The subject of Japan ‘s social recluses has returned to the spotlight after a new survey revealed for the first time that more than half of hikikomori in Tokyo are women, and many of those choosing to shun society do not want to be reintegrated.
Experts also highlighted the increasing urgency to find a solution to the “80-50 problem”, where parents in their 80s caring for hikikomori in their 50s start to die, leaving their recluse children without care.
Japan is home to the largest number of senior citizens in the world, with about three in ten of the country’s 126 million people above age 65 .
In the survey, women accounted for more than 52 per cent of hikikomori , surprising Japanese officials as it had been considered an issue that mostly affected men. More than 30 per cent of hikikomori did not require assistance to rejoin society and simply wanted to be left alone, Kyodo News reported.
Officials in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward sent questionnaires to 180,000 households in the ward, which is home to 700,000 people. Of the approximately 100,000 households that replied, 7,604 said they had a hikikomori resident, while more than 300 respondents had more than one shut-in resident at home.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare categorises hikikomori as someone who has not gone to work or school for at least six months, and rarely interacts with people outside their home.
Government studies and surveys show that there are an estimated 1.1 million hikikomori across Japan.
But the results of the survey did not surprise mental health experts in Japan, who warned that the actual number of hikikomori was likely to be far higher.
Masaki Ikegami, director of Tokyo-based support organisation Kazoku Hikikomori Japan, said he “expected” the high figures as the survey was the first that went house to house.
“And as some people still did not respond, we suspect that the actual number may be much higher,” he said. “These people do not want to leave their homes because they are afraid of the huge peer pressure that exists in society at present, which denies and excludes any sort of different opinion.”
Societal change, which has to evolve to accept different individuals, is the solution, Ikegami suggested.
“We do not need to change the individual; we need to change a society that has that sort of peer pressure and refuses to consider other people’s opinions.”
Ikegami’s group works to create support groups where parents and families who are struggling with a hikikomori family member can go for advice – most importantly, he said, “without prejudice”.
“We need to prepare family groups within communities where they can learn how to deal with situations and bearing in mind their own feelings,” he said.
And when that has been achieved and when they feel sufficiently secure, hikikomori should be encouraged to step outside their homes and gradually be assisted in returning to a welcoming community.
Vickie Skorji, director of the Tokyo-based TELL Lifeline and counselling service, said there was still far too little assistance available to anyone in Japan suffering from mental health issues and that the issue was complex and constantly evolving.
She said there were many different reasons why people would shut themselves off.
“If someone was happy on their own and had someone to bring them food and generally care for them, and they didn’t feel that they needed to interact with the rest of the world, why would they choose to leave their home?” she said. “Not everyone is distressed, and what is the incentive for them?”
There are others who clearly require more immediate assistance, such as those who are suicidal or anyone whose anxieties threaten to overwhelm their health, but Japan has traditionally had a poor understanding of how counselling can help, she said.
Little was done in the past when people started refusing to leave their rooms and too few resources are available for those in need today, she said.
There are some private-sector initiatives that have been gaining ground, such as a scheme that uses computer games to communicate and acts as a first step to encouraging hikikomori to interact with people beyond their immediate family.
Other projects include helping hikikomori to find jobs that they can do online and from the security of their own room and halfway houses where social recluses can start their reintegration into society. But private support groups behind the drive say these initiatives are small-scale and lack adequate funding from the government.
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.