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Aversion and hikikomori

Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei makes the argument that the hikikomori complex is an elaborate form of aversion. In fact, all the people portrayed in the show are slightly dysfunctional and avoid facing reality in certain ways, and it is this backdrop which forms an excellent basis for equating the two. The title character continually reacts to life by fantasizing about suicide, relentlessly genki girl Kakufa Fuura reacts to everything negative by reimagining it as something bizarrely and improbably “positive,” the counselor hates helping people and does not willingly give of herself despite her job as school counselor, and so on.

The show deals directly with hikikomori in episode two, wherein they visit the house of Komori Kiri, the shut-in. Like all names in Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, this is a play on words: Hikikomori is the Japanese term used to designate people who shut themselves in their rooms and avoid social contact. True to form, Komori is shown in her room watching anime, with tankobon and DVDs piled up all around her.

The Japanese tend to insist that certain phenomena are uniquely Japanese, and hikikomori is no exception. Saito Tamaki, who coined the phrase, estimated that as many as 1% of Japanese may exhibit this condition. While that number seems small, it works out to as much as one-tenth of Japanese adolescents. (As this crude estimate was based on his observation that there were at least as many hikikomori as schizophrenics, the obviousness of hikikomori may lead to a higher reporting rate and thus inflation of the estimate.)

Withdrawal from society may simplistically be seen as an extreme reaction to societal demands. Added to this, for otaku, is the desirability of the unreal: as Katsuragi Keima says in The World God Only Knows, the virtual world is ideal and pure, whereas reality is comparatively muddy and tainted. Who wouldn’t want to live in a better world?

And yet the hikikomori does nothing that is not understandable within the broader context of aversion. People do this all the time who have nothing in common with hikikomori: they avoid strange relatives, obnoxious acquaintances, and debt collectors. They neglect unpleasant chores. This done by the well-socialized as well as the socially inept. At the broadest level, not wanting to deal with some portions of life is not unique to the Japanese or any other group – it is a universal human experience. However, the hikikomori who shuts herself in is not bothering to hide her inability or unwillingness to deal with certain aspects of life. Since society, particularly Japanese society, is largely based on the maintenance of illusions, this constitutes a fundamental break with the accepted rules.

What is so wrong about that? Hikikomori have basically said, “To hell with these social rules that don’t benefit me!” Perhaps one who does not follow the rules, especially in an Asian society that places tremendous value on order, is viewed as frightening because they are fundamentally unpredictable. Ironically enough, there are plenty of people who nominally follow the rules that are arguably far more dangerous: con men and politicians come to mind. But it is because they follow the letter of the rules so well that they are wrapped in the impermeable cloak of respectability, whereas hikikomori, by nature, do not acknowledge any need for public relations.

During the Melody of Oblivion arc where Toune is introduced, viewers are shown a boy standing on the edge of town day and night, not eating, not drinking, not sleeping.  His incongruous and inexplicable existence is a challenge to the poorly-constructed reality of village life. The villagers, reacting to this, ignore or demonize him. Similarly, the hikikomori who stands outside the rules of society – who refuses to play nice with others even at personal cost – is shunned and villified.  It is ironic, then, that hikikomori are not alone in their estrangement from society.  But perhaps the supreme irony is that the hikikomori’s aversion of society is ultimately mirrored by society’s aversion of the hikikomori.

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