Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.

There's a particular type of person in Japan. They are about 32 years old, mainly male, and typically come from middle-class families. They avoid social situations. You might be able to empathize — some people get anxious around others. But this particular type of person lives a lifestyle most cannot imagine for themselves.

They're called hikikomori, and their self-imposed isolation is so profound that they do not leave their apartments for a minimum of six months. Reportedly, some have even tethered themselves to their bedrooms for decades.

But this kind of isolation must be a rare thing, right? Who could stand to constantly avoid other people for years? Well, apparently about 700,000 Japanese people have adopted this lifestyle.

What causes someone to become hikikomori?

(KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Some argue that Japan's rigorous and demanding education system helps to cause people to become hikikomori.

Like most behavioral issues, it's difficult to pin down exactly what mechanism lies behind it. However, there are some common features.

Japan is a very rigid, structured society, and the pressure starts early. Students are expected to study constantly, the school year lasts six weeks longer than in the U.S., and, when the Ministry of Education reduced the school week from six days a week, many parents began enrolling their children in juku, or "cram schools," to fill in the extra hours with as much education as possible. Because of the emphasis on exams in Japan, about half of all junior high students in Japan attend juku.

Combined with the fact that the period from 1990 to 2010 saw very little economic growth in Japan, many students questioned the purpose of their high-intensity education when there was little guarantee of work at the end of it.

Social life in Japan, too, is highly structured and etiquette practices can quickly become complex depending on the situation and the others involved. For example, Japanese has many grammatical structures that vary depending on the exact nature of the person being addressed, whether they're a superior, an employee, a customer, an older woman or man, a younger woman or man, and many others. Giving gifts is common, but certain items are considered impolite. Giving a kitchen knife to a newlywed couple is a no-no, since this implies separation.

What's more significant than the specific rituals and rules in Japanese culture, the general, pervasive sense of propriety and correct behavior can be stifling. It is impossible to go through life without embarrassing yourself socially at least once, but in a culture where correct behavior is highly valued, slipping up in this regard can be traumatizing.

Often, a triggering academic or social failure prompts young men and women to withdraw from society and become hikikomori. It's also been speculated that this social phenomenon is due, in part, to a culture of shame surrounding mental health issues. Depression wasn't even recognized as a real condition until the late 1990s in Japan, and it is sometimes still seen as an excuse to take time off of work. Rather than be labelled as depressed or anxious, the term hikikomori paints people with a broader brush.

How do they survive?

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Many hikikomori support themselves through remote work.

Most hikikomori come from middle-class families that can provide support for them. A large number of them continue to depend upon their parents for food and shelter. Considering how long some hikikomori maintain their hermit-like lifestyle, this can be both crippling to the parents and extremely dangerous for the hikikomori themselves.

The "2030 problem" refers to the fact that by 2030, the first observed generation of hikikomori will turn 65, and their parents will likely have died. In 2017, the bodies of an elderly couple were found in their apartment, along with that of their 43-year-old son. His body showed signs of starvation.

However, other hikikomori support themselves, all while never leaving their apartments. This lifestyle is relatively new, partly because the internet makes it possible. Some hikikomori support themselves with remote work, like software development. Food can regularly delivered, or, if necessary, they can make late-night runs to nearby, 24-hour supermarkets when they're least likely to run into anybody. In addition, Amazon enables the delivery of basically any necessity.

Can they recover?

Fortunately, some hikikomori do recover. Because the condition is social in nature, much of the treatment is based on normalizing social interactions. Support groups for hikikomori exist as well as publications run by and produced by current or recovering hikikomori. Jogging therapy has been used before. Reportedly, some hikikomori have claimed that playing Pokémon Go — it requires players to walk around outside and use their smartphone cameras to capture virtual Pokémon — has significantly helped their social anxiety. In a more unusual treatment method, a Japanese media company released a series of videos of Japanese people simply staring at a camera, the idea being that hikikomori can slowly acclimatize themselves to social contact virtually and in the safety of their own home.

Although the disease originates in Japan, hikikomori can be found across the world. It's a kind of modern hermitism. And, just as in Japan, the global hikikomori community (admittedly an ironic term) has shown that this condition can be recovered from.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.