Sometimes we all feel the need to take a break and shut ourselves off from the pressures of an increasingly stressful world. But what if we never open up again? That's what happens with hikikomori.
Originally identified in Japan, hikikomori are defined as people who withdraw totally from society, rarely interacting with those from outside their immediate family and staying at home without going to school or work for at least six consecutive months, in the most extreme cases remaining in isolation for years or even decades. Popularised by the 1998 book “Social Withdrawal – Adolescence Without End” by psychologist Tamaki Saitō, the term hikikomori literally means something like “pulling inward" and refers both to sufferers and to the phenomenon itself. An estimated half a million Japanese young people are currently thought to be hikikomori, and similar phenomena have been identified in a growing number of countries including the United States, the UK, France and Italy.
Though there are many older hikikomori, the condition mainly affects those of between 14 and 30 years of age - the period of life when the responsibilities and expectations of adult life can leave young people feeling overwhelmed. Researchers believe hikikomori may be triggered by a combination of factors which include overprotective parents, highly competitive school systems and job markets and strong social pressure towards conformity. Traumatic childhood experiences, introverted personalities and shyness may also play a role, and several studies have suggested that at least some hikikomori may be affected by a range of mental disorders which affect social integration. In Japan, hikikomori is thought to be facilitated by levels of middle class affluence which allow parents to support adult children indefinitely and the inability or unwillingness of parents to recognise and intervene in their offspring's increasing isolation.
Video games and widespread use of social media have reduced the amount of time we dedicate to face to face interaction. And they have led to a question: has the increasing ubiquity of digital technologies contributed to the hikikomori phenomenon? Opinions are divided. Although no clear connection between the phenomenon and modern communication technologies like social media and video games has yet been established, some researchers consider them an exacerbating factor, with various studies of hikikomori claiming that they often show signs of internet addiction and that their preference for online communication may play a role in the development of their social withdrawal.
Treatments for hikikomori generally focus on support programs that train family members in positive and functional communication and individual psychotherapy to cultivate self-confidence, but the stereotypes and misconceptions that surround the condition are one of the biggest hurdles to recovery. In an interview with The Japan Times, one sufferer says that better public understanding of the issue is key to improving the situation. “People think hikikomori have easy lives, that they’re just relaxing and taking it easy,” he says. “But in reality, it’s horrible.”
Professor Alan Teo, one of the authors of a 2015 study looking at the occurence of hikikomori in four countries, agrees. “With more attention to loneliness we are finally starting to look at these issues as health issues,” he says. “And that's good.”