Let me just start off by admitting that I’m an idiot. I was talking to a few people online and I was saying how the hikikomori had it right all along when you consider the present pandemic. It was a very stupid thing to say and the only excuse I have, and it’s not an excuse at all it’s just an explanation, is that I was very uneducated on the subject. No one called me out on it but they could have. It did lead me to do a bit of research though.
In fact, I often thought that I would probably have those tendencies myself. So I read up on it and, no, I do not!
Anime does occasionally show hikikomori characters but rarely does it delve too deeply into the subject, with the very notable and very worthy exception of Welcome to the NHK. Still, I hadn’t really gotten a proper grasp on it. To me, it was still akin to an extreme form of introversion but it’s not.
For the record, I am an introvert. A pretty big one. I have at several points in my life gone weeks without physically talking to another person (emails and texts are inescapable). And if it wasn’t for people seeking me out I could go months. The idea of finding some little cabin in the middle of the woods with no one else around and great WiFi sounds like an absolute dream. I am writing this in late April and have been in isolation since early March and despite some joking around, it has yet to really affect me in any way. If the quarantine rules were lifted tomorrow, I would probably still stay home. What I’m saying is that the mechanics of hikikomori aren’t that odd to me. I think I would still leave my place to get fresh air fairly regularly but I could see myself not talking to people for extended periods of time. I don’t suffer much from loneliness. But after reading up on the subject I can say with assurance that I am not a hikikomori and I don’t really have any inclinations for it at all.
I have not read not watched Welcomed to the NHK but I’ve always wanted to. To be precise I have always wanted to read it. It seems like a work that I want to take in at my own pace and in the more focused medium of a novel. If I had though, maybe I would have known better.
Hikikomori isn’t a cute or relatable character quirk. It isn’t akin to teenage unsociability or wanting everyone to disappear. We all feel like that. From what I have seen and read, the phenomenon seems a lot closer to a form of depression. I have no personal experience with depression whatsoever but I did study it at school. It’s a very real and very painful disease that shouldn’t be used merely as a punchline. But I think it’s also o.k. to not demonize it. Like any other disease, people that suffer from it have good days and bad and it does not entirely define them.
The difference between hikikomori and extreme introversion or depression, is that there is a large dose of social anxiety mixed in. From what I gleamed, people that suffer from it are not in fact antisocial. For the most part they wish they could take part in society but they don’t feel capable of it. They panic at the thought of answering emails. One young lady said that she just felt completely empty inside and the idea of going out of her room was unbearable. And it’s not just socializing as we often use the term, making friends and meeting new people. It’s taking part in society on any level that’s terrifying. Including having a job or going to school or taking part in volunteering activities. That’s where the real particularity is.
Like people with depression, hikikomori often find themselves with no motivation to do anything at all. Like people with anxiety they will feel panic at the thought of interaction.But there is another layer on top, something that’s relatively unique but that may be getting more widespread.
I know that for some people mental symptoms seem vague or controllable but keep in mind that both depression and anxiety come with their share of physical symptoms as well. Hyperventilation which causes dizzy spells and affects memory, loss of appetite which can lead to malnutrition and a whole bevy of associated symptoms, insomnia, I think anyone who has ever had to operate on two hours of sleep can attest that it has quite a few drawbacks and actual physical muscle pain. That’s just to name a few. So not only is your brain screaming at you not to go out, but your body may not be up to it either.
I went on a little tangent there, didn’t I. When I was in school I did a few stages at mental hospitals, including one specialized in eating disorders. I know that there are still a lot of people that think mental ailments can be treated by willpower or attitude adjustments. I consider these views very dangerous and so I get a bit touchy on the matter. My readers aren’t likely to think that though, so I’m sorry if that came off needlessly preachy.
It should be noted that hikikomori (like a lot of mental issues) have the caveat of only being diagnosable if they are detrimental to a person’s life. Meaning that if you stay in your room for years and are perfectly happy, healthy and capable to earn a living, you would not qualify as a hikikomori. I think that’s important to note as well.
What makes the hikikomori phenomenon particularly unique and heartbreaking in my opinion, is the cultural element. Although hikikomori exist all over the world, the phenomenon does seem to be concentrated in Japan and certain other Asian countries that don,t release their stats. There have been several studies made to try to explain the rise of these modern day hermits. The most popular agreed upon explanation is that it’s a symptom of the expected conformity of Japanese society. In a culture that associates an individuals value according to what their input into society is and how well they conform to the expectations of the norm, people that for some reason fall outside these expectations can find themselves feeling utterly worthless. Social awkwardness or lack of managerial skills isn’t simply inconvenient, it can be ego destroying. As such, when you have nothing else to really anchor your self-esteem onto, if you don’t feel like you’re living up to your role in society, then there’s nothing left.
This is why the phenomenon really took off in the late 90s when Japan’s economy was struggling and it left a lot of young people unable to find a job. Since it cannot be a fault of the system, people blamed themselves instead and decided that the best course of action would be to simply withdraw from a society they clearly had no place in (or didn’t deserve…).
I understand this on a surface level. I can easily see how someone would get to that point and I sympathize. It seems extremely difficult to live through. However my experience and personality are such that I would likely gravitate towards completely different unhealthy coping mechanisms and as such, part of it will always be a mystery to me. One thing’s for sure, I would never consider any part of this as desirable. I’m sure that hikikomori can live a full life and I know they can get better but i wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
So why did I write all this? I guess it was partly to atone for my lapse in judgment even if it was in a private setting. I also thought that some of you might be interested in learning a bit more about it since it is a phenomenon we do hear about a lot. Have you had any experiences with it?
Oh, before I forget, while doing my research I came across this publication: HIKIPOS. That link is to the English version. It seems it’s an online publication written by hikikomori and recovering hikikomori, mainly for people still going through it and their families. The translations can be a bit confusing at times but for the most part are quite good. I found it really interesting and if you are at all intrigued by it yourself, this is a pretty unique glimpse at the phenomenon that brings personal insight not available in research papers.