Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

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

Empty Room
700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
  • 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?

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

(KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

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?

Many hikikomori support themselves through remote work.

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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