Hikikomori

He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge;”             Psalm 91:4a

Hikikomori

Ichiro Takahashi* has not gone to school, held a job, met a stranger or left his house for over three years. He is one of a growing segment of modern day hermits known in Japan as “hikikomori.” This unusual phenomenon was first identified by Dr. Tamaki Saito in the 1990s when a number of parents whose children had dropped out of school and had gradually withdrawn from the world, sought his professional help. Observing this pattern, Dr. Saito coined the term “hikikomori” (引きこもり) to describe these individuals, which means literally, “pulling inward.”

Recent surveys of the Japanese population estimate that over half a million people can be classified as hikikomori, with the vast majority of them male and their average age is 31. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry now defines hikikomori as an individual who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work and rarely interacts with people outside of their immediate family. Sociologists and psychologists point to a number of contributing factors that lead people to this withdrawn lifestyle. For some, it is the pressure to perform in school; for others, the demand to conform to various societal expectations. Overprotective parenting, particularly by the mother, often compounds the problem and serves to facilitate such behavior. An academic or social failure may be the initial trigger that causes many hikikomori to stray from conventional social circles. They then find it difficult to return to the path of normal life interactions. Many of these self-imposed isolationists may suffer from anxiety, depression, internet addiction or exhibit OCD tendencies that further complicate efforts to assist them.

Concerned about this growing trend, the Japanese government is taking measures to identify the scope of the problem and provide effective solutions. However, reversing such a widespread and deeply complicated sociological shift is proving to be no easy matter. With a steadily declining population, and fewer and fewer able bodies available for the work force, Japan desperately needs young men like Ichiro Takahashi to reengage with life and become contributing members of society. Research also reveals that there are countless more individuals who are not identified as true hikikomori, but are barely coping with routine social demands and are thus described as “functional” hikikomori.

The hikikomori phenomenon is now extending beyond Japan to other countries and is manifesting itself in an array of behavioral patterns rooted in a variety of coping mechanisms. In many ways, the hikikomori represent the extreme end of a social spectrum where we all reside, but in varying increments. All of us are looking for security and safety in some form in a world where the rules are constantly changing and we feel like victims to things beyond our control. Most of us press on in life, despite these threats that can potentially unsettle us, but our conformity to normalcy doesn’t eradicate our longing for sanctuary in the midst of pain and chaos. Therefore, it is essential to recall that God does offer refuge to anyone who turns to Him, like the beautiful analogy where a mother hen shelters her chicks under her wings. While our natural response to the difficulties in life may be to “pull inward” like the hikikomori, we are invited to lean into God. There is no safer place.

*Fictitious name