Nonprofits in Japan help 'shut-ins' get out into the open

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Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011
Nonprofits in Japan help 'shut-ins' get out into the open


Not everyone fits into society. Dropping out, or falling by the wayside, has numerous causes and many manifestations.

Two categories cover the more extreme forms — homelessness and hikikomori , a withdrawal from all social activities into the security of one's own room, usually in one's parents' home. The former is characteristic of the West, the latter more typically Asian.

In Japan, roughly 700,000 individuals are in a state of hikikomori, according to government figures released in July 2010. Their average age is 31. The oldest among them, known as the "first-generation hikikomori," are now in their 40s, having isolated themselves from almost all human contact for more than 20 years. Then there are the borderline cases, the 1.55 million people the government finds are more or less on the verge of shutting themselves up in their rooms.

The subject was taken up recently by Weekly Playboy and The Big Issue Japan, a biweekly magazine sold exclusively by homeless people.

It is remarkable how little it can take to push a person over the brink. School is usually — not always — where it starts. Often — not always — there is bullying, more or less severe. Kato- san (all names in this story followed by "san" are pseudonyms) was not bullied at all. He was doing well in high school in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, he tells Weekly Playboy, and looking forward to studying social welfare at university, when an unspecified illness waylaid him. He recovered physically but remained shaken mentally. He gave up on university, sought part-time work and panicked when his job-hunting led nowhere. At 20, he retreated into his room. He's 30 now.

Yamada-san, on the other hand, was bullied. The Big Issue talks not to him but to his father, and the details of what the boy went through are not given. In any case, he dropped out of high school, but later attended a part-time university and emerged with a degree. Dad was relieved; the problem seemed solved.

Dad was abroad at the time and by his own admission little involved with his family. The boy, equipped with unspecified technical skills, spent six months job-hunting, applying to some 30 companies. To no avail. No doors opened. Dismayed, he sank into total withdrawal. Like Kato, he's 30 now, looking back on 10 years of life in his room and forward to ... what?

Weekly Playboy's reporter encountered Kato in August at an unexpected place — in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake. Having left his room at last, Kato participates in an NGO rehabilitation program which, partly for therapeutic reasons, partly in response to an urgent need, sent him and six other hikikomori sufferers to the disaster zone as volunteers. They spent three days wallowing in mud, wilting in heat, clearing rubble. Exhaustion, Kato learned, is a good cure for insomnia. Sleep came without sleeping pills.

But three days are only three days. "To be honest, it didn't change me," he says. Back in the NGO dorm in Utsunomiya, he collapsed physically. His insomnia returned. However, "I learned, I think, that while an individual is weak alone, two together can start to get things done, and three and four people pooling their strength can really accomplish something."

"I'm not back on my feet yet," he says. But maybe he's getting there.

Yamada's father discloses something revealing about the isolation prevailing in society at large. No one knew about his son's condition — "neither my colleagues at work, nor anyone in the neighborhood." It was a deep, dark, humiliating secret, kept for decades. "My generation" — he's 62 — "doesn't bring private problems to the workplace." Or anywhere else. "It's a kind of unwritten law."

His wife, at the end of her rope, broke the silence at last. She confided in a friend, who knew somebody in a similar situation, who referred the family to an NPO. The NPO's staff — to Yamada senior's astonishment — proved helpful and competent.

"I didn't seriously think an outsider could help us with a problem we couldn't solve ourselves, within the family," he says. "But I'm approaching retirement; we had to do something."

Yamada junior is far from "cured," but at least he's in consultation with the NPO people — his first human contact outside the family in a decade. For him, as for Kato, there seems to be hope.

Japan is a "hikikomori superpower," writes psychologist Tamaki Saito in The Big Issue. So is South Korea. There, the major immediate cause is video-game addiction. Here it's a tail-spinning economy and the consequent "lost decades" — two and counting. Still, the two countries have much in common. Both have Confucian roots that nurture strong family ties. Italy and Spain also have close families, and there, too, Saito says, hikikomori-like withdrawal is common. In the more self-consciously individualistic societies, led by the United States, people who fall through the cracks are apt to end up alone on the street. In Japan, for better or worse, there's usually the family to fall back on.

Not always. Experts look ahead with dread to what is being called "the 2030 problem." That's the year the hikikomori "first generation" starts to turn 65. Their parents will die off, and then what? Sixty-five is no time of life to start learning the ropes of a cold, unsympathetic and increasingly complex outside world.