Shutting Out The Sun? On a New Kind of Loneliness

I’m sure we’ve all had days when we don’t want to leave the house, perhaps even our rooms. It’s not unheard of for a person to take a day off and do nothing, but then, we all have a limit to all or any of it. After a while, someone is probably going to call out for you, you’ll probably have made a plan you forgot about, or someone just visits you. It’d be a surprise if you said you had not talked to anyone all day, whether virtually or in real life. But, that’s exactly what is going on in several countries, most notably in Japan.

If you haven’t heard of the word hikikomori before, don’t worry, I hadn’t either. Just the other day, I was made aware of how our generation is the most depressed one and I went surfing on the web to check the validity of that statement. What I found was this ominous term. When one mentions “hikikomori”, the immediate image that comes to mind is a young Japanese man, who has isolated himself within a bedroom in his parents’ house for years on end, refusing to speak, interact, or even be seen by anyone – sometimes including his own family. Meals are brought to the door a few times a day, and garbage and other refuse are left out in return. He might have started off spending his time playing video games or chatting online, but those activities have lost their charm long ago. He now simply stares off into space. Hikikomori. The world of perfect isolation.

Because of the diversity of traits and characteristics accompanying hikikomori, much effort has been put into defining the term in a way that consolidates the condition that we are examining.  It is a term that describes both the state and the sufferer of acute social withdrawal. It means the behaviour in which adolescents and young adults refuse all contact with society and withdraw from all social activities. First coined by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito in 1998 in his book Social Withdrawal – Adolescence Without End, the term and the condition gained immense popularity in Japan following several newspaper articles and television interviews with Saito. The Japanese government officially defines hikikomori as people who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months. They’re often dubbed as modern-day hermits. The best behavioural definition to date was proposed by Teo and Gaw in 2010, this definition of hikikomori captures the core constructs associated with the condition in six criteria. For one, most of the day, nearly every day, is spent at home. The person persistently avoids social situations and social relationships. They are bound to have experienced distress or impairment in their normal routine, for a duration of at least six months. The last, but an important criterion is that the condition is not better explained by another psychiatric disorder such as social phobia, major depressive disorders, schizophrenia, or avoidant personality disorder. We define this kind of hikikomori as “primary hikikomori”, i.e. one manifestation of the hikikomori phenomenon that cannot be described using current concepts in psychiatric disease. Primary hikikomori youth do not have any serious diagnosable psychopathology, yet they are unable to enter society or adapt to their surroundings. Hikikomori can also include individuals suffering from a variety of severe mental disorders including affective disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, and pervasive developmental disorders, but they are classified as “secondary hikikomori”.

Originally, hikikomori was simply a general term referring to a condition in which people withdrew from relationships with others. It was also used as a psychiatric term describing the symptom of withdrawal in autistic, schizophrenic, depressive or aged patients. After 1990, hikikomori among youth received increasing attention from psychiatrists and society-at-large and came to be used mainly for describing young adults. According to The New York Times, doctors began to observe hikikomori as a social phenomenon around the mid-1980s, when young men exhibited signs of lethargy, refusing to communicate and spending most of their time in their rooms. Canadian journalist Michael Zielenziger’s book Shutting Out the Sun and the New York Times’ article “Shutting Themselves In” put the word on the map for the rest of us. The Saito book – Social Withdrawal – Adolescence Without End, in itself, gives us a good idea about how the word came to be. The hikikomori are rebellious, they need to be cared for and they’re financially dependent on their parents. It is difficult to find one cause or reason behind this condition. They are troubled by their future and are unable to cope with the uncertainty. They may have been triggered by some trauma; statistics suggest bullying as a major cause. The pressure of it all: to maintain the family name, to maintain your own dignity, everything may be a trigger and also a facilitator. The phenomenon can come in various forms: A person’s condition can be so severe that they lack the energy to leave their sofa to go to the toilet, another could suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders so serious that they shower several hours a day or scrub their shower tiles for hours, some may just play video games all day- “as if it would tranquilise me.” Some just lay in wait for ‘energy’.

A community‐based survey published in 2010 reported that the prevalence of hikikomori stood at approximately 1.2% of the Japanese population, and in 2016 a Japanese cabinet report estimated people with hikikomori to be number over half a million within the age range of 15‐39 years. The country now hopes to identify older hikikomori and understand the assistance their families need. As hikikomori grow older and their parents become too elderly to care for them, questions over their fate will become more urgent. There’s also an implied consensus that hikikomori are generally men, which might not be true. In fact, the very number mentioned might be incorrect. Several families don’t like to accept the reality and call it what it is and instead just say that their children are being ‘selfish’ for some time. The females, in Japanese culture, are already supposed to be shy and introverted, so when they shirk away from social interaction, nobody views it as anything out of the ordinary. What is absurd is how many parents albeit aware of what’s occurring channel the truth in a fashion that fits right with their reality. In Japanese, there’s a very famous saying, “A protruding nail will be hammered down.” And that is what may be the reason why this phenomenon is overtaking the Japanese population. Japan is soon to face what they call the “2030 problem”. As many with the condition are getting older and staying withdrawn for longer, the concern is that in 12 years many hikikomori will approach their 60s and will have no family to support them – making reintegration into society much harder. Additionally, as more people withdraw from society and stop working, the fear is that Japan’s economy will also suffer—which it is already doing.  

Of course, when there is a problem, there is a solution. Psychiatrists have tried to treat hikikomori with individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and family group therapy. Solutions have also come in the form of a non-profit organisation called New Start, which runs a programme called Rental Sister, where volunteers visit hikikomori houses. It’s been said that it can take up to two years of visits to get some cases to leave their homes. Currently, there are more than fifty government‐funded community support centres for hikikomori located throughout the prefectures of Japan, providing services such as telephone consultations for family members, the creation of “meeting spaces” for affected people, and job placement support. In addition, various private institutions provide treatment for hikikomori sufferers. However, there is yet to be a unified evidence‐based method for these public/private interventions. A four‐step intervention is recommended by the government guidelines for hikikomori, including family support and first contact with the individual followed by his/her evaluation; individual support; training through an intermediate‐transient group situation (such as group therapy); and social participation trial.

The Japanese sociocultural background has been traditionally permeated by “amae” (accepting over-dependent behaviours) and shame, which may underlie hikikomori. Parent‐child relationships in Japan have long been considered less oedipal than in Western societies. They can be marked by an absent father and an extremely prolonged and close bond with the mother, which may result in difficulties when it comes to becoming independent. Especially in hikikomori, the development of basic interpersonal skills during the early stages of life seems to be insufficient, which can induce vulnerability to stress in later school/workplace environments and lead to escape from social situations.

Hikikomori‐like cases have recently been reported in other countries of varying sociocultural and economic backgrounds such as Hong Kong, Oman, was and Spain, and studies have revealed its existence in India, South Korea, and the US. Thus, one can say that hikikomori has now crossed the limits of a culture‐bound phenomenon to become an increasingly prevalent international condition. A major contributing factor may be the evolution of communication from direct to increasingly indirect and physically-isolating forms. This is especially the case for social interactions which hitherto required face‐to‐face contacts in a mutual physical space but can now occur, at least partially, in a virtual world. Internet addiction has been reported in several countries. In South Korea, for example, it is said to be a serious problem among adolescents. It is said that the “recluse type” Internet addicts do not leave home not only because they are totally absorbed in the Internet, but also because they have a tendency to avoid communication with others. In England, young people not in full-time education, employment or training (NEET) are the subject of policy concern.  This phenomenon is similar to hikikomori behaviourally in that the NEET do not work or study. Japan is very different from India so one cannot actually say that Indians suffer through what can be construed as exactly Hikikomori. However, there are several similarities. Indians, too are increasingly overworked, with most of the workers burning out from unhealthy conditions. Indians too are lonely and many millions will, statistically, die alone. This is not to count the actual problem that the dating culture in India is heavily flawed, and the fact that most men are unlikely to be well-socialised with women – who watch movies about romance and start to wonder why their lives don’t match up with what’s on screen. Like the Japanese, Indians also have strong family structures, so that an unemployed youth staying at home and slowly rotting away isn’t uncommon.

When we hear the word, we don’t sense that it may be a confusing, cluster-f*ck of a phenomenon. There’s no one way for us to discern this or solve it. There are people who’ve recovered and gone on to get married, some even to their ‘rental-sisters.’ But then there are also hikikomori who have been in this condition for the last 20 years and do not have any desire to come out of it. The worst case scenario is that there are more than half a million people who aren’t even aware of their condition. Animes like Welcome to NHK and movies about Hikikomori may give us a visual on how hikikomori may feel. One of the quotes from Welcome to NHK especially made a mark on me- “To a hikikomori, winter is painful because everything feels cold, frozen over, and lonely. To a hikikomori, spring is also painful because everyone is in a good mood and therefore enviable. Summer, of course, is especially painful…” Maika Elan has an amazing range of photographs which showcase a spectrum of this phenomenon—from the ones who are new, the ones who have faced it for decades, to the ones who have recovered. It’s worth a glance and may give you a lot of fodder for thought.

It’s a scary time for all of us. Even though we have measures to have constant communication, it almost seems like we are stepping away from socialising. And the more that we do so, the more it seems to do more harm than good. It is true for all of us that we keep touch in ways that may come as shallow. The world has always been a machine but the ‘chewing out’ and ‘burning out’ cycle seems to have increased its pace. It is a positive step that social impairment or problems with social connections are finally being looked at as health issues. But that’s the best one can ask for, for now.


Harshita Jain

Second year Psychology student from Delhi University, with a keen interest in reading anything from Archer to Rumi. Speaks in analogies, more often than not. Writes poetry and paints, when not testing people's attributes. Believes in Occam's Razor.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.