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Shut in and shut out

Scores of young Japanese have closed themselves off from society, and foreign missionaries may be in the best position to help them

Shut in and shut out

(Steve Boylin/Eyeem/Getty Images)

On the surface, Japan is the miracle of Asia. Recovering from the destruction of World War II, the country rebuilt itself into the third-largest economy in the world, known for its high-quality products and vibrant and influential culture. Bright signs light up the busy city centers, the antiseptically clean subways are always punctual, and the Japanese people politely welcome foreigners. Case in point: When a group of friends and I found our rental car stuck in a ditch in the southern island of Okinawa, no fewer than a dozen Japanese locals (including a biker gang) came to help us out, despite a language barrier.

Yet under the shining facade, Japanese society is in turmoil, as the singular focus on economic growth in the last 70 years came at the cost of its people. Karōshi, or death by overwork, is commonly noted as a cause of death, as companies require employees to work very long hours, and many of the unemployed see suicide as an antidote to bringing shame upon their family.

This cutthroat work environment affects families, as fathers are rarely home: Japan has the highest rate of sexless marriages in the world (nearly half of all couples say they haven’t had sex for more than a month and don’t expect that to change). Low marriage and birth rates make Japan the fastest-aging country in the world, and many elderly face kodokushi, or lonely deaths, where they die alone and their bodies remain undiscovered for a long period of time.

One of the most concerning phenomena is that more than half a million young people—mostly men—are not working, studying, or even socializing. Instead they’ve shut themselves in their rooms and away from the world, sometimes for years or decades at a time. Often bullying and ostracism at school cause these hikikomori to run to the comfort of their rooms, unable to bear the pressures and expectations of society. With a roof over their heads and meals left at their door by their parents, these young people survive without contact with the outside world, too fearful to step outside the door.

Missionaries in Japan have begun ministries specifically focused on helping this reclusive segment of the population. Beyond providing counseling, home stays, and work programs to help hikikomori leave the constraints of their room and re-enter society, these ministries can free them from the larger constraints of society’s expectations and help them find a purpose for their lives in a spiritually dark country: While Japan is one of the most religiously free countries in Asia, Christians make up only 1.5 percent of the population.

Psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō first popularized the term hikikomori in his book on the phenomenon in 1998, where he estimated it affected more than 1 million Japanese adults. A 2017 government survey found 541,000 people between the ages of 15 and 39 are hikikomori, although many believe the number doesn’t provide a complete picture, as it excludes those above the age of 39. No one knows the exact number of hikikomori in Japan, since parents often hide the fact their children are recluses for fear of losing face.

Hikikomori describes people who spend at least six months in their homes, avoid social interaction, and don’t have other psychiatric disorders like agoraphobia. The causes of hikikomori are varied and widely debated, with some claiming hikikomori is a result of the overwhelming sense of hopelessness among the younger generation of Japanese.

In his 2006 book Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger pointed to the rapid changes in Japanese society as Japan’s post-war economic miracle fizzled in the ’90s, leading to decades of recession and stagnation. Parents and teachers continue to push children to study hard and get into the best schools in order to land a high-paying job, but those jobs are becoming much more difficult to find. Young people don’t know why they’re working so hard, and they lack a purpose for their lives.

Stuart Isett/MCT/Getty Images

A 19-year-old hikikomori plays with one of his two cats at his parents’ home in Tokyo. (Stuart Isett/MCT/Getty Images)

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.

Kyodo via AP

Kyoko Hayashi counsels hikikomori women at a gathering in Tokyo. (Kyodo via AP)

Over in the outskirts of Hiroshima, missionaries Art and Darcy Staddon also help hikikomori step out into the world. Art has a particular interest in this group because he once struggled with social withdrawal himself. For three years, he didn’t talk to anyone, so now he understands hikikomori’s “isolated feeling of worthlessness and not wanting to live or die, but just being in a state of existing.” Furthermore, as an American couple living in the homogenous society of Japan, the Staddons can relate to hikikomori’s outsider status. No matter how long the Staddons live in Japan, no matter how fluently they speak Japanese, they will never fit into mainstream society.

But being non-Japanese actually makes them less threatening to hikikomori, as foreigners don’t bring the same type of cultural pressures as the Japanese. The Staddons plan to purchase a farm property, since land is inexpensive in rural Japan due to the decreasing population and migration to the cities, and invite two to four hikikomori to live with them and their 3-year-old adopted Japanese daughter. They hope that by living life together, participating in homeless ministries, meeting with Christian counselors, and attending church, they can help reintroduce hikikomori to the outside world within the context of a loving home.

They will also partner with local Japanese Christians who are already working in this area, such as Pastor Hiroshi Horikawa, a clinical psychologist specializing in hikikomori, and Nozomi Kikkawa, who also owns a farm where hikikomori, people suffering from depression, and NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) stay for a few days a week. In such a different environment, they are open to taking on responsibilities—working in the fields, cooking, and cleaning—as well as developing friendships and learning that the world isn’t as scary as they imagined.

The Staddons hope members of the Japanese church adopt this home-stay model, but they say mercy ministries are countercultural to the Japanese people. “In Japan, people do not get a lot of help or sympathy if they have mental or physical disability,” Art said. “Their worth is based on what they can add to society, so those with severe mental illness are seen as less than human.”

‘In Japan, people do not get a lot of help or sympathy if they have mental or physical disability. Their worth is based on what they can add to society, so those with severe mental illness are seen as less than human.’ —Art Staddon

Non-Christian groups have also popped up to help hikikomori. Some companies set up virtual high schools where the recluses can “attend” classes through a virtual reality headset without having to leave their rooms. Parents have created support groups to discuss how they can help their children, while community centers have opened up to give hikikomori a space to come and interact with others.

While some of it has been helpful, Yeo notes that some companies view this as a moneymaking opportunity, since parents are desperate to get help for their child. At one hostel for hikikomori, the young people are placed into a rigid schedule and given work to do and responsibilities to take on. Yet when Yeo asked one young man how long he plans to be there, he responded, “until my parents can no longer pay for it.” Yeo noted the hostel doesn’t deal with deep-seated issues.

After leaving her work at the counseling center, Yeo now focuses on more informal outreach to hikikomori. She offers her counseling services for free to ensure that everyone can get help, and connects the hikikomori with a Christian man or woman around the same age for them to befriend. Usually that new friend will bring the hikikomori to church—typically to a small group Bible study, as any larger gathering would be intimidating—and introduce him or her to Christian community.

The initial connection with a Christian friend is important, Yeo notes, because churches in Japan are difficult to find since so few exist. Still, she says the church has a big role to play in the rehabilitation of hikikomori: “The church is supposed to be a community for people who need a doctor, so the sick should be able to find help in the church.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.


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  •  David Troup's picture
    David Troup
    Posted: Wed, 11/08/2017 11:12 am

    Peggy Lee nailed it with, "Is that all there is?"

    "The Preacher" in Ecclesiastes 5 also shows the vanity of pursuing wealth in disregard for the rest of your life.

    Finally, "The Preacher" summarizes it in Eccl. 12:13-14 "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."

    I thank God for the missionaries who sacrifice so they can help the hikikomori escape their prison.  Pray God's people would share in their wealth so these Japanese can find true freedom.