In and Tuning Out
Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME.
TEEN ANGST: At a youth center in Fussa, troubled kids are given
rigid work schedules to help them re-enter society.
Alienated Japanese youth are increasingly locking themselves away in their
roomsand venturing out to engage in violent crimes
By TIM LARIMER
the Pot: Hakata, Japan
0ne day in 1996, t.h. skipped his high-school classes. A few weeks later,
he stopped going to school altogether. A few weeks after that, he didn't
venture outside the upstairs bedroom in his family's home. He slept during
the day and stayed up all night, playing computer games and watching TV
dramas. His befuddled parents tried ordering him out, and when that didn't
work, they tried coaxing him out. "Leave me alone!" he would yell. He
withdrew further, cutting off his friends and family members, staring
vacantly out the window, trying to recollect what the wind felt like blowing
through his hair. Then one day he exploded with uncharacteristic rage.
"Why didn't you raise me to be a normal kid?" he screamed at his mother.
The silent retreat of lively, bright and popular boys and girlsnormal
kids like T.H., who recently described his ordeal to Timeis one
of the most perplexing mysteries in Japan today. They have grown up in
a modern and affluent society, with everything they could want. Yet many
of them can't cope. Thousands of teens and young adults have sealed themselves
off from the outside world. They are called hikikomori, or people who
withdraw, like a turtle into its shell, and one psychologist estimates
there are as many as 1 million in Japan. Like other behavioral disorders,
their condition has not been discussed openly. They don't want anyone
to know either, and if the parents do try to get help, the kids threaten
to assault them or even commit suicide. So the parents keep quiet.
The secret world of hikikomori is beginning to come out of the closet,
following several crimesnotably last May's deadly bus hijacking
in Hiroshimacommitted by juveniles. These episodes triggered soul-searching
among adults who wonder what is happening to the country's youth. School
dropout rates are at an all-time high, the country's record unemployment
affects newly minted high-school and college graduates the most, and violent
crime involving juvenile offenders is on the rise. Recent offenses have
been particularly cold-blooded. In June, a 17-year-old high-school athlete
attacked his teammates with a metal baseball bat, then ran home and killed
his mother with it. In May, another teenager stabbed to death an elderly
neighbor because, he reportedly said, he "wanted to experience killing."
Earlier this year, a teen bashed a sleeping commuter with a hammer.
Two other sensational cases are what really focused attention on hikikomori.
In January, a 19-year-old woman was rescued from a Niigata house where
she had been held captive since being abducted, at age 9, while walking
home from school. The 37-year-old man who pleaded guilty to kidnapping
charges had shut himself away when he was a teenager and rarely came outside.
Then, in May, a 17-year-old boy brandishing a knife hijacked a bus near
Hiroshima and held the driver and 10 passengers hostage for 19 hours,
crisscrossing the countryside and killing one woman along the way. He,
too, was described as a hikikomori. Counselors who treat adolescents think
those cases are unusual. "They don't even want to leave their bedrooms,"
says Hidehiko Kuramoto, an adolescent psychiatrist. "How would they ever
have the energy to do these kinds of things?"
That these youth are troubled, however, is certain. Some hikikomori live
in isolation for years. Sadatsugu Kudo, director of a nonprofit center
for hikikomori in the Tokyo suburb of Fussa, treated a young man who shut
himself away for 19 years before he got help. Teenagers across the world
go through angst, depression and withdrawal, to be sure. But in no other
country does that condition appear so widespreador so enduring.
"You can't pinpoint the reasons," says Kudo. "But you can pinpoint the
context: it's Japan. Here, you have to be like other people, and if you
aren't, you have a sense of loss, of shame. So you withdraw." When you
are different, Kudo contends, you take the logical step for self-preservation.
T.H. (he doesn't want his name used) did not seem like a candidate for
a breakdown. His childhood in a rural village, surrounded by paddy fields
in Toyama prefecture, seemed stable, even idyllic. His parents loved him,
he had a lot of friends, he made good grades and had many outside interests,
like tennis and skiing. It was assumed he would enroll in the college-prep
school that three generations of his mother's family had attended. But
the course load there proved difficult. "There was just too much," he
says. "I couldn't keep up." Then, his great-uncle committed suicide. That
same day, T.H. skipped school for the first time, although he hadn't yet
learned of the tragedy. The timing of the suicide and T.H.'s withdrawal,
his mother says, "was a coincidence." With each passing day, it became
harder and harder for T.H. to do anything at all. "I should go to school,"
he told himself every morning, dragging himself out of bed. "But I couldn't
make myself go."
Helping hikikomori is difficult, since they don't want to leave their
rooms. A private institution, the Mental Health Center for Young People
in Tokyo, has a novel idea: use the Internet to provide counseling. Someone
with a computer and modem can receive support online, through bulletin
boards, chat rooms or one-on-one counseling. Takeshi Tamura, an adolescent
psychiatrist, has treated about 100 hikikomori this way. (He charges about
$20 for each personal e-mail.)
At www.tako.ne.jp, a website established in 1998, surfers can read up
on topics such as "How to re-enter society" and "How to kill time." "Stretch,"
one visitor advises. "People rot when they don't do anything." Writes
another: "I sleep, just sleep. I sleep until my eyes are about to rot.
I see dreams." A banner ad on the home page promoteswhat else?supermarket
home delivery. This marriage of technology and psychiatry was inevitable,
and fortuitous for hikikomori.
It also raises intriguing questions: Will the technology help them emerge,
as Dr. Tamura hopes, or will it encourage their hermit existence? One
correspondent on the website acknowledges that Japan's affluence makes
a phenomenon like hikikomori possible. "Even without working you can live,"
says the message. "If this were 50 years ago, we would all be dead. Even
if you had a neurosis, you had to work to feed yourself." Now, hikikomori
typically raid the kitchen after the rest of the family has eaten. Technology
that allows people to stay at homeand work, play and order take-out
foodcould make it even easier for individuals to separate themselves
from the real world.
But what exactly is the real world? A decade ago, another social phenomenon,
the rise of otaku, troubled Japan. Roughly translated, otaku means nerd.
It refers to people who shut themselves away, spending their days absorbed
in anime, manga and video games. They were considered freakish, and a
high-profile crime blamed on otaku triggered considerable hand-wringing,
much like the concerns about hikikomori. Yet the nerds are considered
normal now, even trendy. "The old way of thinking was that the physical
world was the real world," says Tamura. "But now we can create two or
three or more virtual worlds. Those who stay at home and have no one to
talk to in the physical world may be able to connect in a virtual world.
We cannot say it is right or wrong. It is one way of living." But is it
healthy? "Hikikomori want to get a job, get married, get their own home.
But they cannot. We need to help them go back and forth between the outside
world and their inside worlds."
T.H. is among the fortunate ones. His mother happened to read a newspaper
article about Kudo and his youth center. When she phoned him, he agreed
to come to the family's home in Toyama. On the first visit, T.H. refused
to see Kudo. During the second visit, they spoke through the paper-thin
wall of a shoji screen, T.H. nervously peeking out through a hole slightly
larger than a golf ball. Several weeks later, he agreed to drive with
Kudo to Fussa. There, he lived in a dormitory with other hikikomori and
began doing small menial tasks, like sorting garbage for recyclable materials.
T.H., now 21, is studying again with the hope of going to college, and
he visited his family for the first time this summer. "I told him I was
lonely, that I wanted him to come back and live with me," his mother says.
She doesn't seem to understand that that is the last thing her son wants.
"I haven't broken free from my past," T.H. says. "I don't want to go back
to the place where I was withdrawn, because there was too much pressure
there. It makes me scared that I could end up that way again, back in
my room." And T.H. knows that crawling out of that shell will take a long,
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