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.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.