Hikikomori is the term used to describe people who withdraw from life. They don’t work, remain in their rooms, often at home with their parents, and have limited access to people. Their parents may deposit meals at the door. It’s a very extreme way of life.
But in Washington DC, where I live, there is a form of hikikomori. These are people who live in small apartments, alone, and with jobs that don’t require emotional investment, and are in search of relationships they can never seem to find. Their extended families are miles away. You can live in these buildings for years without ever knowing, except in the most cursory way, your neighbors.
Both lifestyles are painfully isolated and diminished, and it’s from that lens I read Shutting out the Sun by Michael Zielenziger.
Zielenziger’s central argument is that hikikomori, who may number as many as 1 million people, is a symptom of a broader problem in Japanese society. He writes:
Beyond their own difficult conditions, the plight of the hikikomori reflects a physic impoverishment broadly visible across a wider Japanese spectrum. This can be seen in the drabness of its public buildings, the penury of its housing, the high costs rigorously engineered into everyday life, and the sheer ugliness of the physical environment set down even in its great cities, where neon signs, telephone wires, repulsive concrete apartment blocks and pachinko parlors obscure the ancient beauty of its historic landmarks. The sterility of its urban surfaces denotes the crisis of the spirit, and the stubborn hold of the construction state, which insist on tearing down and rebuilding nearly everything and anything.
Zielenziger's argument that hikikomori are a symptom of a broader social dysfunction is difficult to accept, despite his impressive amounts of evidence and observational abilities.
That said, there are some stark differences between the hikikomori and the people living isolated lives around me. Hikikomori are seemingly unprepared to live productive, independent lives; they haven’t acquired the skills and professional experience, in many cases, to support themselves. But the root of the problem is similar.
The Japanpundit, in recent piece about the hikikomori , points out a work by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, Welcome to the NHK, where he writes about his own experiences as a hikikomori. He blames his own personal cowardice.
Cowardice is an unexceptional realization, a harsh verdict made by someone who has fallen short of potential. But hikikomori are young enough to sense life's possibilities, and still capable enough of the opposite of cowardice: the heroic. Cowardice is the passionate verdict of the young, and not the empty and devastating realization of defeat that someone older may be coming to terms with.
At the root of hikikomori is a failure to engage and thrive. That's a problem that wears many masks. Someone in the U.S., who may lead a seemingly productive life can nonetheless share a devastating kinship with hikikomori. To argue that hikikomori is a symptom of a broader impoverishment of Japan, opens the door for a similar assessment of the U.S.