Across Japan, nearly 1.5 million people have withdrawn from society, leading reclusive lives largely confined within the walls of their home, according to a new government survey.
These are Japan’s hikikomori, or shut-ins, defined by the government as people who have been isolated for at least six months. Some only go out to buy groceries or for occasional activities, while others don’t even leave their bedrooms.
The phrase was coined as early as the 1980s, and authorities have expressed increasing concern about the issue for the past decade – but Covid-19 has made things worse, according to a survey conducted last November by the government’s Children and Families Agency.
The nationwide survey found that among 12,249 respondents, roughly 2% of people aged 15 to 64 identified as hikikomori, with a slight increase among those aged 15 to 39. With that percentage applied to Japan’s total population, there are an estimated 1.46 million social recluses in the country, according to a spokesperson from the agency.
Common reasons cited for social isolation were pregnancy, job loss, illness, retirement and having poor interpersonal relationships – but a top reason was Covid-19, with more than a fifth of respondents citing the pandemic as a significant factor in their reclusive lifestyle.
No further details were given about the impact of Covid-19 on respondents.
Japan, like many countries in East Asia, maintained stringent pandemic restrictions well into 2022 even as other places embraced “living with Covid.” It only reopened its borders to overseas visitors last October, ending one of the world’s strictest border controls, more than two years after the pandemic began.
But the toll of the last few years continues to be deeply felt.
“Due to Covid-19, opportunities for contact with other people have decreased,” said a separate paper published February in Japan’s National Diet Library.
It added that the pandemic could have worsened existing social problems like loneliness, isolation and financial hardship, pointing to a rise in reported suicides, and child and domestic abuse.
Experts have previously told CNN that hikikomori is often thought to stem from psychological issues such as depression and anxiety, though societal factors play a role too, such as Japan’s patriarchal norms and demanding work culture.
Japan’s aging population
But hikikomori had been around long before the pandemic, tied to Japan’s other looming problem: its population crisis.
Japan’s population has been in steady decline since its economic boom of the 1980s, with the fertility rate and annual number of births falling to new record lows several years in a row.
All the while, the elderly population is swelling as people age out of the workforce and into retirement, spelling trouble for an already stagnant economy. Things are so dire the prime minister warned this year that the country was “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions.”
For families with hikikomori members, this poses a double challenge, dubbed the “8050 problem” – referring to social recluses in their 50s who rely on parents in their 80s.
Authorities have cited other factors, too, like the rising number of single adults as the appeal of dating and marriage wane, and weakening real-life ties as people move their communities online.
In 2018, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare established a hikikomori regional support body to help those impacted by the phenomenon.
“We believe that it is important to restore ties with society while providing detailed support for those who have withdrawn by attending to their individual situations,” said Takumi Nemoto, then-head of the ministry, in 2019.
He added that local and national authorities had launched various services such as consultations and home visits to those affected by hikikomori, housing support for middle-aged and older people, and other community outreach efforts for “households that have difficulty reporting an SOS on their own.”
But these efforts were dwarfed by the challenges brought during the pandemic, prompting the government to carry out nationwide surveys on loneliness starting 2021, and to release a more intensive plan of countermeasures in December 2022.
Some measures include pushing public awareness and suicide prevention campaigns through social media; assigning more school counselors and social workers; and continuing a 24/7 phone consultation service for those with “weak social ties.”
There are also programs geared toward single-parent households such as meal plans for their children, housing loans, and planning services for those going through divorce.
Though the pandemic may have caused greater loneliness in society, it may also have simply shed light on long-existing problems that usually go overlooked, said the government in the plan.
“As the number of single-person households and elderly single-person households is expected to increase in the future, there is concern that the problem of loneliness and isolation will become more serious,” it said.
“Therefore, even if the spread of Covid-19 is brought under control in the future, it will be necessary for the government to … deal with the problems of loneliness and isolation inherent in Japanese society.”