Japan's modern-day hermits: The world of hikikomori (source)
In Japan, half a million people live isolated in their bedrooms, unable to face the outside world. These modern-day hermits are known as the hikikomori.
Since April 2018, the Japanese government has been conducting a nationwide study in a bid to fully understand this strange phenomenon. Once limited to young people, it now affects the whole of Japanese society.
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Most hikikomori are under 40, but this extreme form of isolation increasingly affects older people, which worries the Japanese government. Older hikikomori sometimes have no relatives or friends to support them and remain cut off from society for longer periods. Getting them out of isolation then becomes very difficult. Their ultimate fear is to die alone.
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A 55-year Japanese man, has chosen to shut himself completely away from society
Ikeida leaves the house once every three days to buy food, shuns deliveries to avoid human interaction and has not seen his parents or younger brother for 20 years. The 55-year-old has chosen to shut himself completely away from society — such a commonplace phenomenon in high-pressure, conformist and workaholic Japan that there is a word to describe it: "hikikomori".
Until recently it was thought to be an issue mainly afflicting those in their teens and 20s, but ageing Japan is seeing a growing number of older hikikomori cloistering themselves away for longer periods of time.
There are more than half a million hikikomori in Japan — according to the latest government survey published in 2016 — defined as people who have stayed home for more than six months without going to school or work and interacting with no one other than family members.
However, this underestimates the scale of the issue as it only counts people under the age of 39 and the government has now decided to conduct the country's first survey of hikikomori aged between 40 and 59.
Ikeida (not his real name) told AFP he graduated from a prestigious Tokyo university and received several lucrative job offers from major firms during Japan's "bubble economy" period in the 1980s.
"I went to a good university my parents wished me to go to and tried hard to conform," he said in a rare interview arranged through a non-profit trying to help those isolated from society and their parents. "But I realised I had to conform forever when I got those job offers. I felt hopeless. I couldn't wear a suit. I felt like my heart had broken," he added.
Feeling under unbearable pressure, he took the decision to shut himself away in his room, shunning all forms of human contact — a pattern that was to continue for the next three decades.
...Rika Ueda, who works for the non-profit that supports parents of hikikomori children, says social stigma can make the situation worse.
"Families with hikikomori children are very ashamed of themselves.... They hide their situation from their community and become isolated" without being able to seek help, Ueda told. "I think such circumstances contribute to the problem of prolonged cases," she added.
...Ikeida lives mainly on social benefits but also makes a little money by writing online articles from his room.
"I want society to understand that we are not crazy people," said Ikeida.
He also worries about dying alone, another common fear in ageing Japan.
"I think about a lonely death. I don't want to die that way. I don't want to be found rotten. So maybe I can ask for more visits by welfare officials, but I don't want that either," he said. "It's such a contradictory feeling."
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“People think of hikikomori as being lazy young people with personality problems who stay in their rooms all the time playing video games,” says 53 y.o. Yamase, who lives with his 87-year-old mother and has been a recluse on and off for the past 30 years.
“But the reality is that most hikikomori are people who can’t get back into society after straying off the path at some point,” he says. “They have been forced into withdrawal. It isn’t that they’re shutting themselves away — it’s more like they’re being forced to shut themselves away.”
Yamase is one of thousands of hikikomori in their 50s living alone with parents in their 80s, giving Japan a ticking time bomb that has been labeled the “8050 problem.”
The latest survey showed that 76.6 percent of recluses between the ages of 40 and 64 are men.
“People think hikikomori are like an underground criminal army,” Kimura (who spent 10 years as a hikikomori and is now 35) says.
“People think they’re dangerous. TV especially promotes that image. Hikikomori have been linked with crime through the way things have been reported. Hikikomori equals crime,” he says.
“I don’t think people realize that a hikikomori is someone who doesn’t have human contact,” he says. “People think it’s a physical thing, to do with space. They can go outside, but it’s the lack of human relationships that makes them hikikomori. People think hikikomori have easy lives. That they’re just relaxing and taking it easy. But in reality, it’s horrible.”