Is Hikikomori (Extreme Social Withdrawal) a Global Epidemic?

In the late 1990s, just as home computers and internet access were becoming ubiquitous, people in Japan began paying closer attention to a severe form of social withdrawal—marked by the desire to be alone in one’s bedroom—that was becoming commonplace among adolescent boys. They called this form of extreme social withdrawal hikikomori.

If someone in Japan becomes a shut-in and avoids the outside world for more than six consecutive months, the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry labels it a case of hikikomori. Within Japanese society, the noun hikikomori is also used in the verb form, hikikomoru (ひきこもる). The root of this verb, which means “to confine oneself indoors,” comes from hiku (“to pull back”) and komuru (“to seclude oneself”).

Hikikomori: A Brief History and Timeline

A decade ago, the 2010 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English included a definition of hikikomori for the first time: “In Japan, the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males; a person who avoids social contact. Origin: Japanese, literally ‘staying indoors, (social) withdrawal.'”

In 2009, The International Journal of Social Psychiatry published a paper, “A New Form of Social Withdrawal in Japan: A Review of Hikikomori,” by Alan Teo, which includes a composite sketch of a hypothetical hikikomori patient (“T.M.”) that was a synthesis of several real-life cases:

“T.M. is a 19-year-old Japanese who lives with his middle-class parents in a two-bedroom urban apartment. For the last two years he has hardly ever left his room, spending 23 hours a day behind its closed door. He eats food prepared by his mother who leaves trays outside his bedroom. He sleeps all day, then awakes in the evening to spend his time surfing the internet, chatting on online bulletin boards, reading manga (comic books), and playing video games.”

Tamaki Saitō, a Japanese psychologist who specializes in puberty and adolescence, is credited with making hikikomori a household word in his homeland.

In 1998, he published a book, Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, which became a bestseller in Japan. Saitō estimates that hikikomori was already affecting an epidemic proportion of adolescents and young adults in Japan by the late-20th century.

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