Hikikomori: The Lack of Role

Nick: This is episode seven of the Rolefulness Podcast, I'm Nick Kemp and my co-host is Professor Daiki Kato. In this episode, we will explore an extreme form of rolelessness, hikikomori. 

Last episode, we looked at the Rolefulness Quadrant Model, and we explored the four states: immature, groundless, developing, and integrated. So it would be worth your while to listen to that episode if you haven't. Daiki, good to have you back. Good to see you.

Daiki: Yes, thank you. So let's start today's episode. 

Defining hikikomori

What is hikikomori

Nick: Yes, hikikomori, this is a unique problem. What is Hikikomori, Daiki?

Daiki: Yes, hikikomori is a Japanese word, and hikikomori is a form of severe social withdrawal, where mostly adolescent and young-adult men who live with their parents shut themselves in their bedrooms for years. But recently, the problem is not only for men, but also for women. 

So many people are under the situation of hikikomori. Hikikomori is a noun formed from the compound of two verbs: hiku meaning 'to pull', and komoru, meaning 'to shut oneself in one's room', 'to hide away', or 'to stay inside.'

So hikikomori is used to mean both the person who shut themselves away from society and the condition experienced by that individual.

Nick: Yeah, I've seen many documentaries on this. And I guess that's the perfect word for the condition--to almost pull yourself away from society and shut yourself in your room.

And it's quite amazing how old some of these hikikomori are, some of them are in their 40s and 50s. So it's quite a bleak problem.  

Hikikomori behaviour

So what do hikikomori do each day if they're locked away in their rooms?

Daiki: It depends on the hikikomori. For example, to paint a picture, shut-ins live for years or even for decades in their bedroom, taking no part in society, refusing to leave the home to attend school or work.

Like a misfit troubled teenager who never grows up, they'll spend all their time surfing the internet and playing computer games, having no desire to venture outside. 

In extreme cases, parents of shut-in living in the same house won't speak to or even see their child for months or even years. The hikikomori have no relationship with anyone.

Often driven by shame and not knowing what to do, the parents of shut-ins will exacerbate the problem and allow their adult child to stay in their bedroom, leaving meals at the door like room service at a hotel

Nick: That aspect of the problem might be unique to Japan. I think in other countries parents might be a bit more proactive and they would basically physically remove their child from the room, getting them help.

So this problem is interesting because it goes on for so long for decades and these parents seem to avoid the problem or allow it to happen.  

Being a significant problem in Japan

So I don't want to put you on the spot, Daiki, but this lack of action by parents to stop the problem, do you think that's like a Japanese cultural issue? Is there shame associated with this problem? Or is there a lack of services to help people with this problem in Japan?

Daiki: Yes, it is deeply connected with Japanese culture. As you said, for example, shame. Maybe the sense of responsibility may affect the increase of the hikikomori. So they feel highly pressured, both child and parents share responsibilities to serve the program.

So they have to go to school or start the program, go outside. So it's a very high responsibility and very high pressure. It's one of the reasons for the problem.

Nick: It sounds like a big problem. And this is a significant problem in Japan, isn't it? We're talking to a large number of people.

Daiki: Yes, the hikikomori survey by the Japanese government reported that the total number of hikikomori was over 1.1 million and more than half are over the age of 40. Many adults are hikikomori in Japanese society. Yeah. That is the result of the public survey. 

But there is another opinion: Dr. Tamati Saito estimated that the Japanese hikikomori population could be as high as 2 million, with the average duration that a hikikomori shuts themselves being an astonishing 13 years--very long years. He has grave concern that the hikikomori population could eventually reach a staggering 10 million. 

But it is one of the opinions, the actual number, no one knows about that. Some researchers say that there are so many hikikomori people and the number is increasing now. I think it is not specifically in Japan, but the problem is very crucial in Japanese society.

Nick: I did watch that press release. So that was a press release by Dr. Saito. And I think he is one of the leading experts on this problem. And yeah, it's just amazing to think the average duration according to his research is 13 years. 

So if you're 20, and you become hikikomori, or you become hikikomori and you finally get over the problem, you're basically in your mid 30s. And there's actually a new problem that Dr. Saito talked about, he called it the 50-80 problem.

It's where hikikomori, these men are almost 50 and their parents are 80 and these 50 year-old men have no social skills, and have no job. 

So it's like a time bomb and they're expecting more problems, because how will these men look after their elderly parents when they have no social skills and no income?  

Is hikikomori a mental condition

Is hikikomori a mental condition

So, this leads to an interesting question: Is hikikomori a mental condition?

Daiki: It is said that the hikikomori condition should not be understood as a mental condition, but as an expression of distress. Shutting oneself away is a non-aggressive and practical strategy to avoiding the intense pressures of school and society.

Nick: So we should point that out. We have this perception of Japan, it's a beautiful country with harmony and Zen, and wabi-sabi--all these beautiful cultural concepts.

But for Japanese, daily life in Japan can be very hard, and schools have high pressure. And there's this pressure to plan your life ahead from school to university to getting a job. 

And a lot of children go to juku, cram school and get into university. I think once you're into university, you cannot change your subjects, you have to study that. So there's no flexibility. And then I think after you finish university, you basically got one chance to find a company.  

What causes hikikomori?

So incredible pressure for young people. Let's dive into that. What are the causes of hikikomori?

Daiki: Yeah, so as you said, strict social roles and conformity can take their toll. There is extreme pressure to behave appropriately both at school and in the workplace. 

Unfortunately, in locking themselves away,hikikomori limit their opportunities to pursue and feel ikigai and lead a life worth living. This deprives them of both a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, two social elements crucial for one to feel ikigai.

Nick: It's interesting to relate it to ikigai, that if you do lock yourself away, life is going to be unfulfilling, I guess it's gonna be very hard to live a full and enjoyable life, or even a challenging life. So what about you, Daiki, as a student, when you were growing up did you feel this sense of pressure to perform and achieve?

Daiki: I think that the Japanese society is changing and the atmosphere of the schools or education is changing. I think it's changing for the better. So now, my son goes to elementary school and the rules are not so strict.

During my childhood rules were very strict, and the teachers were very strict. We swam in a swimming pool in the summer, but I'm not good at swimming. 

So I don't like to go to school. But my teachers were very strict. The instruction was very strict. So sometimes I don't attend school.

Nick: Oh, really? Okay. What did you tell your parents? I'm sick today or?

Daiki: I have a stomach ache or headache.

Nick: Sounds familiar. It's almost like a protective mechanism. I will shut myself away because society is too hard. But as a result, it's impossible to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.  

Where does hikikomori fit within the rolefulness quadrant model

So, with all this in mind, Daiki, where would hikikomori be in the rolefulness quadrant model, which we talked about in the previous episode?

Daiki: In recent society, the types of hikikomori are becoming various. The typical hikikomori is classified in the immature group; low social and internal rolefulness. They don't have any social connections and sometimes they have mental problems such as social fear are the trigger of hikikomori. 

In addition, I think the number of groundless groups is increasing in hikikomori people. They don't do any social activity, but they are satisfied with themselves. It's a very difficult problem to solve because they don't care about their problems. 

Individual counselling and group therapy might support them, but I think that future research, more research and practices are necessary to help these people.

Nick: That's an important point. I think future research needs to be done because hikikomori is now becoming a global problem. Even though it's a Japanese word, and maybe this social problem was first identified in Japan. It's not restricted to Japan anymore. 

Hikikomori becoming a global problem

Hikikomori being a global problem

Daiki: Yes, I think that hikikomori is now becoming a global problem and hikikomori is not a condition only in Japan. Now, it has become a global syndrome. So maybe in your country, Australia, so Nick, could you introduce hikikomori problems in other countries?

Nick: So I did some research on this for our book. So we should remind our readers we're writing a book, and hikikomori is a subject we'll write about. So what I found out is hikikomori was thought of as a concept that refers to both distress and to a cultural syndrome unique to Japan. 

However, recent international surveys have shown that hikikomori is also found among different populations of the world; and quite a few, so South Korea, India, even Australia, Bangladesh, Iran, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

In addition to those countries, there have been reports of hikikomori in Amman, France, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, China, and Canada. 

So this phenomenon of hikikomori is considered to be boundless and a global syndrome found in many cultures. But notably, it is more common in urban areas and high income developed countries. So, that is interesting.

Daiki: Yeah, that's very impressive. Many people are faced with the same problems in many countries.

Nick: Yeah. So hopefully rolefulness would be a solution to this.

Daiki: I hope so. Yeah.

Nick: I guess to wrap up this episode, one sort of final question to ask is: Why has participating in society become so painful and undesirable that millions of people would rather lock themselves away than embrace and pursue the opportunities life offers them? Because they're giving up a lot, aren't they?

Why has involvement in society become unappealing to some

Daiki: One answer could be the lack of meaningful roles, or avoidance of roles one does not want to pursue. Hikikomori is not a mental condition.

Hikikomori is a non-aggressive defence mechanism and a practical strategy for people to avoid the intense pressures or roles or more specifically their social interaction at school, work and society in general. 

Being free from role stereotypes might reduce pressure. This theme is very important and I hope to talk about it in the next episode with you.

Nick: Yeah, this is an interesting thing. There's this idea of avoidance or role avoidance. So if you don't want to be a student, or if you don't want to work, I guess, hikikomori is one solution. It's not an ideal solution, it's not a healthy solution. 

And I think in the next episode, we'll be touching on this idea of being trapped in a role. So that relates to hikikomori and maybe that's the state you are in before it gets worse and then you fall into hikikomori. So that's what we'll talk about next week on episode eight. So thank you for your time, Daiki. Good to talk to you.

Daiki: Thank you very much.