You might not have heard of Japan’s Modern-Day hermits if you’re not from Japan. But they’re an interesting societal phenomenon, so much so, that Japan has a specific name for them, the hikikomori. So who are these hikikomori? Well, if you keep reading, you’ll find out.
Japan has its own way of doing things, which can often seem strange, especially to an outsider. If you watched the last world cup, then you would have probably seen the news praising the Japanese fans for tidying up the arenas after each of Japan’s matches.
According to the Japan Times, which reported on the Japanese government’s figures from 2010, some 700,000 people live in a state of hikikomori, with an average age of 31. Although according to the BBC which reported on the subject in 2019, the figure they reported is 541,000 or 1.57% of the population; this is disputed to be a lowball figure by experts. It’s safe to say that Japan is dealing with a bit of a crisis with people retreating into extreme forms of social isolation.
Is Hikikomori Just Extreme Social Anxiety?
In Japan, you can go to a bar or restaurant and see the place heaving with people, but if you look a little closer, you’ll notice those people are more than likely they’re alone. It’s like there are two sides to the same problem, those who go out to be around others while still being alone, and those who just stay in and be alone.
I understand the pull to stay at home. I prefer being at home and on my own. My anxiety disorders make me want to stay at home with every fibre of my being, but yet I still go outside.
So what exactly is hikikomori? Well, they’re anyone who completely withdraws from social contact, often never leaving the house and becoming recluses in their parent’s homes. In extreme cases, they won’t even leave their bedroom for years at a time.
At first, you might just assume that the hikikomori suffers from a form of social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia, but it’s not that simple. Teo and Gaw (2010) have shown that hikikomori sufferers can be afflicted by several different and often comorbid psychological conditions.
A study by Teo et al. (2015) found that the majority of their participants (68%) fulfilled the criteria for multiple psychiatric diagnoses, which isn’t surprising. Most people with mental health issues will probably meet the criteria for more than one mental health condition, giving them comorbid conditions.
There are even suggestions of a link to developmental issues and learning disorders also being a factor in some cases of hikikomori (Psychology Today). However, they also state there is little support for that at present in Japan (Teo, 2010) and makes a case for abuse as a cause. Abuse in the form of neglect makes sense as a possible cause, given the extreme working conditions the Japanese have.
According to Teo and Gaw (2010), most hikikomori cases can be classified into a variety of existing mental health disorders, but there is a significant subset that doesn’t meet the required criteria for an existing psychiatric condition, suggesting a culture-bound syndrome. And why not? We already have Paris Syndrome, which is caused by the culture shock and disappointment of visiting Paris, which largely affects Japanese tourists.
In fact, Teo and Gaw (2010) state that hikikomori easily meets three of the four culture-bound syndrome criteria, also arguing that it actually meets all four criteria.
It seems the debate about if hikikomori is a new psychiatric condition or a cultural concept of distress is still going on, according to Teo et al. (2015). If not all cases of hikikomori are a result of a mental health condition, then could it be an act of rebellion? In a country that admires uniformity, where conformity is king, to the point that even being too much taller than the average can cause ostracisation, could this be the ultimate form of rejection of society and through rebellion?
I would argue that it might not matter if it’s a cultural syndrome or not if many sufferers can have one of several, or comorbid, mental health conditions. Thus, assigning it its own mental health classification could help work towards supporting and treating the hikikomori, rather than wasting time arguing over semantics.
Hikikomori features in a lot of anime and is a well-known anime trope, so if you’ve ever watched anime, you’re probably starting to remember how some of the characters in your favourite shows were probably hikikomori.
For example, one anime series that I really enjoyed watching had, not one, but two, hikikomori characters in it: No Game, No Life. The main characters, a brother and sister duo called Sora and Shiro, would spend all their time playing games, rarely leaving the house, and would have panic attacks if forced to separate or go outside. I believe No Game, No Life currently has its anime series and film on Netflix, so go check it out.
Is Hikikomori Spreading Globally?
Outside Japan, there were just two reported cases of hikikomori, one in Spain and the other in Oman (Teo, 2010). However, according to Kubo et al. (2020), the phenomenon of hikikomori is starting to be found around the globe, with an estimated 300,000 hikikomori living in South Korea (according to an article on Nippon.com).
One of the interesting things about this condition is that technology seems to be playing a role, and if we’re not careful, we could all be living in a world much like in the movie, Surrogates. But not only that, what links Japan and South Korea is that children don’t tend to move out of their parent’s homes until later in life, compared to places like the UK and the US. Therefore, there could be a link between that and developing hikikomori.
What Support Is There For Hikikomori?
Because hikikomori seems to develop in school-age children, the long-term consequences of not tackling this growing problem are that the longer they live like this, the more likely their parents will die and they’ll have no one to support them. Could you imagine being in your 50s or 60s, with little to no experience of physical contact with the outside world, being thrown headfirst into having to find a way to adjust, and fast?
But there is hope.
Renting older siblings
There’s an organisation in Japan that has been set up to help hikikomori, called New Start. This non-profit offers two noticeable solutions for tackling hikikomori and withdrawn people.
Much like the befriender and mentor programmes we have in the UK and other countries, New Start has its own version, where you can rent an older brother or sister for your hikikomori.
You can rent your son or daughter an older sibling who’ll communicate with your child through letters, phone calls, and even visit once a week. This is done to help identify potential problems within the family, help them learn to make friends, and ease them into being able to go out to do activities with their rented older sibling.
New Start also offers dormitories as a communal living space with other hikikomori, whereby they create a space for independence. They also encourage participation in social events, volunteering, and work experience. They do this to foster a sense of companionship which will teach them about the happiness that socialising can bring.
Another form of treatment for those suffering from hikikomori that lives at home with their parents is family therapy, whereby you collectively work together as a family to try and improve the quality of life of the family and the hikikomori.
Exposure therapy, or graded exposure therapy, is a great way to tackle such problems and is something that seems to be incorporated into the New Start dormitories treatment concept. I know I made progress with my own anxiety disorders by using a combination of graded exposure and metacognitive therapy methods.
Although we have a well-established peer mentoring and befriending tradition in countries like the UK, the idea of using a dormitory-type treatment approach is interesting. To ease people into dealing with their anxieties around socialising and leaving their homes, maybe having them live in a shared space, like living in halls at university or shared accommodation, with added support, could be a useful treatment.
Being there with other people who are also suffering from the same issues could help them all learn to flourish and improve their quality of life. This would, of course, be done with their consent, and their freedoms wouldn’t be infringed on if they agreed to undertake this form of treatment. I honestly think this might be something worth studying and applying in the UK. What are your thoughts on a dormitory-style treatment for hikikomori and extreme socialising issues?
In the meantime, if you’d like help with tackling social anxiety, then check out my graded exposure article by clicking here.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences of hikikomori-like behaviours in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Kubo, H., Urata, H., Sakai, M., Nonaka, S., Saito, K., Tateno, M., Kobara, K., Hashimoto, N., Fujisawa, D., Suzuki, Y., Otsuka, K., Kamimae, H., Muto, Y., Usami, T., Honda, Y., Kishimoto, J., Kuroki, T., Kanba, S., & Kato, T. A. (2020). Development of 5-day hikikomori intervention program for family members: A single-arm pilot trial. Heliyon, 6(1), e03011. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e03011 and https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338483887_Development_of_5-day_hikikomori_intervention_program_for_family_members_A_single-arm_pilot_trial.
Teo, A. R. (2010). A new form of social withdrawal in Japan: a review of hikikomori. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 56(2), 178-185. Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F0020764008100629 and http://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC4886853&blobtype=pdf.
Teo, A. R. & Gaw, A. C. (2010). Hikikomori, A Japanese Culture-Bound Syndrome of Social Withdrawal? A Proposal for DSM-V. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198(6), 444–449. Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.1097%2FNMD.0b013e3181e086b1.
Teo, A. R., Saha, S., Stufflebam, K., Fetters, M. D., Tateno, M., Kanba, S., & Kato, T. A. (2015). Psychopathology associated with social withdrawal: Idiopathic and comorbid presentations. Psychiatry Research, 228(1), 182–183. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.033.
59 thoughts on “Hikikomori: Social Anxiety Or Modern-Day Hermits?”
Even though I’m not a sociable person, I couldn’t stay indoors all of the time. I’d feel worse if I didn’t go out.
I know how it can get harder and harder to go outside the longer you leave it, but to get to the stage where you won’t even leave your bedroom, that’s next level
Wow – completely fascinating. I’ve never heard of such a thing but it’s extremely interesting on many layers. You did a great job covering this unique topic
Thank you ?
Immensely intriguing but honestly, I’m not entirely shocked by this phenomenon in a society like japan. Admittedly, my only experience being in Japan was limited to 6 hours in the airport, Narita.
Yet, just that experience alone showed me how neat and conformed society is there. Everything was sparkling clean, we were able to take advantage of the showers and sleeping pods area. There was also a beautiful oxygen bar with relaxing music and atmosphere. Let’s just say it was not JFK!
I’ve also read articles about the high rates of suicide, and have seen the photos of businesses-men literally sleeping on the street due to their grueling work schedules.
If you are someone who cannot neatly conform into such a rigid society, then I easily understand why either an individual becomes basically agoraphobic, or maybe there’s family pressures for them to “stay hidden”. Thus, what we in Western culture would certainly consider abuse.
Another great piece! Thank you for such a thought-provoking article
If I remember rightly, business man have to socialise with their bosses if they invite them, and they’re not allowed to leave until their boss does. Which is why you see men in suits collapsed in places. There’s also a name for people that die from being over worked: Karoshi
Very interesting! I’m always learning From your work
I’m glad I can help teach you new things about our weird world ?
This is so interesting, I’ve never heard of hikikomori before but it sounds so interesting to learn about. I myself am not very social but I still have the need to go outside and get at least a little social stimulation from close friends and family. Also, Paris syndrome is fascinating and I am definitely going to be researching this a little more! I feel like sometimes americans experience something similar when visiting Europe for the first time
I know us European’s get a culture shock when American’s come visit us over here ha ha ha
Wow……very interesting post. This is the first time I heard of hikikomori. I haven’t been watching anime for quite a long time. Thank you for introducing me to No Game, No Life. I’ll binge watch it later.
I hope you enjoy No Game, No Life
This is a very in-depth introduction to the topic of hikikomori for people like myself who hadn’t heard of it. And it’s really timely for me as since I was recently engaged in a debate about what seems like a growing trendiness of defining oneself as an introvert. I also find the rent a sibling option to be extremely interesting, especially if it works.
It’d be interesting to see how the rent a sibling concept compares to America’s big brother project, and the UK’s various mentorship programmes (like the one Mind does)
This was a really interesting read. Thank you. I’m a psychology person, so from a mental health perspective, I’m curious — is hikikomori considered a disorder resulting from mental illness? Or is it a way of life that someone chooses? I travelled to Japan about 10 years ago, and I was struck by how quiet and reserved everyone is, in general. Culturally, Japanese people seem to prefer keeping to themselves, anyway, so I could see hikikomori being a lifestyle that some people decide to adopt. But I’m totally speculating and might not have any idea what I’m talking about. Interested to hear your thoughts!
I think it’s likely the culture has an influence, but it does seem to largely affect those with one or more mental health issue which might then add to that need to want to stay home, even though a significant smaller subset don’t see to have any diagnosable mental health condition
Ah, okay. That makes sense. Thanks for clarifying!
Never heard of hikikomori before, found this really interesting. The dormitory thing could be a good idea, if done right.
Indeed, it’d have to be done right so you would the correct safeguarding sorted to protect the clients rights and freedoms
Wow, what an interesting concept and I had no idea this was even a thing! I have social anxiety, but this is extremely an interesting variation indeed. I love that you covered this topic because I know I would have never learned about it to this extent otherwise. Bravo. Thanks so much for sharing this!
I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, as it’s a topic I find really interesting myself
This is an interesting piece! I have never heard of hikkiomori, but I am thinking back to a couple of anime shows I have watched to characters who probably had it. Everything has a name now-days, so I should have known it was not just a character element.
It is thought-provoking to think of the reasons behind things like hikkiomori, especially since so many people live with it. Rent a sibling is as interesting a way to help people with this condition; it is a pity, though, that one’s real siblings are sometimes not as supportive and helpful as strangers!
Thanks for sharing! I learn something new every day. 🙂
Japan I think is know for having a low birth rate, so it’s possible there’s not a lot of families with more than one child
I have never heard of hikikomori before! This was a fascinating article. Thank you so much!
I’m glad you liked it ☺️
Great article Japan seems a lot more modern then the UK. I think staying indoors is harder for many in the UK as they are not used to it and this pandemic has made it tough for many.
Hopefully 2021 is going to be better and we can get back to normal.
I don’t think any population is use to staying in like we’ve been required to because of the pandemic
Thank you for sharing this post, I enjoy learning about other cultures, in particular Japenese & this isn’t something which I’m familiar with, it’s really fascinanting… I’m also a fan of anime, so I’ll check out your netflix recommendation.
Pixee xo || Thats What Pea Said
I lovr learning about Japanese culture as well. I hope you enjoy the anime
Ha! I’m an American living in Paris and had never heard of Paris Syndrome. I can see that the romantic ideal of Paris might not live up to the reality for many Japanese tourists.
Seriously, though, I wonder if the hikikomori phenomenon is one disturbing extreme end of the spectrum of what technology can do to a society when other traditional communal outlets atrophy. Could this be the future for all of us (shudder)? I see it in today’s younger generation in America, weaned from birth on technology, but I don’t think it compares to what we’re seeing in Japan today. I do like your idea of some sort of communal living arrangement to help socialize these people and get them used to interacting with each other.
Good read and thanks for sharing it!
That was my reasoning, that the image of Paris of being this beautifully artistic and historical city just being like a normal place
Very good post! I have enjoyed anime for many years, and I have never thought of how it did have those types of characters. I do agree with you about the Japanese gamers. There have been stories of teens allowing the games to literally take over their lives. They eat poorly, drink energy drinks. There are even reports of deaths attributed to days of lack of sleep and these poor habits.
Video game addiction in Asian countries is really bad, and yeah, I’ve seen several news stories of young people dying due to extreme video game habits and use of energy drinks
Interesting post. I lived in Japan for 16 years and often read stories about hikikomori. I’d be curious to see how successful some of these support programmes have been
I’d really like to know how successful the rent an old sibling and the dormitory interventions were as well
I’ve never heard of this social phenomenon. It’s disturbing and worrisome and important to highlight. Thanks so much for bringing to our attention.
Thanks for reading
It’s an interesting concept that this happens to almost 2 percent of the Japanese population. I’m surprised there hasn’t been anything done to help these people who retreat and never leave their homes. Mental illness isn’t easy
There’s that charity that allows you to rent an older sibling or try dormitory living. I’d imagine there are also other things the government and other organizations are trying as well
Very interesting read. I always learn from your articles. Though I am not fan of anime, I will check on this. I think the mental issues are evolving and should be in priority list as it is indeed affecting the society.
Certainly more needs to be done to help prevent mental health issues developing at a societal level
Very unique article! I never heard of this thing before, but you explained everything very well. Thanks for sharing this it was an interesting read.
I’m glad you found it interesting
An interesting read. I’ve never heard of this before. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading
Interesting read. I have a cousin who could fit into this category. He’s about 50, lives with his parents and rarely goes out. I think it’s more widespread than just in Japan, as he lives in New Zealand
There’s a substantial population of them in South Korea, and two other reported cases outside of Asia that I was able to report on, so it could well be in New Zealand as well
I always learn something new from your blog. I had never even heard of hikikomori before so it was interesting to read about it here. How interesting that it’s almost solely isolated to Japan. But, like you said, I feel like we might start seeing quite a few more cases outside of Japan from technology.
We could all have a WALL-E moment if we’re not careful
Quite a fascinating read on Japans culture and people who live there and deal with anxiety too.
This was really interesting to read. I had never heard of HIkikomori before, but I can see how it could easily be connected with a number of different mental health conditions. I have to agree with something said here, giving it an ‘official label’ may be an important step towards helping those who are living this way. It opens the doors to establish financial support, funded treatment options, research, etc.
Indeed, giving something an official name opens a lot of doors that would otherwise be locked shut
Quite an engaging read.
Some of us get warped by this modern life
Hi. I have to admit, I’d never heard of hikikomori. So, your article has been my ‘learn something new’ for today – thank you. Even if you go with the lower estimate provided by the BBC that’s still a heck of a lot of people that are living like this – let’s hope that the efforts to help them are a success.
I’m glad I helped you learn something new today ? I know, even the BBC’s figures for Hikikomori seems like a lot of people, and I’d really like to know how affective the charity is that’s trying to help them