A strange trend in Japan is beginning to threaten not only the foundation of Japanese families, but the economy as well. Nearly 1 million people, mostly men, have literately begun locking themselves in their bedrooms and refusing to come out. The phenomenon has baffled health professionals all across the country, promptly naming the condition “hikikomori”.
Dr. Takahiro Kato, one of Japan’s few experts on the rising condition, has assembled a team to tackle the issue of the next generation suffering the same fate. Little is known about the causes and treatment, but Dr. Kato and his associates at Kyushu University have slowly begun deciphering the illness.
“In Western societies, if one stays indoors they’re told to go outside, in Japan they’re not. Our play has changed, it’s all on screens and not real-life situations anymore.” said Dr Kato. “There are cultural reasons also, a strong sense of embarrassment and an emotional dependence on the mother.”
“Most case studies have only focused on the psychological aspect, but hikikomori is not just about mental illness,” he continued. “We’re working on the social and biological aspects as well and want to be the first to provide a multi-dimensional diagnosis.”
Recovering from hikikomori can be extremely taxing, and it seems like the longer someone stays in their room, the less likely they are to want to come out. A 23-year old patient of Dr. Kato, for example, has been in therapy for a year. He cites ‘a domineering mother’ and pressure to perform well in school as the reason for dropping out and locking himself in his room.
“I just wanted to suppress everything, put a lid on everything,” he said. “I didn’t want to think… I didn’t want to feel.”
Yuto Onishi, an 18 year old who has been hikikomori for almost 3 years, has given the team insight into the condition on his road to recovery. His typical reclusive routine was sleeping throughout the day, then ‘coming alive’ (if you can really call it that) during the night. He would surf the internet, read manga and comic books, and sneak out in the late hours of the night to eat. He had essentially cut contact with his friends and family, withdrawing from society due to the embarrassment he felt after reportedly failing as a class leader.
“Once you experience it, you lose reality,” Mr Onishi told ABC News. “I knew it was abnormal but I didn’t want to change, it felt safe here.”
Dr. Kato explains that in order to bounce back from this kind of isolation one must rebuild communication and trust, meaning families have to be involved in counselling as well. Yuto has now been out of his room for six months, studying at a school that specializes in dealing with hikikomori students. He says early intervention from his family is what helped him out, as well as the dream of travelling and working overseas.
“Facing your trauma is horrifying, it’s hard to do. If you can do it with somebody else, then they can show you a different vision of the future.” said Yuto.
As bright as Yuto Onishi’s future may be, the unfortunate reality is that there are still many others who are effectively hiding in their rooms. Experts continue to diligently examine possible remedies. One previously-inflicted woman says that finding the right support network is the key to recovery.