The Jan. 27 issue of Wall Street Journal carried a small article on hikikomori, shut-ins, titled “The Fight to Save Japan’s Generation of Shut-Ins” in the Health and Wellness section. This social phenomenon of some young (10s to 30s) people closing themselves into their rooms without getting out of their houses is generally considered as peculiarly Japanese, though the phenomenon is also observed in “U.S., Hong Kong, and Spain.” According to the article the word, hikikomori, itself “has been a household word since the 1990s.” In Japan 1990s is the decade that started an intransigent post-WWII economic decline after the economic bubble burst in 1990. It is not necessarily the case that if a word for a particular phenomenon does not exist then that phenomenon does not either. But, the creation of the word itself means the phenomenon became much more noticeable, suggesting its frequency. The cause of this phenomenon has not been clearly identified but if one considers the phenomenon from the historical perspective one may tentatively say that it has something to do with the economic problem in Japan.
Coincidentally, a Japanese comedy drama series ridiculously titled as “Date” started this winter season, starring Hiroki Hasegawa (fearlessly bravura performance) as Takumi, a 35-year-old hikikomori, who initiates an adventure of finding a spouse who can support him economically because he is worried that his mother who hitherto has supported him is becoming physically weak. This drama somewhat helped me theorize a possible cause for the emergence of the young hikikomori people in Japan: hikikomori people are a historical by-product of the economic bubble in 1980s, which encouraged many Japanese to become cultured and genteel, and its sudden burst in 1990, which made the society more competitive, thus more cut-throat, frightening some very gentle people.
Takumi is a university-educated hikikomori though in the drama he is called NEET. (NEET is a British acronym meaning “not in education, employment, and training”; so technically he is also a NEET like all other hikikomori people. I wonder if in Japan it is allowed to ridicule NEET, whereas it is not allowed to make fun of hikikomori; after all, ridiculing is a lot like bullying.) Meanwhile Takumi himself defines his situation as kotouyuminn, a high-class man of leisure, exemplified in the character of Daisuke Nagai in Soseki Natsume’s novel Sore Kara, And Then. (It’s not clear if the creator of this drama understands the social and historical context of the existence of men of leisure, which suggested the sign of ruling class in the 19th century as discussed in Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.) Like Daisuke who trivializes his spiritually corrupted former classmate’s economic and personal difficulties as a result of having worked in order to eat, Takumi does not work and spends most of his time reading books and watching films in order to become a highly-cultured person. (Since this is a comedy the books include comic books and films include anime.) The implication here is that people who work to survive tend to become damaged as people because they sometimes have to tolerate the willful exploitation and bullying of their employers, including their surrogates. The catch in Takumi’s situation is that because his family is not economically well-to-do he can’t even go out to socialize (which costs money) unlike Daisuke who is supported by his father, a wealthy businessman. (By the way, Soseki himself became a kind of hikikomori when he was a pecuniarily-handicapped government-sponsored student in London, which he hated for its most ruthless expressions of rampant capitalism. He wrote: “The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”) Once a person starts staying at home, a womb-like place away from the “dangers” of the outside world, he or she may get stuck in that place. Obviously, for some reason Takumi’s mother, who makes petty income by offering an art class for children, has not pressed him to get out in order to adjust himself to the real world. (His father is deceased/ absent.) So Takumi has become hikikomori so much so that he gets dizzy and sick in the crowd when he has a date in an amusement park.