolerable and you have to remove yourself from them.

      Most hikikomori I know online are highly intelligent, sensitive, and rational people who respond to a world of incredibly dumb, insensitive and irrational people by becoming shut-ins. I have long been seeking another country to live in … one full of people who have a level of understanding about the world that is on the level with mine. The American mentality is disgusting and has never been one that I have agreed with or felt like I could relate to. I have considered moving to Sweden or the Netherlands looking for healthy-minded people and a fundamentally different foundation.

      As the man in the article states that he found most peace outside of Japan … because how the culture has it’s way of crushing it’s people. America is similar in a different way. The nail that stands out gets hammered down here as well. I have found hikikomori and shut-in syndrome more of a sane response to an insane world …

      I used to say that hikikomori was a a protective mechanism. A way of salvaging and maintaining sanity in a world gone insane … for me I know if I was out in the world amongst horrible mundanes and disgustingly evil people I would easily become like them … I would eventually be tainted by them … and so to remove myself from that taint is the best way to stay healthy … like walking out of a room full of smokers. If everyone in the world smoked and there were only a handful of people who didn’t … wouldn’t they all become a kind of hikikomori … shut-ins … isolated from society for their own sense of self preservation?

      I am hikikomori to protect MYSELF from a very tainted, lost, and fundamentally negative world and population of selfish people who have grown more angry, more intolerant, and more insane as time has gone on. I want no part of it or them. If that means I stay a hikikomori and only interact in one direction with people online then so be it.

      Hoshi Makiguchi, I AGREE with you and UNDERSTAND you.

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