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Hikikomori: the art of isolation

Jeremy Elphick reflects on the sound of silence

Photo: Michael Heiss

People communicate with one another in endless ways. With some, you’re able to have insightful and probing conversations that last for hours. Others you might only have a short chat with once in a while. Others, a glance or a passing forced smile. Then there are people you’ll never meet or speak to in your entire existence.

It’s equally fascinating to reflect on how these communications shift over time: growing intimately close with those you’ve barely spoken to in the past, whilst falling out of touch with those you’ve been intimately close to.

In many of these circumstances, it comes down to space; how often you want to communicate with other people and how often you want them to communicate with you. But what happens when you consciously decide that you want an absolute amount of ‘space’ – pure isolation?

The concept of hikikomori – which translates to ‘pulling away’ or ‘drawing inwards’ – is a growing trend of extreme withdrawal from the outside world. Existence, and life, is something that occurs within the walls of your own bedroom, outside of fleeting trips to other areas of the house for basic essentials. Many hikikomori may shut themselves in their rooms for a few years, others may do it as long as half a lifetime and chances are, no one will ever know.

It’s impossible to get accurate figures on the trend due to the fact that it’s defined by seclusion and secrecy, however, estimates range between 100 000 and 1 million for the category of young males alone – with males making up approximately 80 percent of the hikikomori population of Japan.  Some estimates, such as Tamaki Saito’s (who coined the term), have hypothesised up to one in ten Japanese youth as suffering from the Hikikomori syndrome.

Social awkwardness and withdrawal isn’t something unique to Japan – take Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who was described as being “immersed in himself and isolated so much from everyone that he was afraid not only of meeting his landlady but of meeting anyone at all.”

What makes the Japan’s case unique is the way is subtle method with which society facilitates it on a mass scale. In Japan, shame and honour are pertinent concepts that drive societal trends. For instance, in the 1920s, author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the idol of a younger writer named Osamu Dazai, killed himself. Over a decade later, Dazai did the same. Akutagawa reasoned “a vague insecurity”, whilst Dazai considered himself a lifelong failure. Perhaps the most lauded filmmaker in the country, Akira Kurosawa, attempted suicide after his 1965 film Red Beard was commercially unsuccessful. In the 1960s, one of Japan’s greatest writers, Yukio Mishima, tried to lead a coup to restore the power of the emperor before committing sepukku after his failure to do so.

Suicide in Japan isn’t as taboo as in the West, with many viewing it as natural response to dishonour or failure, an appropriate way to withdraw from society.  The same reasoning of dishonour, social pressure, and perceiving oneself as a failure are the central factors cited for the growing rates of hikikomori in the country.

There’s another question in this debate that lingers and undermines much debate on the subject – should hikikomori be viewed as suffering from a series of symptoms, or is it the wrong response for society to have? Is societal withdrawal more reflective on the individual or the society they withdraw from?

In Japanese Zen thought, the idea of emptiness and achieving a selfless existence is lauded. Most often, those who wish to follow this path will withdraw from society, travelling to monasteries wherein societal withdrawal is an essential part of achieving a transcendent state of fulfilment.

Whilst conflating hikikomori with Zen Buddhism is a stretch, the premise – viewing societal withdrawal as a negative is often myopic – is the same. Initiatives to combat the trends of hikikomori are intensely focused on the individual as the problem, rather than addressing the issues that underpin society in general.

After hours of searching, emailing, tweeting at, and messaging various accounts from Japan that identified as ‘hikikomori’ I only received two responses. The first replied “I do not want to talk to stranger”, the second simply said “sorry” before blocking my twitter account. Randomly messaging people through social media obviously isn’t the best way to get a firsthand idea of what leads one to become a hikikomori, but the lack of responses, even on a digital plane, is demonstrative of the severity of the self-seclusion.

They remain little pockets of the world, unreachable, entirely separate, an unattainable other. The perception of whether this is a positive or a negative is really in the eye of the beholder.

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