Understanding Hikikomori (Part II)

My last post looked into the issue of hikikomori, or socially withdrawn young people, from the perspective of mental illness and psychopathology. Along those lines the phenomenon of withdrawal from social life was depicted as a multiple of cases of deranged individuals suffering from this or that brand of mental disorder (commonly depression, anxiety and social phobia) and having failed to go through a healthy process of psychological development (often due to dysfunctional family relations). While I do not want to discredit the psychological approach, I do think it needs to be supplemented by a more social approach, which looks into the economic and cultural context of the phenomenon. Is there something in the contemporary late capitalist society, especially in Japan where the phenomenon is understood to be the most prevalent, which is causing many young people to withdraw to their rooms and cut ties to their peers and family as well as social institutions in general?


One must begin the enquiry by looking at the development of the capitalist economy in general in developed countries during the last few decades. From the turning point of late 60’s and early 70’s, capitalism (in developed countries at least) has entered a long period of low economic growth. The causes and dynamics of economic growth and cycles do not concern us here. What will be of interest to us, however, are the social consequences of such economic downturns. Low growth is characterized by a low rate of investment in the private sector, which in its turn implies a rise in the rate of unemployment. This has indeed been the case as unemployment has become more prevalent since the 70’s. (For a detailed examination of this process in the case of the US, see Kliman 2011.)

What does this mean for the younger population? The rate of unemployment among young people is generally higher than the average rate for the whole population. Moreover, the trends in the employment rate of young people are more sensitive to general economic trends than is the employment rate of the whole population. Consequently one can observe a general rise in the rate of unemployment among young people in most developed countries from the 70’s onwards. The rates are, of course, fluctuating and not all countries have gone through the same sort of development but the general conclusion to be drawn is the following: young people are less likely to find work now than decades ago. (Furlong & Cartmel 2007.)

The rise in the rate of unemployment has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of part-time jobs, contractual working periods, etc. Not only is it more difficult for young people to find work, it’s also more difficult to find a job that is stable and provides regular working hours. (Furlong & Cartmel 2007.) Now, part-time work is not necessarily a bad thing, but one should not overlook the danger of underemployment: simply having a job does not guarantee that it pays you enough to cover the costs of your living. Moreover, the uncertainty that comes with irregular work can be as hard to deal with as low pay, as it generates a lot of anxiety and stress for the working subject. A precarious worker can’t plan his or her future, rely on accumulated benefits that come with a stable job, or lead a stress-free life that comes with knowing that you won’t be losing your income anytime soon. (For an examination of the uncertain lives of young working-class people in the US, see Silva 2013.)

Another trend that has been accompanying low economic growth is that of so called de-industrialization. During the last decades the industrial manufacturing sector has been shrinking in developed countries, which is reflected in the growth of the so called service sector (which includes work in restaurants, hotels, etc.). This sector is notorious for providing its (often young) employees with minimum wages, irregular working hours and poor working conditions. Moreover, de-industrialization has diminished the supply of jobs requiring a low level of education. Whereas in the 50’s or 60’s young working-class people could be expected to leave school early, find a job already in their late teens and get married as fast as they leave their parental homes, the contemporary era has brought along with it an increase in the length of time spent in education. Enrolling in higher education has become increasingly popular among young people, most significantly among young women whose portion of all university students has grown larger than that of men’s. (Furlong & Cartmel 2007.)

It should be noted here that, in spite of the general nature of these changes, not all young people have experienced them in the same way. One’s socioeconomic or class background still has a part to play in the later outcomes of one’s life. Young people from working-class families are still less likely to be enrolled in universities and more likely to find themselves unemployed than their more privileged counterparts. One should also make certain specifications along gender lines. The opening up of higher education to women has certainly helped to promote the independence of women in spite of the inequality that prevails between socioeconomic classes. (Furlong & Cartmel 2007.) One can, of course, extend these distinctions to questions of race, etc. but, for the purposes of this text, I’ll just leave it here.


Since social withdrawal has become such a large issue in Japan (even if the phenomenon is not as prevalent as the general moral panic would have it, it’s a big issue at least judging by the attention given to it in the Japanese public discourse and media), it’s worthwhile to place it in the context of economic changes that have taken place in Japan from the early 90’s onwards when the prevalence of social withdrawal is commonly believed to have “exploded”. In fact, as shall be shown, there are good reasons to believe that the economic changes brought about by the depression beginning from the early 90’s have contributed to the rise of young people secluding themselves in their homes.

The changes that have taken place in Western economies have been somewhat delayed in the case of Japan. Up until the late 80’s Japan has been a country of low unemployment and high public investment. Jobs were generated in the industrial sector of the economy and public spenditure on infrastructure projects. As with all periods of growth in the capitalist economy, this one was not meant to last either. The economic boom of this decode was accompanied by a consistent rise in land prices and stocks – a bubble doomed to burst sooner or later. This in fact happened during the late 80’s and early 90’s, resulting in a period of economic stagnation. (Harvey 2011; Suzuki et al. 2010.)

The stagnation brought with it a general rise in the rate of unemployment. Young people especially have been affected by this. Between 1990 and 2004, unemployment among 15-19 yeard old males increased from 8% to 12% while unemployment among females in the same category increased from 5% to 11%. Moreover, the jobs offered to high school graduates have diminished from the early 90’s onwards. Whereas, in the early 90’s, about 1,7 million job offers were made to high school graduates, in 2003 this figure had fallen to just 0,2 million. The rise of unemployment was accompanied by the rise of the so called “freeter” category, which comprises people working in precarious conditions (part-time jobs, freelance, temporary work, etc.). During the period 1992-2002, the number of freeters (who have left education) aged 15-19 doubled in the case of males and more than doubled in the case of females. Among 20-24 year olds the number also doubled during the same period. (All these figures are taken from Furlong 2008.)

In order to assess the social impacts of these figures, one must examine the structures of the Japanese employment and social security systems. Japan is quite unique compared to its industrialized Western counterparts. Whereas many Western welfare states offer more or less extensive monetary benefits and public services to their citizens, in Japan social security is very much tied to the benefits offered by private companies to their employees. Firstly, in Japan the so called seniority wage system prevails: the level of one’s wage depends on the time being employed in the same company. Whereas in Western countries the wages of male production workers stop rising from the age 21-24 onwards, in Japan wages rise continuously up until the age range of 45-49. In addition to this, companies offer the families of their employees all sorts of other benefits from family allowances to housing. All of this has been premised on the idea of life-long employment: companies offered their employees life-long contracts and expected loyalty from their employees in return (a fact, which has contributed to notoriously long working hours). (Suzuki et al. 2010.)

As the Japanese welfare society has been so centered on private companies, the public welfare system has been left undeveloped. One can immediately see the consequences of economic stagnation on the well-being of the population: as the private sector goes bust and the public social security system is weak, the conditions of  life of the population are bound to deteriorate – rapidly. In fact, it has been argued that, whereas Western countries have had time to adapt to post-growth late capitalism, Japan went through these changes much too quickly (Suzuki et al. 2010).

Another aspect of the Japanese society, which deserves attention, is the rigidity of the employment system. In Japan there exists a great divide between the “core workers” of companies (i.e. those working full hours and employed for long periods of time) and the freeters. The transition from the latter to the former is difficult due to both, the stagnating economy and the inflexibility of the hiring practices of companies. Newly graduated students expect to get hired in Spring (hiring annually takes place in April) while employment opportunities are generally worse for the rest of the year, except for the case of part-time and temporary jobs. Moreover, companies and schools have strong ties to each other, strengthening the link of one’s school and employment opportunities (a fact, which contributes to hardened competition between students for places in higher education). All of this has made transitions from education to proper employment very rigid: periods of “drifting” (time spent on exploring various jobs, education opportunities, etc.), common for young people in Western societies, are simply not in any sense ideal for young people in Japan. Once you drop out of the pipeline, it’s hard to get back in. (Furlong 2008; Suzuki et al. 2010.)

In the light of all this one expects to see a process of polarization in Japan. As the economy stagnates, as the private sector fails to provide the jobs and benefits, as the public safety net is weak and as the pipeline system still prevails, there is bound to be an increasing gap between those who have managed to secure their employment and those doomed to the precariousness of living on the edges of the labor market.


So what does this all have to do with social withdrawal? It’s simple to understand social withdrawal as a disillusioned reaction to the diminished opportunities of employment: why bother trying to find a job when the chances of getting a good one are so poor? Better to lock yourself in your room and live off your parents’ money. Indeed, it is possible to see withdrawal as a kind of a rational choice. Trying to earn your living by jumping from one part-time job to the next is simply a poor option compared to the financial security that comes with dependency on one’s parents.

Yet, seeing social withdrawal purely in the light of the changing demand for labor is too simplistic and challenged by the fact that the employment history of socially withdrawn youth (SWY) is generally not quite extensive and there’s very little research literature (at least in English) that would investigate the work attitudes of socially withdrawn people. A study by Kondo et al. (2013) found that about 50% of the participants in their study had any sort of work history (experience of part-time jobs was more common than having been permanently employed). Now, these numbers might be expected from a group, which is disillusioned with finding work, but, on the other hand, they could also be indicating the opposite, namely that SWY have had only little presence in the labor market and that the period of withdrawal has started already before the pressure of finding work became acute.

In order to understand the connection between social withdrawal and diminished job opportunities I think it would be useful to approach the matter in the context of so called youth transitions, which refer to the ways young people move or “transition” from one life situation to the next. Often the concept is applied in the sense of transitioning to adulthood. The crucial question is then the following: in a given social context, what does it mean for a young person to become an adult and how is this mediated by social institutions? Moreover, the question of finding work is contextualized here: employment mediates youth transitions and often serves as a marker for the beginning of adulthood. However – and here comes the limiting aspect – employment is not the only aspect of transitioning to adulthood. In the case of social withdrawal this means that while diminished job opportunities might not explain all of the withdrawal cases, they should nonetheless be included in the list of various factors that come into play in explaining the phenomenon.

Youth transitions have generally been mediated by movements from education to employment and from dependency on one’s parents to finding one’s own place to live, getting married and establishing a family of one’s own. This “traditional” path to adulthood is very role-based; you become an adult by adapting to the social roles enumerated above (finding a job, getting married, etc.). It gives you a clear symbolic mapping as to what it means to grow up. Many sociologists have, however, claimed that during the last few decades there has been a shift from formulaic youth transitions of this kind to more individualized transitions. As the economy has been changing, as higher education has been increasing in popularity and as the culture of individualism has prevailed, young people have increasingly exercised their own freedom of choice in choosing their own lives and, consequently, youth transitions have derailed from traditional paths and become more complex. (France 2007; Furlong & Cartmel 2007; Henderson et al. 2007.)

Yet, before celebrating Western individualism, it should be added that this view is certainly exaggerated. Factors such as one’s class background, gender and ethnicity remain powerful predictors of later outcomes in life, therefore restricting the thesis that individuals have more room for their own individual choices (Furlong & Cartmel 2007). Moreover, traditional life goals, such as getting married or finding a good stable job, are still to be found in the dreams and plans of young people (Henderson et al. 2007). Perhaps it should rather be said that traditional youth transitions have been shaken during the last few decades due to economic turmoil and the changes that have taken place in the field of education? From this point of view the situation looks more bleak: secure well-paying jobs, and the the things sustained by it, such as getting married or starting a family, are escaping from the reach of young people. Late capitalism is unable to serve as an economic foundation for traditional life paths. (Silva 2013.)

If social withdrawal can be understood as a social symptom of shaken youth transitions – the clash between traditional life goals and diminished opportunities to reach them – Japan seems like a good breeding ground for hikikomori. In spite of the social changes that have taken place in Japan since the early 90’s, young Japanese people still expect/are expected to comply to traditional cultural roles of adulthood, arguably with much more pressure than their counterparts in the West. The role of a well-earning and securely employed breadwinner is placed on young men while women are expected to withdrawn to their domestic role as housewives. Moreover, Japanese parents tend to place high pressure on their children to succeed academically. (Dziensinski 2005; Norasakkunkit et al. 2012; Rosenthal & Zimmerman 2013; Zielenziger 2006.) It is understandable that all these pressures, whether placed on a young person externally or internally, can become overbearing to the point of resulting in social withdrawal, especially if one doesn’t have a chance of living up to all of these expectations.


There also exists another type of discourse, which attempts to explain social withdrawal in terms of a conflict between collectivism and individualism. This is argued most comprehensively by Michael Zielenziger, a journalist who has lived in Japan for many years and wrote a book about contemporary problems in the Japanese society, placing emphasis on the phenomenon of hikikomori. According to this argument social withdrawal is the result of the pressures of Japanese collectivism: individuals are forced to repress their own needs and desires in order to comply to all sorts of normative expectations imposed on them. As a result the gap between one’s public and private persona widens and the latter is repressed at the expense of the former. As the possibility of expressing oneself or living one’s life as one chooses is denied, young people withdraw from social life. (Zielenziger 2006.)

This same story is told by Hattori (2005) from a clinical psychiatric perspective. According to him, SWY tend to develop dissociative personalities as a result of constant oppression and repression in their childhood and adolescence. In other words, they put up a mask, a public appearance, in order to please others and comply to their expectations. As a flipside of this coin, they also tend to believe that others are doing this as well, which obviously generates a lot of distrust towards other people. The healing process, according to Hattori, consists of trying to re-establish a connection between the patient and his or her “real self”, therefore allowing him or her to lead an independent life free of self-denial.

The presumed Confucian collectivism of the Japanese people has generated a lot of comparative studies of the Japanese people, that is to say their beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. Zielenziger draws some of these studies to support his claims, showing among other things that the Japanese are more prone than their Westerns counterparts to place more emphasis on the context and to distrust strangers while maintaining loyalty to their in-group. Yet others have pointed out that studies have consistently failed to find any significant collectivistic traits in the Japanese people (except in the case of non-verbal measurements such as reaction times, etc.). In fact, young Japanese people tend to entertain highly individualistic attitudes (centered on individual choice, self-improvement, etc.). (Norasakkunkit et al. 2012.) This has lead some to describe Confucian collectivism as an “invented tradition”, which was mobilized for the benefit of Japanese companies – a particular Japanese brand of “the spirit of capitalism”, if you will (Suzuki et al. 2010).

Whether the Japanese really are more collectivistic than Western people or not, that is how young Japanese people tend to perceive the society around them. In studies it has been found that, while young Japanese people ascribe to themselves highly individualistic traits, they see that the Japanese society values collectivism instead of individualism, interdependence instead of independence. That is to say, in their own private experience, their own values are in conflict with the prevalent values of the society. (Norasakkunkit et al. 2012.) The SWY interviewed by Zielenziger seem to bear out this claim. They felt trapped in a society, which doesn’t allow them to be who they really are (or at least that’s how Zielenziger frames his interviews). If only Japan wasn’t such an uptight conservative country and valued Western individualism instead, the hikikomori wouldn’t be such a big social problem!


There’s one really obvious problem with these kind of arguments: if social withdrawal is really a symptom of Japanese collectivism, how come young people are withdrawing also in the West? Moreover, as Norasakkunkit et al. (2012) point out, while SWY and young people from marginal positions do not tend to value interdependence (collectivistic values), they do not score high on valuing independence (individualistic values) either. Perhaps, then, the problem is to be found in individualism as such? This might also help to explain why young people withdraw in Western countries, which are presumably more individualistic than Japan.

Alain Ehrenberg has studied the pathologies of Western individualism extensively. Tracking the history of depression, its symptoms and clinical image, Ehrenberg (2010) depicts depression as a flip-side of individualism. Whereas the individualistic subject has reconciled with his or her own true self, the depressed subject isn’t capable of identifying himself. Whereas the individualistic subject is capable of choosing his or her own life, initiating autonomous action and taking individual responsibility for it, the depressed subject suffers from feelings of inadequacy and is inhibited or uncontrollable in his or her action. The weight of responsibility becomes overbearing. The picture of a modern-day depressed client is the mirror-image of the type of an autonomous individual offered to us by the culture of individualism.

How does the contemporary depressed subject come into being? Ehrenberg draws from psychoanalysis and claims that what we’re seeing here is the result of a shift from the pathology of identification to the pathology of identity. In the first half of the 20th century neurosis dominated the picture: the mentally disturbed client harbored guilt for not being able to adapt to the roles assigned to him or her. The patient was haunted by internalized restrictions. The idea was that the neurotic subject held desires that were forbidden to him or her and resulted in psychic conflict, the symptoms of which could manifest as sadness, obsession or anxiety. However, when we come to the latter half of the century, a new type of a patient entered the picture: a subject who couldn’t free himself from constant loss and lived in a permanent state of inferiority and impotence. He or she could not identify himself and suffered from chronic depression. Whereas the neurotic subject suffered from psychic conflicts, the new depressed subject couldn’t articulate his or her psychic turmoil and suffered from deficits.

Ehrenberg describes a shift from the guilt-inducing Superego to the shame-inducing Ego Ideal:

These pathologies were called “narcissistic”. This narcissism was not that love of self that was one of the products of joie de vivre but, rather, the experience of being captive to a self-image so idealized that it led to impotence and paralyzed the individual, who had a constant need to be reassured by others and could easily becomes dependent on them […] The psychoanalysts had a tool to define their pathology, which was the Ego Ideal. The phenomenon was defined variously in Freud’s thought, but we could say schematically that it was linked to narcissism just as the Superego was linked to the forbidden: the feeling of inferiority was to the first what the feeling of guilt was to the second. In fact, if the Superego told one not to do, the Ego Ideal urged one to do.

In narcissistic pathologies, the Ego was so invested that any frustration was hard to endure. The patient never derived any satisfaction from her impulses; she felt empty and reacted aggressively, impulsively or by acting out. If the neurotic was defined by her psychic conflict, the borderline personality was not able to enter into conflict: she was empty. (pp. 126-127)

Individualism endorses permissiveness and encourages one to choose one’s own life regardless of any social expectations (that is to say, for example, that if you’re a woman, you are by no means doomed to conform to the traditional roles of femininity but that you can become a self-made individual). Yet the diminishing impact of the symbolic realm also robs the subject of any means by which to identify him/herself. To put it in psychoanalytic terms:

In this case the conflicts were pre-Oedipean. That indicated that these patients had stalled at a stage preceding their identification with parental images, which were the first objects presented to them. The patient had remained at a phase where he was still one with the mother. If neurosis was a pathology of identification, then the borderline condition, because the individual had not been able to develop relationships with objects, was a pathology of identity. Indeed, he had great difficulty identifying himself. He was, one might say, his own impotent sovereign[.] (pp. 125-126)

To sum it up: individualism is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we’re allowed to be whoever we want and act according to our desires unconstrained by traditional social roles. We’re allowed to make our own individual choices, to choose the paths of our own lives. This is the liberating aspect of it. On the other hand, individualism does not present us with any means by which we could identify who we are while, at the same time, urging us to act on our true desires. This repressive aspect of individualism makes us feel ashamed for failing to live up to the idealized self-image furnished by a culture, which attributes success to and expects it from autonomous individuals.


Why do I dwell on this dialectic of individualism and depression? Well, because it comes really close to how Saitō (2013), a popular psychiatric authority on issues related to hikikomori, understands social withdrawal. Like Ehrenberg, Saitō draws from psychoanalysis and explains withdrawal as a consequence of delayed symbolic castration:

In psychoanalysis, the concept of castration is extremely important. Why is that? Because castration has to do with the growth of all people, regardless of whether they are biologically male or female. In psychoanalysis, the penis is used as a symbol for what is almighty and can do anything. As children grow, they are forced to recognize through their interactions with other people that they are not all-powerful, almighty beings. The act of giving up on the notion that one is almighty and powerful is called “castration” by psychiatrists.

It is by realizing that one is not all-powerful and omnipotent that one develops the need for the first time to interact with other people […] In other words, if people are not castrated in the symbolic sense, they cannot participate in the social system […] Growth and maturation is a repeated process of loss repeated over and over again. The pain of growing up is the pain of castration, but the difficulty of castration is that it is something that must be forced on you by other people. (p. 173)

A person who has managed to postpone his or her symbolic castration is unable to accept the social constraints imposed on him or her, therefore making him or her incapable of participating in the society, as this participation is always mediated by social roles, which impose restrictions on the subject. The person is caught in a permanent state of adolescence (the subtitle of Saitō’s book is “Adolescence Without End”). By withdrawing from social life the young person is able to free him or herself from social obligations. Yet this freedom comes with the cost of dependency, psychic disturbance and the inability to interact with other people.

According to Saitō, the main culprit here is the education system. As more and more young people enter into higher education, participation in the society, settling on a job and determining one’s place, is postponed further and further. Moreover, the educational system urges students to believe in the illusion that everyone has infinite possibilities and equal chances of success, something that Saitō’s socially withdrawn clients were cursing. There’s a two-fold set of principles operating in schools: on the one hand, there’s a homogenizing principle, which casts all students as equal and subjects them to the same treatment, but, on the other hand, there’s also a heterogenizing principle, which differentiates students according to their grades. So, the educational system places, first, a moratorium on self-determination, and, secondly, imposes on students a set of values, which is incompatible with the realities of the society.

Saitō’s psychoanalytic narrative parallels that of Ehrenberg. In Saitō, as in Ehrenberg, freedom from social constraints becomes a source of psychic repression, resulting in pathological forms of behaviour. From here arises the problem of how to conceptualize freedom without the delusions of individualism but also without relapsing into conservative thinking (“You see, things were better when we respected traditional roles!”). I won’t go into this difficult question as it is out of the scope of this text. But, in the following concluding section, I would like to supplement Saitō’s psychoanalytic analysis with a sociological remark.


What is missing from Saitō’s analysis is the social context of late capitalism. If social withdrawal results from the inability to adapt to social roles, one can also claim that the traditional social roles have become harder or impossible to reach. That is to say, the prospects of finding a well-paying secure job haven’t been so great, especially for working-class young adults, from the 70’s onwards in most Western countries and since the early 90’s in Japan. Late capitalism, with its low-growth economy of unemployment, precarity and extended periods of education, fails to provide a solid economic foundation for traditional life paths (straight from education to a well-paying secure job, marriage and a family of one’s own). Moreover, as women have increasingly entered the labor force and higher education, the traditional nuclear family has lost some of its former weight. The emancipatory dimensions of this should not be underestimated, yet the entry into the labor market coincided with the period of low growth and the restructuring of the labor market.

If we read these developments together with individualism (a cultural trend, which has also penetrated Japan to a certain extent (Suzuki et al. 2010)), one gets the following picture: while young people have been forced to endure precariousness and uncertainty in their working life and paths to adulthood, these are still experienced as matters of individual choice. This is what Furlong and Cartmel (2007) call “the epistemological fallacy of late modernity”. One should note the epistemological character of this fallacy: it’s not that young people can really choose their lives as they wish in a kind of a social vacuum but, nonetheless, it’s what they believe they are doing. Consequently, all possible short-comings can only be experienced as results of one’s own personal failure. If you’re unable to find a good job, if you can’t survive in the competitive academic world or if you can’t endure the stress of a precarious lifestyle, it’s your fault. This is how late capitalism produces its neoliberal subjects: we learn to blame ourselves for the failures of our social system (Silva 2013). Perhaps we could treat social withdrawal as a symptom of this fallacy?


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

Ehrenberg, Alain 2010 [1998]: The weariness of the self. Diagnosing the history of depression in the contemporary age. [La fatigue d’être soi. Dépression et société.] Translated by E. Caouette, J. Homel, D. Homel & D. Winkler. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.

France, Alan 2007: Understanding youth in late modernity. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Furlong, Andy 2008: The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon: acute social withdrawal among young people. The Sociological Review 2/56, 309–325.

Furlong, Andy & Cartmel, Fred 2007: Young people and social change. New perspectives. Second edition. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Harvey, David 2011: The enigma of capital and the crises of capitalism. Profile Books, London.

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.

Henderson, S., Holland, J., McGrellis, S., Sharpe, S. & Thomson, R. 2007: Inventing adulthoods. A biographical approach to youth transitions. Sage Publications, London.

Kliman, Andrew 2012: The failure of capitalist production. Underlying causes of the Great Recession. Pluto Press, London.

Kondo, N., Sakai, M., Kuroda, Y., Kiyota, Y., Kitabata, Y. & Kurosawa, M. 2013: General condition of hikikomori (prolonged social withdrawal) in Japan: Psychiatric diagnosis and outcome in mental health welfare centres. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 1/59, 79–86.

Norasakkunkit, V., Uchida, Y. & Toivonen T. 2012: Caught between culture, society, and globalization: youth marginalization in post-industrial Japan. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5/6, 361–378.

Rosenthal, Bruce & Zimmerman, Donald L. 2013: Hikikomori. The Japanese phenomenon, policy, and culture. International Journal of Mental Health 4/41, 82–95.

Saitō, Tamaki 2013 [1998]: Hikikomori. Adolescence without end. [Shakaiteki hikikomori. Owaranai shishunki.] Translated by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Silva, Jennifer M. 2013: Coming up short. Working-class adulthood in an age of uncertainty. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Suzuki, M., Ito, M., Ishida, M., Nihei, N. & Maruyama, M. 2010: Individualizing Japan: searching for its origin in first modernity. The British Journal of Sociology 3/61, 513–538.

Zielenziger, Michael 2006: Shutting out the sun. How Japan created its own lost generation. Vintage Books, New York.


Understanding Hikikomori (Part I)

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

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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.

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