"AN ARROW POINTED DEEP INSIDE OF ME"
He pedaled feverishly down the narrow back streets of Kanda and Asakusa, legs churning, his face--intense dark eyes, a well-trimmed mustache--obscured by his bicycle helmet. He cruised past the silent storefronts selling rice crackers and stationery, past the ancient wooden Senso-ji shrine surrounded by shuttered souvenir stands, and darted through darkened alleys and deserted streets, his mind disengaged from the outside world, the rhythms of J-Wave radio reverberating through his headphones, the beat propelling him forward, no destination in mind.
Manic, angry, indomitable, Jun pumped fast, faster, through these ancient neighborhoods heavy with his history, his legs almost flailing, his knees driving hard. Sweat beading his forehead in the humid night, he sliced through the low-slung neighborhoods of Tokyo's old downtown, the working-class flatlands along the banks of the Sumida River, far removed from the aristocratic, hillier districts to the West, deathly still in the hours after midnight, the road illuminated only by the arc of a few scattered streetlights and the eerie blue fluorescence of the ubiquitous Family Mart and 7-Eleven convenience stores. Later he might stop at one to browse through its huge array of comic books and purchase a polyethylene bottle of orange drink to slake his thirst.
These tranquil few hours before dawn are strangely precious to Jun. Only in this empty calm can this wiry twenty-eight-year-old work off his restless anxiety. Only on these rare dark nights when he can gather the courage to venture out of his tiny room, can Jun be in the world yet be himself, and escape for just a few hours the confinement of a bedroom that has become his citadel. Being alone seems to him his only mode of self-preservation.
"I have an arrow pointed deep inside of me," Jun said to me once, as he sought words to describe his pain. "Listening to music and getting high from the exercise, that's the way I coped. At night you can go out when other people can't see you . . . If I didn't go out at all on those nights," he added darkly, "I'd probably have done something violent to my parents."
* * *
Jun is not alone in his pain and anxiety. Nor is he uncommon in his solitude. There is also gangly, nineteen-year-old Hiro, whose long hair nearly obscures his face, who dropped out of junior high when he was thirteen and lives at home uneasily with his bickering parents, seldom stepping outside. Hiro has no idea what he's going to do with himself as he emerges into adulthood. And there is thirty-four-year-old Kenji, who almost never leaves his tiny room in his mother's modest apartment on Tokyo's western fringe. He is a pale, quiet child-man, his smile wan, his hair thinning. For most of the past twenty years, his daily rituals have seldom varied. He reads the newspapers each morning and watches Tokyo Giants baseball games on television every summer evening. He passes long afternoons with magazines and daydreams. Sometimes he speaks to his mother. Other days he sits silent, deep in thought. Anxious, trembling, and alone, Kenji is scared--too scared and too scarred to venture into the world beyond his front door.
Across Japan, more than one million men and boys like Jun and Hiro and Kenji have chosen to withdraw completely from society. These recluses hide in their homes for months or years at a time, refusing to leave the protective walls of their bedrooms. They are as frightened as small children abandoned in a dark forest. Some spend their days playing video games. A few--an estimated 10 percent--surf the Internet.(1) Many just pace, read books, or drink beer and shochu, a Japanese form of vodka. Others do nothing for weeks at a time. Unable to work, attend school, or interact with outsiders, they cannot latch onto the well-oiled conveyor belt that carries young boys from preschool through college, then deposits them directly into the workplace--a system that makes Japan seem orderly and purposeful to outsiders, even as it has begun to break down.
Men like Kenji, Hiro, and Jun are called hikikomori, which translates loosely as one who shuts himself away and becomes socially withdrawn. (The Japanese word joins together the word hiku or "pull," with the word komoru, or "retire," to render the meaning "pulling in and retiring.") These men--and 80 percent of hikikomori are males--can not be diagnosed as schizophrenics or mental defectives. They are not depressives or psychotics; nor are they classic agoraphobics, who fear public spaces but welcome friends into their own homes. When psychiatrists evaluate these hikikomori using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM IV, the standard guide used in the West to diagnose mental disorders, their symptoms cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric ailment. Instead, Japanese psychiatrists say that hikikomori is a social disorder, only recently observed, that cannot be found within other cultures.(2) These men--as I found during months of conversations with them--are often intelligent, stimulating, highly open and responsive adults full of cogent ideas and fascinating insights into society and themselves.
There is ample mystery attached to this pathology, one that stubbornly pricks at the curiosity of someone hoping to fathom the plight of modern Japan. In Western Europe or the United States, many modern teenagers also resort to antisocial behavior, but exhibit it differently. In rebelling against parents and schools, many "act out" and explode in rage, or wear outrageous styles of dress to make a "statement," or play loud music sure to offend the older generation. Some cut themselves. In the United States, where guns and knives as well as drugs are so readily available, youth violence can seem commonplace, as if representing an unspoken tradeoff for the openness, independence, and self-expression the society demands. Yet a culture that encourages individual freedom from an early age, that instructs young children to "stand on their own two feet" and find their own way through life, actively encourages originality and risk taking and is far more likely than Japanese society to accept certain strains of nonconformist behavior. In a vast and heterogeneous nation like America, a man like Kenji might end up designing computer games, handcrafting furniture, launching a tiny software startup, editing music videos, or writing a Web log.
Yet in the confinement of Japan's neo-Confucian society, which preaches the importance of obedience, discipline, self-inhibition, and group harmony--and where even individual identity is deeply swathed in mutual interdependence--men like Jun and Kenji have imploded like vacuum tubes, closing themselves in, cutting themselves off, and utterly marginalizing themselves. Unable or unwilling to go out, languishing alone in their rooms, they depend on their parents to leave their next meal at the bedroom door.
Is this isolation, I wondered, simply these young adults' peculiar form of rebellion against their prevailing culture? Or are they too sensitive or inquisitive to accept such collective constraints, and flee to their rooms both for protection and self-preservation? Or are they--as Taka, one twenty-four-year-old, suggested--simply and unsettlingly "different" from the society that surrounds them? "I was raised to have a good career and be a good boy," he told me. "My problem is that I can't go to work like other people. I'm different."
I heard another point of view from the sixty-year-old white-haired mother of a hikikomori, a gentle and sympathetic woman who accepts and understands her son's plight, much as it grieves her: "Hikikomori are kids who value the intangibles," Hiromi told me. I had met her for coffee to talk about the desolate isolation of her son who, now in his thirties, has for five years been living at home, confining himself to his room because he feels he has no other place where he can just be himself. "Hikikomori can see the intangibles, but cannot speak out because there is no place in Japanese society that allows them to . . . So," she concluded, "a person who challenges, or makes a mistake, or thinks for himself, either leaves Japan or becomes a hikikomori."
And, indeed, leaving Japan has been a partial solution for some like Shigei, who has been hikikomori for the last thirteen of his thirty years. He told me that he was able to relax and meet others only when prompted by a friend to get out of Japan and visit Thailand on a trip his parents paid for. "I felt different in a country where the buses don't always run on time," he told me. Jun found temporary relief from his anxieties during a visit to India.(3) Another hikikomori, thirty-five-year-old Yasuo Ogawara, went into hiding in his twenties after being badgered and rejected, often cruelly, by residents of the provincial town where he had relocated with his wife. "In this society, anyone can become a hikikomori," he told me, describing how his in-laws had ostracized and bullied him to the point where the couple divorced. "It's the nature of our social system that is really the cause. It's a system operated by factions, and you have to understand the very nature of the social system to understand this problem.
"Today the values of parents and of young people are completely different," he went on. "The post-bubble bills are coming due, and we have just started to pay for our decades of focusing only on the material."
* * *
After listening to the tales and predicaments of dozens of these isolated men, I began to better understand the behavior of Jun and other hikikomori as their extraordinary but utterly rational indictment of a postindustrial monoculture. It isn't that these adults choose isolation out of indulgence, but that they see no other course. They need some "free space" in which to breathe, without the prying eyes of outsiders constantly judging them, forcing them to join the herd. The only space they can control is their own bedroom.
Hikikomori instinctively know that the world outside Japan--and the way that world works--has changed dramatically in recent years as Japan lags behind. They seem to perceive the nature of Japan's economic and spiritual crisis far more acutely than do the hundreds of bureaucrats and politicians I have met over the years.
Yet if what makes Japan seem so foreign and incomprehensible to most Westerners is its insularity, homogeneity, and lockstep conformity, then it would seem logical that this syndrome--where the young try to escape that singularly compressed and restrictive life--may exist only in Japan. And since every social system is likely to foster its own unique afflictions, investigating this unusual behavior could lead me to deeper truths about Japan and its current malaise. My journalist's intuition was essentially confirmed by Satoru Saito, one of Japan's most prominent psychiatrists, who has practiced psychotherapy and taught psychoanalysis for years. An avuncular, gentle man who wears sweaters and smokes a pipe, Saito counsels dozens of hikikomori patients, as well as abusive husbands and troubled families, at the Institute for Family Function, his narrow concrete slab of a clinic in Tokyo's Azabu neighborhood. Saito is one of many specialists who also see Jun's and Kenji's and the other hikikomoris' social isolation as reflecting a rational, Japanese style of coping.
"Many Japanese kids don't express themselves. They would rather express themselves in a fantasy world and through passive-aggressive behavior," he told me one afternoon when I visited him and asked him to analyze this syndrome. "They go on behavior strike, they go into emotional shutdown. This is one of the ways of expressing a Japanese way of life. But in acting this way, these children are simply mirroring the behavior they see among adult Japanese, especially those from elite or privileged backgrounds."
Kenji's willful retreat into the bedroom, his unwillingness to fit in, can be sensibly explained, Saito told me. Japan's traditional family structure is splintering, he said. Its educational system, which emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking, is being questioned as never before. Young people now sense that the old rules don't work in a global age.
In the 1980s, when Japan's economy was still humming, no one had ever heard the term hikikomori. But after the economy began to sputter and misfire, the pistons began to fail and fluids began to leak, exposing the rigidities and social dysfunction that had finally made the gears seize up.
Saito and I agreed that tracing the roots of hikikomori might offer clues not only to Japan's unprecedented breakdown, but could also help explain why the Japanese self seems so ephemeral. Why individual expression remains constrained by bullying, oppressive pressure, and demands for strict conformity even in these modern times. Why Japan--a nation so bold as to build its own Eiffel Tower, learn how to make pizza and play golf, listen to hip-hop, take up aerobics, flock to wine bars, and build a miniature Dutch village as an amusement park--never engaged in the political, sexual, and gender revolutions that once convulsed America and other Western nations. And why the mechanisms that might compel useful political and social change have been short-circuited, keeping gifted young men like Kenji and Jun and Hiro shut in and shut down--an arrow pointed deep inside each, pinning him in place.
BROKEN APART FROM OTHERS
At first the claim that the hikikomori syndrome exists only in Japan rubbed me the wrong way. Japanese often pride themselves on their nihonjinron, their distinct racial and cultural heritage. This ideology of uniqueness led to the weird misconceptions often espoused by right-wing nationalists: for example, the Japanese cannot digest American beef because their intestines are smaller, or that foreign skis cannot possibly navigate Japanese snow, or that foreigners cannot master the Japanese language because their brains are somehow wired differently. Of course, the Japanese are not biologically different from anyone else any more than the snow that falls on Mount Fuji differs from that atop Mount Rainier. Yet as I got to know the hikikomori who showed up at hospital clinics and counseling sessions throughout Tokyo's suburbs, the more I came to understand the nature of their isolated lives. And the more I came to understand how they felt barra-barra--or "broken apart from others," as Kiyoko, the mother of one these isolates told me--the more I began to see that their tragic syndrome might indeed reflect something unique about Japan's history and its culture as it collided with the modern world. I felt this particularly about Kenji, Jun, Hiro, and a few others.
* * *
Kenji materialized at my office one day like a pale emissary from his hidden world. His eyebrows pulsed like the wings of a hummingbird, suggesting how tense and frightened he was. He was so thin that his starched khaki pants, bunched at the waist, stayed up only because of the severe black belt tightly looped around them. I had met other hikikomori in clinics and schools and training centers, but Kenji was truly a recluse--a man who literally never left his home. He had exerted himself to emerge from his lair only because Emi, my Japanese assistant, had finally persuaded him to come to us and speak about his extraordinary, anxious life.