Miércoles 15 de Febrero de 2006, Ip nº 140

Shutting themselves in
Por Maggie Jones

One morning when he was 15, Takeshi shut the door to his bedroom, and for the next four years he did not come out. He didn't go to school. He didn't have a job. He didn't have friends. Month after month, he spent 23 hours a day in a room no bigger than a king-size mattress, where he ate dumplings, rice and other leftovers that his mother had cooked, watched TV game shows and listened to Radiohead and Nirvana. "Anything," he said, "that was dark and sounded desperate."

I met Takeshi outside Tokyo not long ago, shortly after he finally left his parents' house to join a job-training program called New Start. He was wiry, with a delicate face, tousled, dyed auburn hair and the intensity of a hungry college freshman. "Don't laugh, but musicians really helped me, especially Radiohead," he told me through an interpreter, before scribbling some lyrics in English in my notebook. "That's what encouraged me to leave my room."

The night Takeshi and I met, we were at one of New Start's three-times-a-week potluck dinners at a community center where the atmosphere was like a school dorm's - a dartboard nailed to the wall over a large dining table, a worn couch and overstuffed chairs in front of a TV blaring a soccer match. About two dozen guys lounged on chairs or sat on tatami mats, slurping noodles and soup and talking movies and music. Most were in their 20's. And many had stories very much like Takeshi's.

Next to us was Shuichi, who, like Takeshi, asked that I use only his first name to protect his privacy. He was 20, wore low-slung jeans on his lanky body and a 1970's Rod Stewart shag and had dreams of being a guitarist. Three years ago, he dropped out of high school and became a recluse for a miserable year before a counselor persuaded him to join New Start. Behind him a young man sat on the couch wearing small wire-frame glasses and a shy smile. He ducked his head as he spoke, and his voice was so quiet that I had to lean in to hear him. After years of being bullied at school and having no friends, Y.S., who asked to be identified by his initials, retreated to his room at age 14, and proceeded to watch TV, surf the Internet and build model cars - for 13 years. When he finally left his room one April afternoon last year, he had spent half of his life as a shut-in. Like Takeshi and Shuichi, Y.S. suffered from a problem known in Japan as hikikomori, which translates as "withdrawal" and refers to a person sequestered in his room for six months or longer with no social life beyond his home. (The word is a noun that describes both the problem and the person suffering from it and is also an adjective, like "alcoholic.") 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.

South Korea and Taiwan have reported a scattering of hikikomori, and isolated cases may have always existed in Japan. But only in the last decade and only in Japan has hikikomori become a social phenomenon. Like anorexia, which has been largely limited to Western cultures, hikikomori is a culturebound syndrome that thrives in one particular country during a particular moment in its history.

As the problem has become more widespread in Japan, an industry has sprung up around it. There are support groups for parents, psychologists who specialize in it (including one who counsels shut-ins via the Internet) and several halfway programs like New Start, offering dorms and job training. For all the attention, though, hikikomori remains confounding. The Japanese public has blamed everything from smothering mothers to absent, overworked fathers, from school bullying to the lackluster economy, from academic pressure to video games. "I sometimes wonder whether or not I understand this issue," confessed Shinako Tsuchiya, a member of Parliament, one afternoon in her Tokyo office. She has led a study group on hikikomori, but most of her colleagues aren't interested, and the government has yet to allocate funds. "They don't understand how serious it is."

That may be in part because the scope of the problem is frustratingly elusive. 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. And some will never leave home. In many cases, their parents are now approaching retirement, and once they die, the fate of the shut-ins - whose social and work skills, if they ever existed, will have atrophied - is an open question.

That isn't a problem just for the hikikomori and their families but also for a country that has been struggling with a sagging economy, a plummeting birth rate and what has been called a youth crisis. 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.

In addition to the economy, Japanese culture and sex roles play a strong part in the hikikomori phenomenon. "Men start to feel the pressure in junior high school, and their success is largely defined in a couple of years," said James Roberson, a cultural anthropologist at Tokyo Jogakkan College and an editor of the book "Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan." "Hikikomori is a resistance to that pressure. Some of them are saying: 'To hell with it. I don't like it and I don't do well."' Also, this is a society where kids can drop out. In Japan, children commonly live with their parents into their 20's, and despite the economic downturn, plenty of parents can afford to support their children indefinitely - and do. As one hikikomori expert put it, "Japanese parents tell their children to fly while holding firmly to their ankles."

One result is a new underclass of young men who can't or won't join the full-time working world and who are a stark counterpoint to Japan's long-running image as a country bursting with industrious salarymen. "We used to believe everyone was equal," said Noki Futagami, the founder of New Start. "But the gap is growing. I suspect there will be a bipolarization of this society. There will be the group of people who can be in the global world. And then there will be others, like the hikikomori. The ones who cannot be in that world."

In the mid-1980's, young men began showing up at Dr. Tamaki Saito's office who were lethargic and uncommunicative and spent most of their days in their rooms. "I didn't have a name for it," Saito told me one Friday evening at Sofukai Sasaki Hospital outside Tokyo, where he's the medical director. Saito is soft-spoken with sleepy eyes and thick black hair that he brushes off his forehead as he talks. For the last decade he has been Japan's reigning expert on hikikomori, and his office shelves are filled with books he has written on the subject, including "How to Rescue Your Child From Hikikomori."


Saito, who has treated more than 1,000 hikikomori patients, views the problem as largely a family and social disease, caused in part by the interdependence of Japanese parents and children and the pressure on boys, eldest sons in particular, to excel in academics and the corporate world. Hikikomori often describe years of rote classroom learning followed by afternoons and evenings of intense cram school to prepare them for high-school or university entrance exams. Today's parents are more demanding because Japan's declining birth rate means they have fewer children on whom to push their hopes, says Mariko Fujiwara, director of research at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in Tokyo. If a kid doesn't follow a set path to an elite university and a top corporation, many parents - and by extension their children - view it as a failure. "After World War II," Fujiwara told me, "Japanese only knew a certain kind of salaryman future, and now they lack the imagination and the creativity to think about the world in a new way."

Those post-World War II salarymen who did work so tirelessly were at least rewarded with the security of lifetime employment. "It was simple in my youth - you went to high school, then to the University of Tokyo," says Noki Futagami of New Start, referring to Japan's most prestigious university. "And then you got a job in a major corporation. That's where you grew up. The corporation took care of you for the rest of your life." Now in its place is a leaner global economy that demands the kinds of skills - independent thinking, communication, entrepreneurship - that many parents and schools don't teach. Boys have spent their young lives being educated for a work system that has shriveled, leaving many feeling inadequate and stuck.


In other societies the response from many youths would be different. If they didn't fit into the mainstream, they might join a gang or become a Goth or be part of some other subculture. But in Japan, where uniformity is still prized and reputations and outward appearances are paramount, rebellion comes in muted forms, like hikikomori. Any urge a hikikomori might have to venture into the world to have a romantic relationship or sex, for instance, is overridden by his self-loathing and the need to shut his door so that his failures, real or perceived, will be cloaked from the world.


One Friday afternoon not long ago, Yoshimi Kawakami waited at a doorstep near Kyoto, expecting to be stood up. It has happened in the snow in Tokyo and in the heat of Kyoto summer afternoons. She has waited for two hours or more, fueled by the hope that - this time - someone will answer.

It is part of being a "rental sister," as the outreach counselors are known at New Start. Rental sisters are often a hikikomori's first point of contact and his route back to the outside world. (There are a few rental brothers, too, but "women are softer, and hikikomori respond better to them," one counselor told me.)

The relationship usually begins after a parent telephones New Start and arranges for consultations and routine visits from a rental sister, which costs about $8,000 a year. The rental sister then writes a letter to the hikikomori, introducing herself and the program. "I never read it; I threw it away," said Y.S., the 28-year-old with the shy smile I'd met at New Start's potluck. When Kawakami arrived at his house in Chiba, near Tokyo, for the first time, Y.S. opened his bedroom door long enough to tell her, "Please, go home."

It was a typical first meeting. "We'll just talk through the door," Kumi Hashizume, a counselor at New Start, said. "And tell them our interests and hobbies. Very rarely do we get any words back. And if they do speak, it's very stressed." Months can go by before a hikikomori opens his door and more months before he ventures out with a rental sister to the park or to the movies. The goal is that eventually he will enroll in New Start and live in the program's dorms and participate in its job-training programs, at a day-care center, a coffee shop, a restaurant.


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.


On a Saturday afternoon thick with Tokyo humidity, about 30 mothers and fathers milled around the hallway of a community center in a Tokyo suburb. Many were retirees, and under different circumstances they might have been on the golf course or enrolled in the center's swing-dancing class. Instead, at a time when they expected their sons and daughters to be married and having children of their own, once a month they spend a weekend afternoon at a hikikomori parents' support group. "I'm 69 and I would be retired, but hikikomori is expensive," said Kouhei Nishizuka, a father with neatly combed silver hair and the stooped shoulders of someone who spends too much time at his desk.
He has been supporting his 28-year-old daughter, among the minority of female hikikomori, for the last eight years. "I have been to hospitals; I've read books," he said as he sat in the lobby holding a folder thick with newsletters and reports from the support group. "My wife and I put her in the hospital, but doctors couldn't help her. So what do we do?

By the time parents seek help, often their child has been shut in for a year or more. "When they call," Dr. Saito said, "I offer them three choices: 1) Come to me for counseling; 2) Kick your child out; 3) Accept your child's state and be prepared to take care of him for the rest of your life. They choose Option 1." He also offers poignantly simple parenting tips, like not leaving dinner at a child's doorstep. "You make dinner and call him to the table, and if he doesn't come then let him fend for himself." In addition to meals, parents often provide monetary allowances for their adult child, and in rare cases, if a child has become verbally or physically abusive, parents move out, leaving their home to the shut-in.

"They do everything for the child," one counselor said. "When we take a step forward, the parents get afraid. They don't want turbulence."

But some parents also genuinely fear that their children won't survive without them. "Maybe we should have kicked him out," Mieko, Hiroshi's mother, told me. "But we couldn't in the beginning. And now it's too late. I don't know how he'd take care of himself. He doesn't have the skills. We'd just end up supporting him." Meanwhile, her daughter wants to marry, and Mieko worries that her hikikomori son hurts her chances. "People check a family's background," she said. Reputation is everything.

Which means it takes some courage to pick up the telephone and call New Start or Saito or Sadatsugu Kudo, who runs an organization called Youth Support Center, which fields about 1,500 calls a year from families seeking help. "You have to understand the relationship between parent and child in Japan," he says. "It is so unique. Most parents feel that hikikomori is a failure of their child-rearing. And consulting someone about it is getting rid of your responsibility as a parent; it's like getting rid of your child."

  20/01/2006. The New York Times.


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