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.

hmm I never thought about it but I guess there are some hikikomori vibes in watamote

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.

I have watched Zetsubou though

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.

great hair!

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.

hmmm…all my pics ended up of ladies…

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.

Rini 2020 (4)

26 thoughts

  1. This is a very informative read! I’ve heard the term ‘hikikomori’ since years ago. I also remember watching some documentary videos about them but because of my goldfish memory I ended up forgetting that. So to be able to read and learn about hikikomori is a very enlightening experience.

    And it’s kinda comforting too (?) in a way. I really appreciate that you sympathize with those who have mental illnesses because I wish people could at least try to learn about it and try to understand it. There’s still stigma surrounding mental illnesses, especially in Asia countries, and topic like this is still considered a taboo to talk about.

    1. Which is such a shame. We really need to figure out how to talk about mental issues in general.

      1. You’re right. Mental health is as important as our physical health too, so such topic should be normalized. Especially during tough times like this.

  2. A couple of years ago I read a book called “The Stranger in the Woods.” It was about a guy who dropped out of society, disappeared into the woods in Maine, and lived there alone for the next 27 years. The whole time he was out there he only spoke to one other person, someone he randomly crossed paths with once and said about three words to. So not exactly a hikikomori, since he went outdoors instead of indoors, but something very like it. When the authorities finally caught him and brought him in (he’d been burglarizing nearby vacation cabins for food and clothing), he was still perfectly healthy both physically and mentally, he was just someone who was happy not being around other people. It also dove a bit into the historical context of hermits and other people like that. Very good book, I recommend it if you’re at all interested.

    Anyway, there’s no doubt it’s a different mindset from the vast majority of society. There’s a reason why some people have challenged solitary confinement in prison as possibly cruel and unusual punishment, after all. But not all hikikomori or other types of loners have mental health issues, either, despite how the extroverted majority might want to stereotype them.

    1. I agree. Mental issues are really only issues if they have detrimental side effects. It’s the same with physical issues. If we have bacteria that live symbiotically in our system, we don’t consider ourselves sick.

  3. this was such a fascinating and informative read. Like a lot of other introverts I also have not been that worried about the quarantine either, if anything it gave me time to catch up on writing, reading and gaming and as for disappearing off someone where alone with good WiFi my god that sounds like heaven to me too.

  4. Japan’s cultural evolution is subject to a sort of “Galapagos Effect” due to its being a self-sufficient island nation that was relatively unhindered by colonialism. We have these things to thank for the rich and unique culture we appreciate today, but it has led to some other more poorly-understood phenomena, such as Hikikomori, Karoushi, and (my personal favourite) “Heiwa Boke”– which literally means “Peace Idiot”– in which some Japanese fail to take proper safety precautions when traveling overseas due to Japan’s extremely low crime rate compared to the rest of the world. Just as the majority of the world has difficulty understanding Japanese culture, Japanese culture can have difficulty learning from the rest of the world, and as such, these phenomena persist, and remain predominantly-Japanese issues. So their uniqueness is a bit of a double-edged sword.

    The sad thing is that Hikikomori behaviour often leads to “kodokushi”, AKA dying alone, with no close family/friends to check on you, so strangers only notice you’ve died once the landlord realises you’ve stopped paying rent, or gets complaints about a bad smell coming from your apartment. It happens a lot to older Japanese people, since they’re retired and don’t/can’t get out very often. There’s some articles out there on the subject, if you want to depress yourself.

    On a more personal note, I’ve been a NEET for many years in the past, and though I don’t think I could’ve ever been considered a full-blown Hikikomori, I’m definitely a social outlier, and completely sympathise with how they feel. I’m a pretty weird dude– I’ve never had a steady group of friends since my personality and mood fluctuated so often when I was younger, and even now I have difficulty in face-to-face social situations– something about my brain just doesn’t read social cues the same way most other people do. Stuff I do (or don’t do) can land me in awkward predicaments without me even realising, and by the time I do realise, it’s often too late to fix things. It would probably be pretty funny, if I were an anime character or somesuch. Anyways, the point is that I understand that feeling of genuinely *wanting* to have a steady social life & relationships with others, but not knowing exactly how to go about it, and how your attitude about the whole thing can just get worse whenever your attempts to be “normal” backfire (though I’m getting better about this). I can often convince myself that I don’t *want* to change, that everyone else is out to get me, blah blah blah, and there’s a vicious cycle of depression and self-hate within all this; but at the end of the day, nothing changes unless I do something about it. I’m slowly realising that nobody’s going to save me from my own head, unless that somebody is me. I think it’s the same with Hikikomori– take things at your own pace, do things your way, but keep moving forward, any way you can. Do something, even if that “something” is just going outside and taking a walk around the block. You might never be a social butterfly, but you don’t have to be unless you want to. Above all, just try to make it a game, of sorts. People take themselves too seriously in this crazy, crazy world, anyways. Dunno who needed to hear any of this, but hey, sometimes I learn stuff about myself when I let myself go on tangents, heh.

    1. I don’t know about need but I wanted to read this. It’s why I wrote the post. I often have readers much better informed leave the best comments that make the post so much better. This is exactly the type of comment that elevates a post. Thank you so much

  5. I guess I was an intermittent hikikomori as a kid. I certainly did my best to avoid social contact and that included my parents. (I never had the chance to be a NEET.) Probably some fairly long stretches as a young adult too. Associating with other people rarely brought anything but anxiety in advance and pain when things didn’t work out. Complete isolation wasn’t possible so I cannot say if that is something I would have stuck with for months or years if it were possible. But, to this day, that cabin in the woods still sounds pretty damn interesting.

    In my case, it was a combination of Asperger’s, depression, and social anxiety.

    There are emotional conditions that mellow with age. I don’t know why. Is it learning and experience? Is it the brain continuing to mature with age? Is it the fading of the hormonal madness that starts in adolescence? Do the necessities of adulthood force you off the shelf? All the above?

    Depression tends to peak in late adolescence and then again in old age. Violent behavior drops dramatically during the 20s. I’m not sure the same thing can be said of anxiety or OCD. Though they may never become highly social, I think most hikikomori will also mellow over time.

    1. I think most neurochemical issues tend to be worse during puberty when hormones are disturbed. This said for me OCD has gotten worse with age although with proper care it’s all but gone…

  6. “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.”

    Doesn’t it, though?

    “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. ”

    Mental ailments are equivalent to physical ailments.

    If I had a railroad spike sticking out of my chest, would anyone try to tell me to just suck it up? Harden my will? Think positive?

    Well, I guess this is 2020, so maybe some people might. But they shouldn’t. They should recommend I get to an emergency room as quickly as possible. Preferably one with a trauma center.

    Mental illnesses have the same severity and urgency. Most are akin to broken bones that don’t pierce the skin, and some might heal without intervention. But just like a bone that’s not set correctly, the healing might itself be problematic. We humans need to get better at treating mental health issues.

    Before my rant really gets fired up, I’ll stop. But that topic really does get me fired up…

  7. The Japan Times recently ran a story with a headline something like Hikkomori can teach us something about how to live during the lockdown. The two people they interviewed there both became hikkomori voluntarily – making the decision to withdraw from society in order to focus on what was more important to them. One of them was a failed writer who ended up becoming a game creator after using his hikkomori time to teach himself to code and program. He has decided he likes his life and is still a hikkomori, although he is going to have games to sell soon that will make him more financially independent. The other interviewee also retired to his room to focus, but he has since transitioned into being out into the world again as he is running his own business as well. Both of these men did retire because they were unhappy with how they were unable to fit into the society, but they used their time to refocus and find new ways to support themselves. Neither of them seem to be currently experiencing depression or anxiety to a crippling extent. The story didn’t belittle their decision at all, but treated it as a decision that they made for good reason. True, I think both of them probably orginally had depression and possibly some anxiety issues from trying to fit in and not being able to do so, not being able to accomplish their own goals or those society pressed on them.

    So I wonder if hikkomori is not somewhat like autism where we say now “I am on the autism scale” – the scale running from people who have some problems with personal relations, to people who are completely unable to communicate or deal with life at all. The hikkomori scale being more like “I am going to lock myself in my room until I figure out how I can find my own way to fit and succeed in society” to “I can’t face the world anymore. I can’t deal with it at all” with the ability to move up or down the scale.

    Speaking for myself, I’m perfectly content alone and at home where I have my art supplies, my books, my computer – but in my case, also a yard, a garden, often even animals to care for. But people? Nah. I don’t need actual people.In fact, other people being around me is stressful for me. Because of our situation, the lockdown has made almost no difference at all in our daily life. More so for my hubby, who has a compromised immune system, so he has not been able to go anywhere other than his dialysis treatments for almost two months. Like me, he’s quite content with his computer games, and lots of streaming services. I still have to go out to buy groceries, pick up his prescriptions and such, but I am doing so even less than usual. Amusingly, we have actually seen more of our neighbors, who have kindly taken to dropping by now and then to make sure we’re okay. And we still take an almost daily walk to the little park down the street for exercise.

    I do have a friend whose social anxiety is such that she cannot answer the phone. She copes because she is quite able to communicate on line, emails, twitter and so forth. I can answer the phone. I’d just rather not.

    BTW, the advice from the hikkomori interviewed in the article was pretty much what you hear everywhere else. Use video conferencing, skype and such to still communicate with those you love, and use the time to learn something new or indulge in your hobbies.

    So I guess my conclusion would be that it’s okay to take being hikkomori lightly. Some hikkomori apparently take it pretty lightly. Others do have much greater problems and I think we all understand that we are not making fun of someone with crippling depression or anxiety any more than we would make fun of someone with a physical disease.

    I have a little pet peeve about this “political correctness” that has led to such deathly seriousness about every thing, and those self assigned police who feel called upon to jump upon any moment of levity as somehow BAD and WRONG. Especially now, we need a little levity. When a crisis comes in your life, you can cry about it and wallow in your suffering, or laugh about it, get up and dust yourself off and move on.

    So why can’t we say – well, now we know a bit more like what it is like to be hikkomori, and maybe I wouldn’t mind it myself as we learn to enjoy being at home. Better than pacing around like a caged lion and thinking of all the things we cannot do. And maybe it does give us a better understanding of what someone who is truly hikkomori goes through, so we are more empathetic and compassionate, as well as knowing better what we might be able to do to help someone dealing with that situation on a daily basis.

    1. Humor is important not to take ourselves too seriously. Taking oneself too seriously is one of the great maladies of the human condition. Do not underestimate the number of social ills caused by large groups of people who cannot laugh at themselves..

      Humor is a way to defuse emotions that are too powerful to handle otherwise. People who live in high stress, high emotion environment often develop a sense of humor about what is happening or they self destruct. (See also “gallows humor.”) Outsiders may mistake this for not caring.

      Humor can also be used as a method of bullying and ridiculing other people. As a kid i was the butt of many jokes. Even when I wasn’t doing anything odd, the other kids would find reasons to make fun of me. I was a kind of unofficial class target. Once you have been defined as something, everything you do is seen through that lens. Humor was a way to keep the odd kid “in his place” and reinforcing how ridiculous I was.

      If you can laugh at yourself the bullying style of humor loses a lot of its power. The victim of the ridicule rarely sees this and considers laughing at oneself to be a validation of the bully. Developing a sense of humor about painful things and about oneself is a good shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

      Wish I’d figured that out decades ago.

      1. Me,too. Both my classmates at school and my abusers spent 25 years ridiculing everything about me. I would change only to find the new whatever would also be ridiculed. Because I could never win for losing, I finally reached a point where I did not care, I assumed I would be laughed at no matter what. It was strangely freeing. Now I do what I damn well please – and people admire me for it. LOL. And believe me – some of it is laughable 😉 Thanks for shareing wisdom!

  8. At least I can still call myself a Shut-In NEET, you now are wordless. I do get that emptiness though, its not a constant for me though.

    I am not sure about the people giving you flack for using the word lightly though. I get the sentiment but in using a word more lighty we can also make it less severe, branding it as this inescapable force might be true by treating it more likely might make a situation feel a bit less dire if you actual are one.

    Based on your explanation I can score fairly high towards this incidentidetally but by making it a lighther subject matter ir could make it easier to feel one can escape.

    Perhaps we should not glorify it but there isn’t anything wrong in trying to keep things a bit more light hearted.

    I for one know that I like an occasional heart joke as it makes it less real in a way, less real can be good too.

  9. Nicely written and very informative, while still being empathetic. (I’ve already notified the local constabulary, so your best bet is to release the real Irina and make a break for it!)

  10. Welcome to the NHK was the show that brought the concepts of Hikikomori and NEET to my attention. Since then, I always thought of the concepts more in sociological terms than psychological ones, since people tended to describe the social situation that led to the spread of the type rather than the symptoms (pressures to succeed/conform). Hikipos is a very interesting site I’ve never heard of. I read a few articles now (very interesting personal reports, there), so thanks for that.

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