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    The American Hikikomori

    This article originally got published a few weeks ago at Practice of Madness. It's more in line with the material usually published here. Give it a full read - it's a collaboration with a very close friend. Apologies if it's difficult to read here - Jennifer's page is very interactive. If you have trouble, go ahead and read her website from the source:

     courtesy Jennifer L. Reimer - direct queries @jenniferLreimer

    “Cherry Blossoms in the Dark IV”, courtesy Jennifer L. Reimer – direct queries tweet @jenniferLreimer

    Welcome to my first post with Practice of Madness. Jen was kind enough to give me the opportunity to write here – For my first assignment, the madwoman suggested that I look in to the concept of “hikikomori” – a Japanese term for young males who isolate a great deal from the rest of society.  I have previously written for websites such as the progressive politics websites Dagblog and Little Green Footballs.  Additionally, I have a lot of experience using writing to build communities around mental health and well being.  Jen says I should stop being so modest and also mention my Facebook group, “Life Beyond SSRIs…”.

    My studies there tie in to this subject quite a bit, though I never signed up for Hikikomori 101 during my undergrad degree, but for some reason I was registered.  I studied a course in Japanese culture while there which filled me in on many of the colloquial terms of Japanese culture – including their reverence for fitting individuals partaking in a cultural phenomenon with a shared term of identity like “hikikomori.”  Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” are an example.  Harajuku is a cheap shopping district in Japan, compared with the high end stores in famous Shibuya area.


    [I know Japanese at an intermediate to advanced level after living there for a period when I was 14-15.  Japanese words can get pretty interesting and complicated  - this one is fairly simple though.  人 or "hi" means "people".  It is a pictograph of a person walking.  These simple characters reappear in more complex ones.  However, even the term "hikikomori" seems to come out isolated from culture.

    IMG_0296気 or "ki" is a sacred word meaning "soul/life energy", is used throughout the Japanese language.  Until the introduction of "心の底" - "kokoro no kaze" or " one's heart/soul has caught a cold" - a term pharmaceutical companies invented to open the Japanese market to antidepressants - symptoms of depression, melancholia, as well as mania, and even psychosis were seen as a disturbance in "ki".  No pill could repair one's life energy - the basis of existence - it was a problem to be worked out by the individual, alone or with the help of a traditional healer, for better or worse.  It is hard, in America, not to think of a pill as soon as we think of someone who has depression or is otherwise "psychologically disturbed".  We are told this is how things are by popular media, including DTC (direct to consumer) advertising.  I'm sure most of you have seen the star of the Pristiq ads, poor wind-up woman, appearing in the ad to the left.

    Finally, we have the word こもり - babysit.  Thus, "hikikomori" literally translates into English and other European languages as "babysitting one's life energy from other people".  One must hide at home and take care of the core of their very being as a babysitter would, because others are viewed as a threat.  This hardly seems to be healthy for a species wired to interact, as humans are.]  

    My roommate for an entire year at that campus was a young man, my same age, named Danny.  He was Chinese (I am linking him with the concept of “hikikomori” for other reasons, though I am American.)   I know that Chinese and Japanese culture can be worlds apart.  Danny was a really nice guy and could be socially engaging.  He never seemed threatening and had a good sense of humor.  The occasions when we hung out were pretty fun.

    However, Danny was really withdrawn.  I understate.  Really, very withdrawn. If he was not either in art class or doing assignments for his art class, he would be on his computer.

    I wasn’t much better and took his weird lifestyle as a bit of an excuse to have a very similar lifestyle. He owned a PSP (Playstation Portable) which he was kind enough to let me use, and I played on that PSP by myself while he spent hours and hours upon hours on World of Warcraft.


    It was a bit creepy. The lights in our apartment were usually off, and the only light over either of us was, emulating from the computer or portable video game system, usually both.

    This is definitely a behavior that is unique to our generation, and is confined mostly to males. Women of our generation are actually quite the opposite – extremely socially engaging thanks to their new found financial independence I don’t think the two are unrelated. With more responsibilities in their realm, it is easier for Danny or myself to wile away the night playing video games as if we were still teenagers.  I know, Jen will give me a lecture about the “Female Holocaust” after she edits this.

    [Women speak 8500+ words per day while men only speak 2000, but the evolutionary basis for this trait is not so that time spent alone shooting zombies or soldiers or aliens on a screen can be maximized for boys, er, men, while women figure things out.  At least I highly doubt it.  I've seen it though.  In many a parent's basement.] 

    Humans are social, communal beings.  No matter how some folks in our culture may talk about and praise “individualism,” all people on this planet think tribally and in groups over various sizes, from 30 to 30 million. In Japanese culture, this is all the more so.

    Japan is traditionally an island with one, homogenous culture.  It is really the last “nation state”.  More than that, the idea that “what is good for the group is good for the individual” is ingrained in their system of beliefs.  Soldiers in Japan willingly gave up their own lives in “kamikaze” missions with the knowledge that their lives were worth forfeiting to a group.  ’Fatalistic suicide” is one of four types of ending one’s life for social reasons.  Japanese soldiers fully believed that they were honoring their ancestors and doing something for their great country.  In the United States, where we often talk about “individualism,” most people are locked in to some kind of group – this most often means their church, their family, the company they work for, a community built around their ethnicity or nationality of origin, or some kind of “subculture”.  Groups unite and groups divide.

    Something is awry with the young men that comprise those affected by hikikomori phenomenon both in Japan and elsewhere in the world – including the United States. The only social reality that human beings have is that of other human beings – this Earth is the only physical plane we know of. However, for individuals like my roommate, there was almost a disinterest in the rest of humanity – most of his time was spent totally immersed in the strange world of video games, a reality venue created by other people as an escape from our reality.

    Hikikomori_,_Hiasuki,_2004In the Wikipedia entry for “hikikomori,” a picture is shown of a young man in his room, holding a large samurai sword. Socially isolated young males are almost never non-violent – socialization is really the only way to keep any human male away from violence.  Socialization, sanctions and rewards, learning how to work with people, these things do not occur if one builds himself a dungeon.

    [What happens when the unnatural world of someone babysitting their life energy from others crosses into the “real” world, inhabited by those others?]

    The home of Adam Lanza, the young man who massacred over twenty with an automatic weapon at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was loaded with all sorts of weapons – including samurai swords. Along with such weapons were also found books on Aspergers Syndrome – a psychiatric disorder that allegedly encompassed people who have marked deficits in social functioning.

    [Aspergers is a hot topic as the DSM-V is to be released this fall, and their preliminary comments are very confusing.  It seems to be rather meaningless, especially considering the final statement.]

    The human tendency towards pattern-seeking behavior and classification is useful in scientific pursuits, but like everything, when taken to the point of extremism, becomes a malignant force.  Is it not more likely that our tendency to exclude is the cause of people adapting to social isolation, like Michael and Danny?  I believe that if Occham’s Razor is applied – that is, that the simplest, most logical explanation must be right, a “syndrome” is unlikely.  Have we unintentionally created a world outside the home that is so unpleasant, many feel the need to avoid it completely?  I often do…]

     courtesy NYTimes

    courtesy NYTimes


    Everyone in America is fearful of individuals like Lanza and wants to prevent them from showing up in our society. The newly archetypical “hikikomori”-like behavior that he fell in to might be a good thing to watch out for and attempts to keep young males from falling in to social isolation (most people, even ones who seem withdrawn, do want to engage and be liked by other people, but are simply introverted, shy, self-conscious, weary, etc.) may be a great step towards preventing antisocial behavior and outbursts.


    More research in this area is crucial.


     Independent research (outside the APA).


    This is brilliant and provocative.  Not sure what the answer is.  I'm a very social guy but, as such, kind of understand the opposite impulse (sometimes very, very well).  I mean, is it so bad to withdraw from society, for a time?  Society has its drawbacks.  Society gathers and collates your telephone calls without asking your permission.  Society expects a tip even for bad service.  Society treats every Kardashian and every Hilton better than it treats you and when you object to that, society acts like you're the one with a problem.  Is rejection of society, as we've created it, that irrational? Hikikomori seems to make some sense.  Also, and total ignoramous observation here -- if hi is rendered in Japanese as the figure of some one walking, might they not, in this context, be walking away from an unwelcome situation?

    People are schizophrenic, Michael. I have had some people in my life tell me both that I have never worked a day in my life and that I've accomplished more than most people my age. The same people. That wasn't just a reflection of them - society itself is that schizophrenic, telling you to do A and then guilt tripping you when you do A for not doing J.

    It's infuriating and it has no small part to do with why the rate of attempted and completed suicides is so high, why antidepressants are hot sellers and why we watch so many movies about people with superpowers.

    It's important to remember that it's not because society itself is bad but society is made up of individuals and most of those individuals appear to be really confused about everything.

    Jennifer, who runs the site, and I actually have very similar life experience - something I didn't think anyone else in the world had - and alot of our life experience is based on that same experience with a society that is mentally ill, doesn't know what it wants and punishes people who don't give it whatever it is that it wants. I think that this piece turned out as well as it did because the two of us were working in synergy together. It could have just been a whinefest if I did it by my lonesome.

    I'm actually not sure that anyone on earth is antisocial. Every person I've ever met does want to engage the rest of the world on some level. Often they don't know how. The hostility comes from having a perception reinforced on some level that they can't be a part of that world.

    Anyways, that went on longer than I thought it would. Thanks a whole bunch, Michael, for pushing me to do this at all - I'm wondering if some of the stuff I've written elsewhere may be of more interest to Dagbloggers than what I wrote before. Heh heh. smiley

    This essay has some related thoughts in it, and I think some of those thoughts should interest you, judging from some of your past writings as well:

    Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation
    The world's largest film industry—that'd be India's—is largely barren of the superhero and spaceship films that dominate Hollywood. What, exactly, accounts for the difference?
    By Christine Folch, The Atlantic, Jun 13 2013

    It just has a bad title, because Japan and China are included in it as cultures that have similar needs.

    I'm not sure I totally buy Professor Folch's theses, but the essay certainly is thought provoking about the phenomenon of alienation et. al. (Some of comments section ain't all bad either, as is common whenever there's a good comparative culture essay.)

    Also at The Atlantic, re,this: The lights in our apartment were usually off, and the only light over either of us was, emulating from the computer or portable video game system, usually both, see this.

    Science fiction/fantasy is even more popular in Japan and alot of Southeast Asia than it is here. Man of Steel and The Dark Knight take pains to make these heroes gritty - Japanese films from Godzilla to anime like Metropolis are outlandish and don't even apologize for it. India may have more of an old school culture with people who are much better socialized. I don't know - I don't know the reasons for the cultural differences.

    Audio: Confronting Suicide in Japan
    June 17, 2013. newyorker.com

    This week in the magazine, Larissa MacFarquhar Profiles a Japanese Buddhist monk who offers counsel and aid to people contemplating suicide. Here, Macfarquhar talks with Sasha Weiss about the culture of suicide in Japan and how Ittetsu Nemoto’s belief in suffering as a path to self-knowledge has prepared him to help the suicidal.

    I didn't listen to that audio, I read the article in the print edition, but the article is behind a paywall for those who don't have a subscription.  The article does refer to hikikomori at various points. I will type a paragraph from it to give you an idea, a paragraph which comes after the first-page description of the type of death workshops Ittetsu Nemoto now leads for the suicidal:

    In the past, Nemoto organized outings whose main function was to get hikikomori--shut-ins, some who have barely left their rooms in years--to go outside. (There are hundreds of thousands of hikikomori in Japan, mostly young men; they play video games and surf the Web and are served meals on trays by their parents.) He led camping trips and karaoke evenings; he held soupmaking sessions and sat up all night talking. But, on the whole, these outings were unsatisfactory. Hikikomori were phobic, and suicidal people were disorganized; you couldn't rely on them to show up.

    Nemoto believes in confronting death; he believes in cultivating a concentrated awareness of the functioning and fragility of the body; and he believes in suffering, because it shows who you really are [.....]

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