Monday, January 16, 2006

Are you a hikikomori? Japan is tracking a growing social problem of people who take to their rooms for years at a time and rarely leave.

Excerpts from Shutting Themselves In - New York Times
A leading psychiatrist claims that one million Japanese are hikikomori, which, if true, translates into roughly 1 percent of the population. Even other experts' more conservative estimates, ranging between 100,000 and 320,000 sufferers, are alarming, given how dire the consequences may be. As a hikikomori ages, the odds that he'll re-enter the world decline. Indeed, some experts predict that most hikikomori who are withdrawn for a year or more may never fully recover. That means that even if they emerge from their rooms, they either won't get a full-time job or won't be involved in a long-term relationship.

"Initially, I diagnosed it as a type of depression or personality disorder, or schizophrenia," Saito went on to say. But as he treated an increasing number of patients with similar symptoms, he used the term hikikomori for the problem. Soon after, the media latched on to the phenomenon, dubbing the shut-ins "the lost generation," "the missing million" and "the ultimate in social parasitism" and making hikikomori the focus of dozens of books, magazine articles and films - including a documentary, "Home," in which a filmmaker tracked the life of his shut-in brother.

Some hikikomori do occasionally emerge from their rooms for meals with their parents, late-night runs to convenience stores or, in Takeshi's case, once-a-month trips to buy CD's. And though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.

The rate of "school refusal" (kids who skip school for one month or more a year, which is sometimes a precursor to hikikomori) has doubled since 1990. And along with hikikomori sufferers, hundreds of thousands of other young men and women are neither working nor in school. After 15 years of sluggish growth, the full-time salaryman jobs of the previous generation have withered, and in their places are often part-time jobs or no jobs and a sense of hopelessness among many Japanese about the future.

While the stereotype of a hikikomori is a man who never leaves his room, many shut-ins do venture out once a day or once a week to a konbini, as a 24-hour convenience store is known in Japan. There, a hikikomori can find a to-go bento box for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which means he doesn't have to rely on his mother to cook, and he doesn't have to suffer through a meal in public. And for hikikomori, who tend to live on a reversed clock, waking around noon and going to sleep in the early-morning hours, the konbini is a safe and anonymous late-night choice: the cashier doesn't make small talk, and the salarymen in their suits and schoolchildren in their uniforms - reminders of the life the hikikomori is not living - are asleep at home.

Konbini are just one of the accouterments that facilitate the hikikomori life. They don't cause hikikomori any more than do the TV's and computers and video games that hikikomori rely on to fill out the tedious hours. But if objects can be enablers, to borrow from recovery lingo, then modern technology would be among them, as would the konbini, where, like nocturnal animals, hikikomori grab what they need to feed their sheltered lives and quickly return home before the morning light cracks and the working world reappears.

Maggie Jones' previous article on kids of the phony Bakersfield child sex abuse rings of the 80's.

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