The other day I was at my with my Japanese language tutor and we were reading a story about vending machines in Japan. Part of the story focused on the benefits of the vending machines while the other part focused on the detriment. Detriments included things like using electricity, hiring someone to stock the machine, etc, but there was one unusual thing that at first I thought I had misread. It said that vending machines are limiting face to face contact among people. While I thought this was true, I also thought… so what? Is that a problem? Apparently in Japan it is.
After a little inquiry my teacher told me that she had recently had a “student” who had been coming by lately. He was what is called a hikikomori 引き籠もり,. Which translates as someone who pulls away, or a shut in. These people exist in other countries; usually they are people who have some sort of social, physical, or mental disorder or impairment that makes it difficult for them to function outside of a confined or familiar environment that they consider safe. Japan is a leader among the world for this sort of person and China, Taiwan, and South Korea are also seeing rising numbers of hikikomori recently. Some factors that are said to contribute to it is a lack of a right of passage, which would lead to youths becoming adults and also perhaps because of the rigid systems of social ranking in Japan and other countries. Many students in Japan face enormous pressure to test well for universities and highschools and many of those who graduate find slim job prospects, which may also encourage their disallusionment.
My teacher’s student had gone to school as a normal adolescent would, but upon graduating entered his home, rarely to emerge for the past 9 years. As of lately he had expressed a desire to come back into society and so my Japanese teacher, who is also a psychologist, agreed to meet with him to start some rehabilitation.
Apparently in Japan this is very common. I did a little research and asked a few people I know about hikikomori and all of them knew someone at some point in their lives who was or is a hikikomori. By some statistics this involves about 20% of adolescent males (1% of the total population). In fact I know there is at least one at my middle school, and a couple at my elementary schools, although the most serious cases are those that carry on beyond school. At this point you may be thinking, ok, so that is a little strange, but surely its not so bad. At some point these people must emerge from their rooms to go to the bathroom, eat, shop, work, etc. The suprising truth is… not really. Some are known to have stayed in their rooms for periods measuring in years. Many needs such as food and other shopping can be done over the internet or is done by the persons mother, who then brings it to their room. Going to the bathroom may only be done at times the person feels safe, like at night. Which brings me back to the original article I was reading about vending machines.
It seems that a negative side affect of vending machines, which are growing in number in Japan, is that it enables people to remain hikikomori. It also seems that a considerable amount of business occurs at night, which creates a conundrum for owners who don’t want their machines using electricity all night long, but also have a small, but growing costumer base for late night use.
While I recognize that some of these individuals really are disturbed and really do need to be catious about social interactions, the majority are being enabled by their parents and society who has taken a passive role in allowing them to isolate themselves. I can make this argument because when you compare the statistics for urban or middle class families with hikikomori children to those of lower class or rural families the difference is noticeable. People are choosing to become withdrawn from society for petty reasons and their loved ones are allowing them to do it. Despite all that I love about Japan, this is one thing I do not.