Hikikomori: When Isolation Follows Fear

When the world outside scares us, our own four walls offer protection and security. But the hiding place can become a cage over time.

The term hikikomori (“to enclose oneself; social withdrawal”) originally comes from Japan and describes both “voluntary” social isolation and the people who practice it: But it’s not quite so voluntary, and it’s certainly not harmless.

The world muted

Hikikomori they withdraw completely from the public, usually into their parents’ house: they do not pursue any work or attend school. Affected individuals rarely leave their rooms, so friendships and other relationships (even with family members) are either abandoned, conducted digitally only, or kept to the bare minimum. This phase can last for several months, years, or even decades. During this time, hikikomori often show Symptoms mental disorders such as social phobia, autism, or other personality disorders.

It is not known exactly how many people are affected: As with many other mental illnesses, there is a stigma that the family of those affected often prefer to avoid. A realistic estimate is therefore around one million hikikomori in Japan – of whom around 75 to 80 percent are men.

The fear of failure

The reasons why this form of social withdrawal seems to be more common in Japan than in other countries are partly cultural: A very demanding school system that places a strong emphasis on memorization and exams from a very early age, high pressure to perform and expectations are also accompanied by a society with many taboos and regulations – the balance between honne (the “real me”; one’s own desires, which may only be expressed in the closest circle of friends) and tatemae ( the “masquerade”; behavior and expressions in public, in accordance with society’s expectations) is more difficult for an increasing number of people today.

Many hikikomori therefore start out as truants (Tōkōkyohi) and, over time, isolate themselves further and further from the rest of society. In addition, loss of face as a result of bankruptcy or unemployment can be a reason people choose to isolate themselves.

Mental illness or social problem?

The biggest challenge now is to reintegrate hikikomori into society. Two approaches are currently being pursued in this regard: Drug treatment in psychiatric institutions and/or socio-educational therapy.

In the case of the latter, the goal is to remove the affected person’s fear of social contact. To do this, however, they must first be removed from their safe cocoon: Hikikomori communities, for example, in which people help each other, have proven successful in this regard.

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Image source: Pexels; CC0 license

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