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Stuart 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.

Staying In and Tuning Out
Alienated Japanese youth are increasingly locking themselves away in their rooms—and venturing out to engage in violent crimes

Stirring 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 girls—normal kids like T.H., who recently described his ordeal to Time—is 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 crimes—notably last May's deadly bus hijacking in Hiroshima—committed 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 widespread—or 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. You disappear.

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, 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 promotes—what 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 home—and work, play and order take-out food—could 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, long time.

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