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Recluses or ‘hikikomori’ span various age groups

TOKYO >> 53-year-old Kenji Yamase doesn’t fit the traditional image of a hikikomori, but then perceptions of Japan’s social recluses are changing.

“People think of hikikomori as being lazy young people with personality problems who stay in their rooms all the time playing video games,” says Yamase, who lives with his 87-year-old mother and has been a recluse on and off for the past 30 years.

“But the reality is that most hikikomori are people who can’t get back into society after straying off the path at some point.”

A hikikomori is defined by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as someone who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work, and rarely interacts with people outside their immediate family.

The term was coined by psychiatrist Tamaki Saito in the late 1990s to describe young people who had withdrawn from society, and a series of violent incidents involving recluses soon after helped shape the public’s image of them as dangerous sociopaths.

In January 2000, a loner in Niigata Prefecture was arrested after it was discovered that he had kidnapped a 9-year-old girl and kept her hostage in his room for more than nine years.

Four months later, a 17-year-old from Saga Prefecture hijacked a bus, killing one passenger with a kitchen knife and injuring another two.

In recent years, however, a different picture has emerged.

In December, the Cabinet Office undertook a first-ever survey of people ages 40 to 64, and the results revealed that about 613,000 people in the age group are believed to be hikikomori. That surpasses the estimated 541,000 hikikomori in the 15- to 39-year-old category.

The latest survey showed that 76.6% of recluses in the older age group are men.

Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto described middle-aged hikikomori as “a new phenomenon,” but experts argue that the survey is merely bringing to light a situation that has been going on for some time.

“The structure of Japanese society makes it difficult for people to get back on the rails once they have come off them,” says journalist Masaki Ikegami, who has written about hikikomori issues for more than 20 years.

“I think the majority of hikikomori are people who have had difficulty in their working life and have been scarred by their human relationships there. Other cases might be people who have had bad experiences at school, or who have been through disasters or accidents or illnesses. There are many different reasons, and it can happen to anyone at any age.”

Yamase lives in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward with his mother, Kazuko. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, making it difficult for him to look after himself. His diagnosis four years ago means he can now access light housekeeping services, but the majority of the housework falls on his mother.

Yamase is one of thousands of hikikomori in their 50s living alone with parents in their 80s; the situation has been labeled the “8050 problem.”

“My mother says she’s got no other alternative but to look after me, but she’s old and she can’t move so well,” Yamase says.

His ADHD meant he struggled to cope with the relaxed structure of university after the rigid timetable of high school. He repeatedly missed deadlines and subsequently dropped out of his law course, and when he eventually found a job, he was unable to manage tasks efficiently and had to quit.

Over the next 15 years or so, he fell into a pattern of working in jobs for two or three years before quitting, then spending the next two or three years as a shut-in.

“I would feel anxious, but I hated the thought of going back into society and working again,” he said.

Feelings of failure and shame are common among hikikomori of all ages. And according to Saito, regarded as the foremost expert on social withdrawal, that sense of shame can extend to a hikikomori’s family.

“In Japan, people who do things differently or who stand out are frowned upon, so people tend to hesitate before doing anything that will draw attention to themselves,” Saito says. “When people realize that they have become hikikomori, they know that society will think less of them, and they then fear that. The family thinks the same way. When they realize that their child doesn’t leave the house and doesn’t work, they try to hide them from society.”

But there are signs that Japanese society is beginning to take a more compassionate view.

In April, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government moved its hikikomori support services to the health and welfare division. Previously, hikikomori were considered to be juvenile delinquents.

Ikegami says there are few services for hikikomori older than 40, but he is hopeful that the findings of the latest survey will help change that.

“These people have had to quit their jobs because they suffered harassment or bad treatment in the workplace, so I think it’s a mistake to try to force them back into that environment,” Ikegami says. “People who are too scared to even go outside have suffered trauma. First, you have to build human relations.”

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