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My last post looked into the issue of hikikomori, or socially withdrawn young people, from the perspective of mental illness and psychopathology.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

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