How Working From Home Made Me Understand This Japanese Mental Illness

hikikomori/hɪˌkɪkə(ʊ)ˈmɔːri/noun

  1. (in Japan) the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males.
A man sat in a concrete box with a paper bag over his head displaying a drawn sad face.
[Creativa Images, Shutterstock]

The life of a Japanese hikikimori can be a solemn and often depressing experience. It is characterised by a group of people who have chosen to turn their back on society and its responsibilities in order to live a life of almost complete isolation.

To a certain extent, I believe the coronavirus pandemic has given all of us a glimpse into the experiences of the hikikimori. An unseeable killer has forced almost all people to stay indoors and not have any physical contact with those outside of our households and for those living with at least one person this might not be so bad. But let’s consider those who live alone.

The hikikimori often experience difficulty in expressing themselves to others, unable to form meaningful relationships and prefer to invest themselves in fantasy worlds found in video games or manga (Japanese comics) which offer an appealing alternative to reality.

Since finding myself stuck in my room with only 5 hours of work a week thanks to my freelance position, I am finding myself invested more and more with ways to kill time. I spend more time on my games console and far too much time staring at the bright light of my phone, sometimes for over 6 hours a day.

For someone like me, who likes to keep busy and usually revels in working long hours, I simply don’t have the energy anymore and I don’t believe I’m alone in this. A quick search on Twitter or Facebook will show a myriad of people like me who have been drained by the four walls they have been forced to isolate in.

A screenshot from Kieran’s iPhone of his screen time. It displays his daily average of screen time as 7 hours and 29 minutes.

The irony of being advertised apps that tell me they could help minimise my screen time would be laughable at this point if it wasn’t so depressing.

I didn’t realise how much isolation had affected me until I went to my first face-to-face job interview in almost two years. I like to believe that under normal circumstances I can sell myself quite well in an interview and am able to eloquently display all my strengths and weaknesses that would make me a valuable asset to that company.

However, month after month of not having a conversation with someone that wasn’t over the phone or on a webcam had shown me that I am out of practice. I had literally lost my social skills because I haven’t needed to use them.

I bring this point up because it reminded me of a similar story of a hikikimori that I would like to share here.

Alice Tanaka is a young hikikimori who said she had gone through ‘phases’ of being a hikikimori where she was able to get herself out of isolation only to fall back into it. She had fallen into her most recent phase of isolation after experiencing difficulties in her work environment which triggered her to leave her job so she wouldn’t have to struggle by interacting with her boss or colleagues.

A news reel of Alice Tanaka, a young Japanese hikikimori, staring down in a dark room as she has her arms wrapped around a pillow, the only brightly coloured thing in the shot.
Alice Tanaka [France 24: Japan’s modern-day hermits]

For hikikimori like Tanaka, the act of isolation is the extreme result of an anti-social coping mechanism. I fear that after isolating so long I will have to readapt to social situations and relearn all my social skills that I had lost during this pandemic.

To gain a wider understanding of the hikimori phenomenon lets examine the parameters that have cultivated its spread. Hikikimori hasn’t developed in a vacuum, it is a direct response to the common goals and ideals of Japanese society where parents place emphasis on conformity and impeccable success in studies and work. People classed as hikikimori have often reported being victims of bullying in school while growing up which has carried on into being bullied in the workplace.

Parents in Japan often pressure their children into following corporate so that they can secure their futures financially which leaves little room for individuals to pursue their life passions which may not initially be as financially rewarding. This leads to a direct conflict in a person’s individuality and can be psychologically disastrous. For those who don’t fit in the Japanese mould, life can be extremely difficult to tackle and for many it’s easier to reject society in the most extreme way possible, by not participating in it in any way, shape or form.

The Japanese government has acknowledged hikikimori will have a wave of effects in the next couple of decades, dubbed the ‘2030 problem’. When the hikikimori who started isolating in their young adult life start ageing to the point where their parents have passed away and are no longer around to look after them, they will have extreme difficulty reintegrating into the society that they have not been a part of for many years at that point, the government is yet to prepare any social or economic reforms for when this inevitably happens.

It’s estimated that every year in Japan some 30,000 people die alone in isolation.

[Header Image: Creativa Images, Shutterstock]

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Kieran Isgin

Kieran Isgin

I'm a British journalist from Manchester. Writing and honing my craft is my purpose and pleasure in life and I want my experiences to connect with others.