Tokyo / DPA
Otochika Ichikawa is a friendly, elderly man, who smiles and is good at making eye-contact as he speaks. The 70-year-old Japanese enjoys conversation. He knows, from bitter experience, how important social contact is.
“When my daughter was 14 she refused to go to school,” Ichikawa says. His daughter spent hours leafing through the pages of all her school books to make sure nothing had become sandwiched between them – nobody knew why.
“When she was given medication she felt better. Then she stayed at home for five years,” he says.
His daughter became what is known in Japan as a “hikikomori,” someone who shuts themselves up and withdraws from society.
Around 541,000 Japanese people aged between 15 and 39 are hikikomori, according to a recent government estimate.
And they are shutting themselves up for increasing lengths of time; around 35 per cent spend more than seven years cloistered away.
In its first investigation of the phenomenon five years ago, the Japanese government estimated that the country had even more hikikomori – 696,000. The new survey didn’t include those over 40 – but it’s exactly here that experts see a growing problem.
While the phenomenon isn’t new, Japan, the third biggest economy in the world, is ageing more rapidly than in any other industrialized country and hikikomori are also growing older.
“The people I counselled 20 years ago are now over 40,” says Naoki Abe, a counsellor at a help centre for hikikomori and their families in the province of Iwate.
Many hikikomori are still dependent on their now 70 or 80-year-old parents and their pensions, she says, and they aren’t capable of applying for benefits themselves.
“What’s going to happen when we’re not here anymore? Will our children survive?” ask many affected parents.
The reasons why people become hikikomori are wide and varied.
“Most have had problems with relationships and have been hurt,” says the non-governmental charity Kazoku Hikikomori Japan (KHJ). Others have been the victim of “ijimi,” or bullying, a widespread problem in Japan, not just in schools but also in the workplace.
Others feel they can’t live up to society’s high expectations or have economic problems that leave them isolated. And nowadays the internet makes it easier to remain a hikikomori, KHJ says.
“People can stay at home and stay connected with the ‘outside world’ via the internet, the charity says. Many don’t return to society.
In the meantime lots of organizations aimed at helping hikikomori have sprung up and society is gradually beginning to recognize the ageing problem, says Rika Ueda, secretary-general of KHJ.
But, KHJ says, Japanese society still stigmatizes hikikomori and local government support varies widely and is not always adequate. Many affected families try to hide that one of their members has become a hikikomori.
They feel ashamed and try not to talk about the problem instead of trying to get help, says Ishikawa.
That means that hikikomori shut themselves away for even longer, sometimes for 10 or 20 years, or more.
“Once hikikomori are over 40, it becomes very difficult,” he says. “These people have very little sense of self-worth.”
Another problem, he says, is that Japanese society has changed and several generations of the same family rarely live under the same roof any more. In big cities where people often don’t know their neighbours, it increases the effect of isolation. Many children from “nuclear families” have no one to turn to with their problems.
Ichikawa’s daughter is now 39 years old and is married with a child of her own. Her life is “almost normal,” says Ishikawa, who, because of his own experiences, is the head of a charity that helps hikikomori in Tokyo.
His daughter now has contact with other people, he says, with the parents of her child’s school-friends and with her neighbours. And he now knows why she refused to go to school and became a hikikomori all those years ago.
“She didn’t tell us until a long time afterwards. She had been bullied,” he says.