Hikikomori: social withdrawal in Japan

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I learned about this phenomenon through this article:

Why won’t 541,000 young Japanese leave the house?” (Emiko Jozuka, CNN, 9/12/16):

According to a Japanese cabinet survey released Wednesday, there are currently 541,000 young Japanese aged between 15 and 39 who lead similarly reclusive lives.

These people are known as hikikomori — a term the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry uses to define those who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months.

The term was coined as early as the 1980s, but there is still much debate on how exactly this condition is triggered and how it can be defined.

Somehow or other, I found both the sound and the meaning of this word to be intensely beguiling.

I think that the most common way of writing the term is this mixture of one kanji and four hiragana:  hikikomori 引きこもり.  But it can also be written in at least nine other ways:  引き篭もり, 引き篭り, 引き籠もり, 引き籠り, 引篭もり, 引篭り, 引籠もり, 引籠り, ヒキコモリ, all with the same pronunciation

The verb hiku 引く by itself means “draw, pull”, and komoru 篭/もる means “seclude oneself”.

Now for definitions of the word.

From the online jisho dictionary:

1. a shut-in; a stay-at-home; people who withdraw from society (e.g. retire to the country)

2.
social withdrawal; shunning other people

Wikipedia definition

Hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引き籠もり Hikikomori, literally “pulling inward, being confined”, i.e., “acute social withdrawal“) is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. The term hikikomori refers to both the sociological phenomenon in general and the people belonging to this societal group. Hikikomori have been described as recluses, loners, or “modern-day hermits.”

Japanese Wikipedia article.

DBpedia article.

There’s also the slang, derogatory derivate, hikkii ヒッキー:  n. someone who withdraws from society (e.g. hides in their room) < hikikomori (from tangorin).

It’s clear that the hikikomori phenomenon is not new, and is quite well documented. Variously described in English as “asociality” and “(acute) social withdrawal,” it’s the subject of both scholarly and public attention.

One of the earlier manga to treat the subject was Welcome to the NHK, where NHK stands for Nihon Hikikomori Kyōkai 日本引きこもり協会 (“The Japanese Hikikomori Association”), not the usual Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (“Japan Broadcasting Corporation”).

In sum, hikikomori has been a major social issue recently in Japan, apparently more so than 10-15 years ago, though it already existed then and has been listed as a loan-word in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2010.

I once (more than twenty years ago) met a young Japanese man in his early twenties who had been sent by his parents to China simply to live in seclusion in a room that they had rented for him for years.  It was in a university dorm in Sichuan, though he wasn’t a student at the university, because he was incapable of going to classes.  He stayed in his room nearly all the time year after year.  And what a mess it was!  Manga everywhere!  Games all over the place.  He couldn’t communicate with the Chinese students either.  He must have been a hikikomori, though I don’t remember if anybody called him that.

[h.t. John Rohsenow; thanks to Nathan Hopson, Miki Morita, and Hiroko Sherry]



10 Comments

  1. Jim Breen said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    The excellent jisho.org site uses the JMdict dictionary database from the dictionry project I set up in 1990. You’ll see the identical entry in many other places including sites like my own WWWJDIC and apps such as AEdict (Android) and Imawa (iOS), The database entry for 引きこもり can be seen at:
    http://www.edrdg.org/jmdictdb/cgi-bin/entr.py?svc=jmdict&sid=&q=1647900

  2. Michael Watts said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

    The Japanese guy in Sichuan can’t possibly have met the definition of hikikomori, if that definition is “those who haven’t left their homes or interacted with others for at least six months”. How would he have gotten food?

  3. Jim M. said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

    One of the episodes in the anthology film “Tokyo!” dealt with this, although it was directed by a Korean filmmaker. It’s called “Shaking Tokyo,” and it’s about one of these guys who orders a pizza right as a major earthquakes hits. The deliverer, a girl, faints, and he has to deal with it.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    Re: the guy in Sichuan:

    People brought food to his room. His parents paid for it all.

  5. Bloix said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 10:24 pm

    I know a young woman who is like this. It is not beguiling. It’s a crippling mental illness.

  6. Guy said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 12:58 am

    Is this a higher rate than other countries for extreme agoraphobia? Or is there reason to believe that this is something other than agoraphobia?

  7. Graeme said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 1:07 am

    Bloix to be fair Victor said the word’s sound and meaning were beguiling. Not the phenomenon. We expect doctors and lawyers to study social and physical events with some detachment. Wouldn’t linguists have the same ability to study the aesthetics, structure, relationships between words, whilst reserving regret for the real world phenomenon?

  8. Joe said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 3:56 am

    >There’s also the slang, derogatory derivate, hikkii ヒッキ
    Should be ヒッキー.

    [VHM: fixed now; thanks!]

  9. leoboiko said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    @Guy: I’m not very familiar with contemporary psych terms, but as far as I know agoraphobia is described as the phobia of certain environments; the DSM-5 criteria list places such as public transportation and open spaces, and if two or more of those places make you anxious, they’d diganose you as agoraphobic. So the criteria is environmental more than anything.

    Hikikomoris are usually described not as being anxious about outdoors, or about certain environments – many hikikomoris leave home occasionally – but as feeling anxiety about social interaction, and especially about social pressures and expectations (school, work, marriage…). A hikikomori is someone who opts out of trying to participate in society. The home-boundness in incidental to social reclusion. Thus “asociality” seems to be a good translation; or perhaps “acute social anxiety”, not agoraphobia (they’re distinct diagnoses, and the first seem to match better).

    In particular, the DSM talks of agoraphobics being afraid of leaving home alone; it seems that many agoraphobics are able to leave home if they’re with a trusted companion (1). To a hikikomori, the primarily awful thing would be the companion, not the outside.

  10. Ovaloid said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 6:19 am

    Why is this a problem?
    Why not just let people live how they want if it doesn’t hurt any one else?

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