Interviewing several hikikomori, Zielenziger found that some students are unable to fit into Japan’s homogenous society, and rather than deal with the shame and judgment of others, they close themselves off mentally and physically to the outside world.
“Regular people have an ability to hide their true feelings just to be able to get along with others,” Kenji, then 34 and a hikikomori, told Zielenziger. “I just can’t find the value in doing that. Since I want to tell others what I really think, I guess you could say I’m not good at communicating with people.”
Overseas Missionary Fellowship missionary Hwee Joo Yeo heard similar struggles from the many hikikomori she counseled in the four years she worked with a Christian Japanese counselor in Kawagoe, a city an hour northwest of Tokyo. The root of the problem, Yeo found, is a lack of attachment between child and parent. Fathers usually don’t come home from work until after midnight, leaving little time to get to know their children.
Japanese mothers, meanwhile, face enormous pressure to ensure their children succeed academically, and so constantly push them to study and attend after-school cram schools. At school, they don’t have friends and are bullied, leading them to hide in their rooms. Most of Yeo’s clients were in their late 20s or early 30s and had not left their rooms for about 10 years, spending their days reading, going online, immersing in fantasy worlds, or just sitting and thinking.
Getting a hikikomori to visit a counselor is incredibly difficult, as counseling carries a stigma in Japan and many can’t afford the expensive fees. Sometimes a mother will come to Yeo seeking help, while the child refuses counseling. In these cases, Yeo will meet with the mother to help her learn how to deal with her child. Often parents also need to deal with issues of codependency and marital problems.
Hikikomori seek help after realizing their parents are getting old and will one day die, leaving them to fend for themselves. For others it is the death of their dog—their only friend—that pushes them over the edge. Yeo holds counseling sessions over Skype in order to ease into the life of the skittish hikikomori.
Once they start talking, though, Yeo has found that many hikikomori are “really smart, so they are very suitable for counseling. They think very deeply because they’ve always been alone. … They think more than the average student.” She says they are often very interested in her Christian faith and ask questions like Is there really a God? What does He think of me? Does He love me? “They are looking for something: They are searching for the meaning of life and wondering why things happen.”
It typically takes at least two years of counseling before the hikikomori are willing to look for a job or meet other people. Having been away from society for so long, hikikomori have trouble finding jobs, as employers question why a man in his 30s never finished high school or held a job. Many then live off welfare, creating a cycle of dependency.