Now that I’ve turned in my bachelor’s thesis I can safely write a full essay on my topic on my blog. This is not going to be a translation of my thesis but rather a reworked text, which summarizes some parts and rethinks some other parts. My topic combined nicely a politically hot topic in Finland – so called marginalized youth – and one of my random interests – the Japanese society. So, the following text (in two parts!) is going to be about the so called hikikomori, or socially withdrawn young people. I am not going to be as pedantic about references and sources as I was in my thesis (obviously!) but I’m going to add them where I think they’re needed.
“Hikikomori” (which translates into withdrawal and means both, the withdrawn young people and the phenomenon of withdrawal itself) popped into the public discourse during the 1990’s in Japan. The term denotes a group of young people secluded in their homes for long periods of time without participation in the working life, education or training and without social contacts (apart from family members). For the purposes of this essay, I will follow Victor Wong’s (2009) definition of social withdrawal: a young person can be said to be socially withdrawn when he or she has spent his or her time almost exclusively in his or her home/room, without a formal social status (that is to say, he or she is a NEET – not in employment, education or training) and without face-to-face social contacts apart from his or her family, for the period of at least six months (a common period of time used in psychiatry to separate pathological cases from non-pathological ones). It should be noted that these parameters are not set in stone. They merely present us with a “clinical” or “pure” case of social withdrawal.
A study on the amount of hikikomori-related articles in Japanese newspapers shows that the phenomenon became widely discussed especially at the turn of the century (from 1997 onward) (Furlong 2008). This indicates two things: First, the phenomenon can be said to have become increasingly prevalent since the beginning of the 1990’s. Second, and in contrast to the first point, it can also be claimed that the media discourse merely shed light to this phenomenon, gave it a definition and problematized/pathologized it. The first perspective focuses our attention to the changes that have taken place in the Japanese society since the early 1990’s. The second one instructs us to think critically about the media and think about the ways it does not only report about social problems but also constructs them. Indeed, young people have always been pathologized and demonized in the media and public discourse. The attention given to the “hikikomori-epidemic” can be viewed as a form of moral panic, especially since the media tends to portray these socially withdrawn young people as lazy parasites living off their parents’ or the state’s money or as psychologically disturbed young people inclined to psychosis and explosive aggressive behavior.
In recent years “the hikikomori problem” has been recognized as an international one, affecting not only Japan but also countries of the West (such as European countries) and other ones as well. My interest in the topic was largely triggered by a documentary I saw about socially withdrawn young people – resembling hikikomori – in my own country (Finland). As the phenomenon is not particularly Japanese (or East-Asian), it calls for approaches that do not merely focus on characteristics of the Japanese society (such as the presumably prevalent “Confucian collectivism” of the Japanese people) but deal with the changes that have occured in developed countries globally. All that being said, it is possible, and propable, that the phenomenon is nonetheless more prevalent in Japan than elsewhere, which is why the Japanese society deserves special treatment in analysis.
In the following I am going to try to explain the phenomenon of social withdrawal both in the light of psychiatric research and the changing social context of developed countries in general and Japan in particular. The first perspective draws the attention on mental disorders and the psychological etiology of social withdrawal. This kind of approach – by its very nature – tends to deal with socially withdrawn young people as individual cases and abstracts the phenomenon from its social context. The second perspective tries to link the phenomenon to the changes that have taken place in the society (especially the changing labor-market). Both approaches have their advantages, which I try to bring forth. Before delving deeper into these explanatory models I will take a look at the age, gender and socio-economic background of socially withdrawn youth (shortened to SWY in the following).
SWY seem to be mostly in the age category of 15-30. An epidemiological study from Japan found that the average age of people at the start of the withdrawal period was 22,3 years. However, over 40% of respondents reported their age at the beginning of the withdrawal period to be 15-19 years (which seems to be in line with studies from South-Korean and Hong Kong). Moreover, the study found that during the period of 2002-2006 over 30% of people currently experiencing withdrawal were included in the age category of 25-29 (whereas other categories included fewer people). This might be an indication of the persistence of the condition: people start withdrawing in their late teens and the condition persists for years. On the other hand, the study also asked their respondents how long the period of withdrawal was and the result was one year on average (while 16% reported over two years). (Koyama et al. 2010.) What complicates this issue is that for many withdrawn people the period of withdrawal is not a singular continuous period of time: people can go in and out of withdrawal multiple times during their lives (Kaneko 2006).
There seems to be a strong consensus among commentators that SWY tend to be mostly male (with a 70% or more majority). Gender seems to be the strongest common denominator across the whole spectrum of SWY. In fact, Saitō Tamaki (2013), a known psycho-analyst and expert on hikikomori, says that, while SWY tend to become from different classes and have different personal backgrounds, most of them seem to that this in common, that they are male. Yet the evidence is not conclusive. The domestic role placed on women in the Japanese society is likely to hide the phenomenon of female hikikomori (Furlong 2008). Michael Dziesinski (2005), who has studied SWY in a hikikomori rehabilitation facility in Japan, notes that the social withdrawal of girls in their homes often simply goes under the radar of their parents, who might even applaud this kind of behavior to a certain extent. Consequently psychiatric clinics and support groups get flooded by socially withdrawn males, whose parents get alarmed by the behavior of their reclusive sons. Moreover, in the public discourse there exists a highly gendered category of “parasite singles”, which mostly refers to single women still living with their parents. As Dziensinski points out, while many of the female “parasites” belong to the same category of SWY as male hikikomori, the phenomenon gets discursively construed as a male issue.
Evidence of the class composition of SWY is similarly not conclusive. The most common conception is that SWY largely come from upper- or middle-class families (who can also afford to have an idle child in their home). The only two Japanese sources I could find, which deal with the socio-economic background of SWY, are Saitō (2013) and Hattori (2005). Both are psychiatrists who base their views on the patients of their private clinics. It seems to me that samples gathered from private clinics might insert some bias to the results as working-class families might not be able to afford to provide such treatment to their children. Moreover, the working-class is over-represented in the NEET population, which also suggests that the middle-class view is biased. In constrast to this, Wong’s (2009) study of SWY in Hong Kong found that SWY mostly came from poor working-class backgrounds. So much for the claim that hikikomori are just spoiled and lazy kids of rich families!
Looking at SWY through a psychiatric lens the phenomenon appears as an issue of mental illness. In fact, this has been the predominant approach of hikikomori research. The basic formula of this type of research is this one: pick out a sample of SWY, diagnose the most prevalent mental disorders associated with the condition and suggest a form of treatment. There’s also some psychological research dealing with the etiology of social withdrawal as well as psycho-analytic approaches. It should be noted beforehand that the psychiatric approach – while it’s perfectly valid on its own terms – tends to pathologize SWY and transform the phenomenon into a simple problem of how to reintegrate these marginal young people to the society through therapeutic interventions. If the social context is not ignored, as it is not in etiological and psychoanalytic research, the roots of the condition are usually located to family dynamics and peer relations.
In many studies it has been found that the most common mental disorders associated with social withdrawal are depression, anxiety and social phobia (see, for example, Koyama et al. 2010). Moreover, the condition has also been associated with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), eating disorders, anthropophobia (fear of people, which manifests itself in fears of other people’s gazes, fears that one’s body is displeasing to others because of appearance, movements, body odor etc.) and internet addiction among other disorders. Some researchers have also noted the prevalence of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, such as emotional numbness, insomnia or other somatic symptoms, among SWY, indicating that some SWY might be suffering from traumas left from their experiences in the past (bullying, rejection by parents etc.). (Hattori 2005; Lee et al. 2013.)
A few words should be said here about internet addiction. First, the common image of a contemporary adolescent escaping from the real world into a virtual reality does not really offer any kind of an explanation for social withdrawal. True, many SWY tend to spend a lot of time on their computer (Lee et al. 2013), but there are also many who don’t (in fact, Saitō goes as far as to claim that most SWY don’t even go on the internet [Furlong 2008]). And even if the presence of computers, consoles and phones can make it easier for some young people to withdraw (physically) from social life, one simply cannot draw a direct causal line from computers to hikikomori; it is not because young people become internet addicts that they withdraw (although perhaps an internet addiction can follow from the state of withdrawal?). Moreover, to pathologize the use of the internet is to be blind to how SWY actually use the internet: to communicate with people. Wong & Ying (2006) have found that, although SWY isolate themselves physically from social life, they maintain and form social contacts via phone lines and the internet (who would have guessed?) One can even reverse the typical formula, according to which virtual contacts are a poor artificial replacement for real physical proximity. For many SWY, on the contrary, it is the “real” world, which is artificial and full of people who betray you, whereas “virtual” reality offers a safe channel to form close relationships.
Considering the etiology of social withdrawal, there is an article by Krieg & Dickie (2013), which attempts to construct a psycho-social developmental model of social withdrawal by basing it on the individual’s ambivalent form of attachment. Attachment theory claims that during early childhood the child forms an attachment to his/her surroundings and other people, which survives to his/her later life stages, guiding his/her social behavior and affects. The formation of attachment is dependent largely on the nature of the relationship between a caregiver and his/her child. A healthy form of attachment needs for its development a responsive caregiver, catering to his/her child’s needs. According to Krieg & Dickie, the form of attachment associated with social withdrawal is the ambivalent form. An ambivalently attached child clings to an inconsistent/contradictory caregiver at the expense of exploring his/her surroundings. A socially withdrawn young person can be seen to have formed an ambivalent sort of attachment, making him/her dependent on his/her parents while the world outside the home appears to him/her as an unknown horror.
It is, moreover, claimed by Krieg & Dickie that some particular forms of Japanese parenthood might aggravate the socially withdrawn behavior of their children. First, it is common for Japanese mothers to be overprotective towards their children, safeguarding them from all sorts of negative experiences and micromanaging their behavior. Second, and in contrast with the first, the practice of so called amae is also common. It refers to a disciplinary practice where the parent shows ignorance towards his/her child. At the extreme, parents sometimes lock their children out of their homes. Dysfunctional family patterns are also emphasized strongly by Hattori (2005) but not from the viewpoint of attachment but of psycho-analysis. The hikikomori patients treated by Hattori came from emotionally cold families. Parents showed either ignorance towards their child or the relations of dependency were inverted: the child was forced to cater to the emotional needs of his/her parents and not the other way around. Consequently many of the patients expressed anger towards their parents (more than 40% of his sample even expressed the desire to kill their parents).
Another factor, which might reinforce an unhealthy form of attachment, is dysfunctional peer relationships. SWY are significantly more likely to have experienced bullying at school than their non-withdrawn counterparts (Lee et al. 2013). Moreover, experiences of being bullied are associated with social phobia (which often occurs together with depression and anxiety) (Ranta et al. 2009). If bullying is significantly connected with social withdrawal, Japanese schools seem to be ideal breeding grounds of hikikomori: bullying is common in Japanese schools. Moreover, ijime (bullying) appears to take unique forms in Japan, where it commonly manifests itself as isolating the bullied student. Being isolated is also one of the most feared forms of bullying among Japanese students. In addition to this, the common story of intolerance of difference presents itself here too: expressing some kind of visible differences from the group expose students to the risks of becoming targets of bullying. (Rios-Ellis et al. 2000.)
The psychiatric view runs into obstacles when social withdrawal does not appear to be associated with any kind of mental illness. In fact, in the epidemiological study referred to above (Koyama et al. 2010) it was found that, although people who had experienced social withdrawal at some point in their lives were six times more likely than other respondents to have suffered from mental illness as well (not necessarily during the withdrawal period), about half of the cases of social withdrawal were not accompanied by any mental disorders. In spite of the methodological difficulties of the study it is safe to say that a significant portion of cases of social withdrawal does not represent any kind of psychological distress but is to be explained by other means.
In the light of the obstacles of psychological research it is appropriate to refer to the explanatory schema provided by Saitō (2013). He understands the condition of social withdrawal not as some kind of a static state caused by this or that singular factor, such as depression or social phobia, but as a circular process constantly reproducing itself out of the combination of many factors (he calls these processes “hikikomori systems”). In Saitō’s schema social withdrawal is constantly being produced and reproduced through the dysfunctional relations between three fields, the individual, the family and the society. The process of treatment then is to restore functional communication between all these three fields. That is to say, treatment is not going to work, for example, by the withdrawn child’s family’s attempts to push the kid to work (these kind of pressures tend to have the opposite effect on the withdrawn individual). Moreover, restoring healthy communication between a withdrawn child and his/her parents is not a guarantee of the child’s societal participation.
In contrast to Saitō’s psycho-analytic approach, I’d prefer to emphasize the sociological dimensions of social withdrawal. However, Saitō’s schema of social withdrawal as a process or a vicious circle (as opposed to a static state) can be easily adopted into a sociological approach as well. Moreover, Saitō’s model allows for multiple factors contributing to social withdrawal. Therefore, we do not have to choose whether we’re going to explain the phenomenon in psychiatric terms, in the language of mental illness, or in social terms, in the language of diminished employment opportunities etc. All of these factors come into play in a comprehensive analysis. In addition to this, thinking social withdrawal as a process opens up certain possibilies that are closed if we were to constain ourselves to understanding social withdrawal as a static state. The latter schema privileges simplistic causal explanations (certain factors found in the past, such as experiences of bullying, result in the present state of social withdrawal) whereas the former allows us to think also about conditions, which do not directly result in social withdrawal but might prevent the individual from getting out of the vicious circle.
In the following part 2 I’ll try to offer some sociological explanations for social withdrawal. Perhaps the key problems are not to be found in the pathological psyches of withdrawn individuals but in a social system, which prevents a growing number of young people from participating in it or, more radically, even produces this kind of a surplus population as a matter of its own inner necessity?
Dziesinski, Michael J. 2005: Hikikomori as a gendered issue. Analysis on the discourse of acute social withdrawal in contemporary Japan. http://towakudai.blogs.com/Hikikomori_as_Gendered_Issue.pdf
Furlong, Andy 2008: The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon: acute social withdrawal among young people. The Sociological Review 2/56, 309–325.
Hattori, Yuichi 2005: Social withdrawal in Japanese youth: a case study of thirty-five hikikomori clients. Journal of Trauma Practice 3–4/4, 181–201.
Kaneko, Sachiko 2006: Japan’s ‘socially withdrawn youths’ and time constraints in Japanese society: management and conceptualization of time in a support group for ‘hikikomori’. Time & Society 2–3/15, 233–249.
Koyama, A., Miyake, Y., Kawakami, N., Tsuchiya, M., Tachimori, H. & Takeshima, T. 2010: Lifetime prevalence, psychiatric comorbidity and demographic correlates of “hikikomori” in a community population in Japan. Psychiatry Research 1/176, 69–74.
Krieg, Alexander & Dickie, Jane 2013: Attachment and hikikomori: a psychosocial developmental model. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 1/59, 61–72.
Lee, Y. S., Lee, J. Y., Choi, T. Y. & Choi, J. T. 2013: Home visitation program for detecting, evaluating and treating socially withdrawn youth in Korea. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 4/67, 193–202.
Ranta, K., Riittakerttu, K.-H., Rantanen, P. & Marttunen, M. 2009: Social phobia in Finnish general adolescent population: prevalence, comorbidity, individual and family correlates, and service use. Depression and Anxiety 6/26, 528–536.
Rios-Ellis, B., Bellamy, L. & Shoji, J. 2000: An examination of specific types of ijime within Japanese schools. School Psychology International 3/21, 227–241.
Saitō, Tamaki 2013 : Hikikomori. Adolescence without end. [Shakaiteki hikikomori. Owaranai shishunki.] Translated by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Wong, Victor 2009: Youth locked in time and space? Defining features of social withdrawal and practice implications. Journal of Social Work Practice 3/23, 337–352.
Wong, Victor & Ying, Winnie 2006: Social withdrawal of young people in Hong Kong: a social exclusion perspective. The Hong Kong Journal of Social Work 1–2/40, 61–91.
Zielenziger, Michael 2006: Shutting out the sun. How Japan created its own lost generation. Vintage Books, New York.