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.

If you think about it, hikikomori are kind of like old men: "Get off my lawn!"

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.

A hikikomori in its native habitat.  Image courtesy of Nihon Hikikomori Association.

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.

Author: moritheil

One might be forgiven for thinking that Moritheil is a postmodern literary critic who started reviewing video games in 2001, and spent the early 2000s learning at the right hand of con staff and fansubbers. However, those rumors are spurious: Moritheil is actually a distant relative of Genghis Khan who stands poised to conquer the world via the Internet. Follow along at http://twitter.com/moritheil.

25 thoughts on “Aversion and hikikomori

  1. You mention that some Japanese try to present hikikomori as a Japanese-only phenomenon, but that seems to be slipping recently… Mainichi ran a piece about a month back reporting on an Italian report that their hikikomori problem has exploded, growing fivefold in the past two years. Of course, it’s still called “Japanese-style social withdrawal” in the article, so maybe this is just another factor of SOFT POWER COOL JAPAN?

    link here:

    1. @ Kransom – interesting that Italians are perhaps experiencing the same thing. However, I doubt their term is “hikikomori”, which is a Japanese word. It is sad that they’re having some of the same issues but because societies are different, I’m not so sure that their problem is exactly the same. Perhaps these people in Italy are just not as outgoing as the rest of the country, which seems quite outgoing in general? The average Japanese loves to talk in a self-centered (not necessarily selfish) way, but so do a lot of people from other nationalities. As long as there isn’t an internationally agreed scientific term for hikikomori, I suspect the Japanese will always see it as a “Japanese-style social withdrawal”. Finally, if I remember correctly, Mainichi and the company behind it, Asahi, are quite nationalist-oriented.

  2. Consensus seems to cover so many things in a cloak of respectability. It’s kind of interesting of course that this sort of thing tends to happen in a culture which is not nearly as individualistic as America–it spawns this extreme form of individualism in a way.

    I still really like Welcome to the NHK’s take on all this, though in a way Satou is not nearly as bad off as many of the real hikikomori I’ve read about. The behavior patterns depicted in the show are pretty believable, though.

    I’ve decided to make this story the Dailysite anime/manga channel link of the day. Great work, mori!

  3. I don’t know why.. But being a hikikomori seems cool after watching anime too much. So does being a lonely and unsocial person, being a butler, being a maid, having super determinaton and super failures, etc.


  4. from what I see on the curent situation on this hikikomori ‘syndrome’, the best thing society or maybe ‘some’ to do is to help them re-introduce to a social world rather than despising or degrading them more.

    hikis are just like ‘[illegal] drug-addicts’, they need rehab and further attention.

    but hey, only 1% constitutes hikis in Japan? well, that’s not a problem at all there. hehe.

  5. Thanks for the comments!

    @kransom – My understanding is that many Japanese psychologists find hikikomori to be an essentially Japanese phenomenon.  That’s not to say it (or something very similar) can’t happen elsewhere, but they describe it primarily in terms of the Japanese mindset and society rather than in terms of generalizations toward all societies.

    @Mike – Thanks!  Yeah, research for this article uncovered some disturbing case studies.

    @rayyhum777 – Yes they are.  Asahi was the company used as a villain in Black Lagoon, and I do not think that was in the least accidental.

    @Qwerty – But if you put them together, like the moe amalgam in NHK, what do you get?

    @rollchan – I think they’re afraid, since it’s 10% of the adolescent population, that it won’t remain 1%.  If every year 10% of students became hikikomori, Japan woul’d have a big problem.

  6. Hey there!

    Most people would probably consider me to be a hikikomori (I am from Canada though, if that matters to you and your understanding of the definition). Basically 2 years no social contact.

    Though my situation is quite different then others within the realm of anime, or the stereo-type, as in I am not afraid of people. But it does seem to be connected with the idea of  “conforming,” I refuse to do something, or participate in something I do not believe in. I refuse to bend my morals, and that strains social situations, so I’d rather not deal with it.

    Am I afraid? Yes I am. But not much of people, I am afraid, of who I will become if I participate in a society I dislike.

    Also I enjoyed the final sentence in the article.

  7. The 1% figure is completely made up. xD If it were really ten percent of adolescents, that would be a huge problem and probably an educational crisis. The actual number is in the low-to-mid hundred-thousands. I heard 350,000-400,000-ish.

    There are plenty of hikikomori outside of Japan, including myself. (I haven’t been out of my house in over a year and haven’t had any offline social interaction in over three.) Are there very few English language sources that say so? I got my information from Japanese Wikipedia. xD

  8. Having done ten months of research at a Tokyo rehab center for hikikomori I can tell you that there is nothing “cool” about youth who are actual hikky. First the media scare on “Dangerous hikikomori youth” back in 1999 and 2000 and the recent the pop culture depictions have really distorted and glorified the whole hikikomori phenomenon.

    The reasons or trigger that caused a youth to become hikikomori vary. They can be like ghosts, staying up all night and sleeping by day or they can seem completely normal except they won’t look at a person face-to-face. It can be heartbreaking to be around hikikomori who are recovering as you can sense their frustration and desire to be normal but they are locked into patterns of behavior that avoid contact.

    The thing is, the label “hikikomori” was originally about the behavior of acute social withdrawal by Japanese youth, not the causes of it. The reason why a lot of Japanese may say hikikomori are unique to Japan is because of the different way such behavior is viewed in Japan by everyday people. In western societies there is a tendency to label a troubled person by a clinical condition such as depression, aspergers, agoraphobia, schizophrenia and so on. If a doctor diagnoses such a condition the parent will seek care at a hospital and or a drug regimen. In contrast, a youth in Japan suffering from any of those conditions or even bullying or stress from school who avoids social interaction will be viewed as a hikikomori.

    Also hikikomori is not a black and white “condition”, perfectly fine people, even adults, may lose a job or have hard times and slip into being a NEET and then into a hikikomori.

    As I do research on the topic, I’ve been contacted by people from all over the world expressing concern over hikikomori in their own country, including South Korea, Italy and most recently Poland. Because the word “hikikomori” is now so high profile I think people self-identify with being hikikomori rather than seek help and see if perhaps they might have medical or psychological condition.

  9. @Michael D. – Thank you for your most excellent response.  If I understand you correctly, hikikomori is originally a descriptor that says nothing about the underlying reasons, just as the term “idiopathic” is really about the limitations of treatment rather than the condition itself.  There is therefore a broad variety of conditions that fall under the label “hikikomori.”

    Since, as you say, perfectly fine (which I take to mean otherwise rational) people can become hikikomori, is it fair to say that there can be a certain sort of logic that drives one to become hikikomori?  Of course, it wouldn’t apply in all cases if the cases are so disparate, but with that caveat, would that statement be in line with your understanding?  Or would you shy away from saying we are ready to attempt to understand the underlying factors?

    @anonymous – Thank you for commenting.  It must be hard.  I do see a certain symmetry to it and I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    @Saisai – Thanks for your insight.  Tamaki admits that the figure is made up and I speculated above as to why it might be inaccurate.  Ultimately we won’t know until more studies are done.

  10. “NHK福祉ネットワークによると、2005年度の引きこもりは160万人以上。稀に外出する程度のケースまで含めると300万人以上存在する。全国引きこもりKHJ親の会の推計でも同様である。”
    “According to the NHK Network, in 2005, there were at least 160,000 hikikomori. When we include the cases in which the hikikomori do seldom go out, at least 300,000 exist. The Countrywide Hikikomori KHJ’s founder’s estimate is identical.”
    -Japanese Wikipedia

    Now, we know!

  11. Thanks moritheil.

    Yes, what I found at my research site is that the rehab staff in the 1980s were treating youth with similar patterns of social withdrawal, but at that time, the kids were being called “school refusals”, tôhôkyohi. The more I’ve looked into trying to pin down a definitive pattern/cause for a static label hikikomori the more its like quicksand.

    Hikikomori is different things to everyday Japanese- something to be slightly afraid of; its something else to Japanese clinics- who are medicalizing youth identified as hikikomori; and it is something again to youth who may view themselves as hikikomori- stuck and cornered in society, they may feel that a social moratorium as they see in the popular media depiction of what it is to be “hikikomori” might be an answer to their problems. It goes without saying that the label hikikomori internationally has its own flavors and permutations.

    Of course as a social scientist, I’m sure a clinical psychologist might disagree with my interpretation of the situation with hikikomori, but in my own research experience, I found that the causes for a person to “become” hikikomori can vary. Hikikomori causation is a complex issue and is really hard to say in any absolute way that 50% of all hikikomori are depressive, 30% are avoidance behaviors, etc. In fact the staff at the rehab center would argue that the reasons for each hikikomori undergoing treatment there were unique. Further as a researcher, its impossible to quantify for various reasons (ever try to conduct a survey on people who hide from sight?).

    As I said, some people have genuine chronic medical issues while others might just be stressed and initially seeking escape from daily pressures and family expectations- but they can all fall under the umbrella term of hikikomori- if they avoid social contact for six months or more. And there is a reason why the discourse on hikikomori focuses on the final behavior of social seclusion as it is easier to observe and identify than what spurred someone to become hikikomori in the first place.

    You ask what might “drive one to become hikikomori”. Assuming the individual is rational as you say, I have seen several common ones (for people w/o preexisting health disorders). Let me go back to the 1980s to make my next point. When school refusals were identified within health circles, there were a steady number of cases to be sure, but when it hit the mass media (TV, newspapers, etc) there was a large spike in “school refusals”. The same thing happened after 1999, 2000 for hikikomori as the media raised public awareness via several sensational stories like the Osaka bus hijacking. Back then however, hikikomori were frightening and seen as mentally ill by the public (read/watch the BBC’s “Missing Million” to see what I mean). Thus reflecting the “public aversion to hikikomori aversion” you mention at the end of your article. (You may want to look into Japanese attitudes on mental and physical disability to see more about why this occurs in Japan)

    Now, with hikikomori in pop culture and woven into stories as both protagonist and peripheral characters, being hikikomori might seem like a viable option for some people who can’t handle the daily strain of life. Becoming hikikomori can seem a viable choice for some people- the media has made them aware that this option, being hikikomori, is out there and exists, other people suffer from this condition…maybe I do too. Some people make the label “hikikomori” their own and choose to be hikky. Now, this is only one part of the hikikomori “population” and perhaps only a small portion, but I think it is important to consider as they may be the most vocal part of the hikikomori population, the rest avoiding social contact.

    Here’s the catch: once many people decide to socially withdraw, become hikikomori, for whatever reason, be it serious emotional trauma or whimsy, certain patterns of behavior begin to settle into their lives. For one, they socially stagnate and may become night owls. Second, their lack of face-to-face interaction may mean they start to over-think the rare times they are confronted with another person. They may be fine in isolation for weeks or months but eventually something happens and they become trapped in hikikomori patterns and not sure how to break those behaviors.

    Think about sensory deprivation chambers or the concerns space agencies have about the extreme isolation of a physically and mentally healthy astronaut in a small capsule that takes months to get to Mars. Humans are social creatures. The separation from groups of people and regular daily interaction will have its effects on any person’s psyche- no matter what the original reason a person may have undergone isolation. For individuals with pre-existing health conditions, like depression. Well, it would seem it just further complicates their situation in social isolation as a hikikomori.

    Yeesh. Look how long winded I be. Its all that academic training.

    I hope that answered your question moritheil.

    Nice blog by and by, keep up the good work!

  12. Hello and nice to meet you. I found the hikikomori term interesting as I was reading about the psychology. As far as I know(which the source is not originally from me of course), the typical type of these guys seemed to be antisocial. Although it was not officially being the part of the antisocial catergory, most of them seems to be lock themsleves away from the social and living the more vitual living or something like that.Furthermore, base from various Internet resources that I know, the public are much aware of this situation and maybe they want this situation under control.
     So I have some questions to ask,
    1. Will this isolation effect their future?
    2. Is the influence from anything worse that worsen the situation?
    3. The last question, does it has to be the negative effects?

    That is all I want to know, hopefully I cn get the info that I want. Thank you.

  13. @Chingaez
    Thanks for your interest. I refer you to the works of Michael D., who holds a graduate degree in psychology specializing in hikikomori.  If his comments above are insufficient for your needs, try reading his academic papers or browsing his web site.

  14. I agree that hikikomori are not a Japanese-only phenomenon, which is something that I happen to know from own experience. I’m a German shut-in (English terms like “shut-in” and “social recluse” already show that this kind of social withdrawal is well-known in other cultures). In hindsight, I can see that I’ve always exhibited symptoms for Asperger’s or HFA, although I have never been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Back when I grew up, low level autism was merely seen as social awkwardness. Nobody was concerned that I spent all my time reading books — on the bus, in school during class, even at the dinner table — and did little else than reading or quietly playing in a corner until I hit puberty.

    As a teenager, I never really managed to fit in and was often met with lack of understanding, disapproval, and peer abuse. For example, all my peers assumed that I was gay because I avoided contact with girls, even when — especially when — one of them showed interest in me. I remember that a very straightforward girl sat close to me and placed her hand on my thigh once, and I just froze up because I didn’t know the proper protocol in such a situation. Or in *any* social situation, for that matter. I never really knew when to smile, when to talk and when to shut up, or when to establish eye contact and for how long.

    It might surprise people that there is a protocol or a correct behavioral pattern for making eye contact and that this could be a problem for somebody, but it is really complicated if you lack the social instincts that most people are born with. You have to look your conversation partner in the eye long enough to signal interest, but also look away for certain time periods. Apparently, continuous staring shows an inappropriate amount of interest and gives people the creeps. And if you blink a little too often or too slow, or smile at the wrong moment, your attention will be mistaken for sexual interest. Such misunderstandings happened to me a few times, and it totally freaked me out. The only solution was not to look at people at all and never smile at them.

    Of course this avoidance behaviour made me seem even weirder. But I could live with people seeing me as a weirdo. What was much worse for me was their mistaking my sexual orientation. It’s horrible enough to be bullied for being homosexual, but even more so if you’re actually not gay. I felt betrayed by the few nerds that I had come to view as my friends and broke off all contact with them. When I eventually managed to keep a job and move out of my parent’s home at age 26 — I had given up my first job after a major depression with a botched suicide attempt and had been out of work for years afterwards — I also broke off all contact with my family.

    I’ll try to cut it short. I made a little career thanks to my home grown computer skills, but I was unable to deal with my coworkers. Unlike my superiors, who were glad to have found somebody who was afraid to say No when he was asked to work over-hours and come in on weekends, my colleagues couldn’t stand me and talked behind my back about my weird, reclusive behaviour. My work environment became increasingly hostile and I developed a social anxiety disorder (sociophobia) over time. Every frown and every nasty remark triggered a panic attack, and soon I started to choke when I only noticed someone paying attention to me.

    It became increasingly difficult for me to leave my apartment. When I woke up in the morning and thought about going to work, I had to throw up and felt too ill to do anything but phone in sick. At some point, I found myself completely unable to leave the house or answer phone calls. Of course I lost my job and managed to get approved for an early retirement at age 31.

    Now I’m going on 40. I’m able to manage my household and even do my own shopping again, usually in the late evening hours. For years, my parents had to handle my grocery shopping, without having any contact with me aside from exchanging notes and shopping lists that I left for them in the hallway. I’ve used my abundant spare time to more or less perfect my English and recently became interested in the Japanese language and contemporary culture (read: in all things otaku). Which is how I came across the term hikikomori, which describes me to a T. After all, this is not only a youth phenomenon; it is estimated that up to 25% of all Japanese shut-ins are aged 30 and older.

    I really like the Japanese approach of summarizing all shut-ins under the umbrella term hikikomori, and treating them like actual people instead of labeling them sociophobic, agoraphobic, schizophrenic, schizotypal, generalized socially anxious and so on. That might lead to a more humane therapy approach that is tailored to the needs of the individual, instead of sorting patients into drawers and feeding them pharmaceutic drugs that merely suppress the symptoms. I never managed to get any help other than a Zyprexa prescription, which is a drug that has been taken off the market in many countries due to the severe and often deadly side effects.

    People are complicated animals and often don’t fit neatly into our Western ICD-10 drawers. The symptoms of very different conditions can be remarkably alike. For example, there are many parallels between schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome coupled with social anxiety, and people who are suffering from the latter will only get worse on antipsychotic medication. To complicate matters, two cases of the same disorder can have very different underlying causes. Nutritional deficits, for example, can cause symptoms that are very similar to those of neurological disorders. The “diagnostic book and prescription pad” approach that is so common in the West simply fails to take factors such as diet and lifestyle into account.

    Sorry for the wall of text 🙂 I could end my post here, but I wanted to comment on the last part of your blog post and the second image. I don’t believe that any hikikomori has thought “to hell with these social rules” and simply did whatever he wanted. Nobody really wants to be a social recluse. Hikikomori are not uninhibited, they’re extremely inhibited. They… we… desperately want to fit in, but can’t deal with the judgement and negative social feedback of other people when we inevitably fail to do so. For the most part, social anxiety is the fear of being observed and judged by others. This fear can become crippling, to the point where one doesn’t dare to do as much as cough or scratch one’s nose in public, and a single frown from some stranger can trigger a panic attack. At that point, avoiding all social contact becomes the only possible option, even if one feels like a prisoner.

    PS: This is not a recent phenomenon btw. There have always been people who sought to avoid social contact and were… well, not happier, but less unhappy as social recluses. Think of lonely shepherds and farmers, lighthouse keepers, solitary hunters and trappers, and so on. The difference is that until recently, these social recluses managed to find their place in society, or sometimes outside of society, without turning themselves into shut-ins. But nowadays, social misfits can’t just venture out into the woods, build a log cabin and live off the land anymore.

    We simply have no choice but to try and fit into an overcrowded world full of traffic noises and chatter and an overwhelming cascade of artificial lights and smells, with an insane level of media exposure and advertising messages that remind us of the need to remain young and healthy and physically fit and drink Coke and own an iPhone. We have to be insanely social and have 500+ friends on facebook in addition to a career and a family, and we have to be prepared to frequently move and start a new job and establish new social relationships at every stage of our life. And on top of all that, we have to keep up with news events from all over the globe that tell us about global warming and bird flu and terrorism and if we can’t take it anymore, we have nowhere to run and hide. Nowhere but our own four walls.

    1. Tastentier, I read your comment and I’m deeply touched by it, so I came across to comment also. I totally understand what you’re saying. I also went through the same thing, just looking at girls made them shiver, looking at me like a roach even though I lived righteously. I’m also an introverted hikky too, the only time I go out is work, grocery, etc, yes, out of necessity. That’s the only way to keep me alive. So I have to put up with 3-D life. Yes, most of the time spending watching anime, looking at 2-D girls, and have moe. Yes, it’s really hard to get out of my apt. It’s tough needing to face people and talk to them. Yes, I’m a social inept. But it’s 3-D that judges me as social inept, not me, I think I’m normal, and this is how I behave and react to certain situations. And they call me weird. 3-D world is cruel.

      Ahh, a girl touched your thigh? Erogenous spot! Ah, so erotic! I would’ve reached ecstasy right on the spot if that happened to me! That girl clearly liked you! Ahh, Tora-san too, some girl liked him, but he didn’t know how to react but baffled, and romance didn’t happen. Tora-san is the greatest romantic comedy film series from Japan, probably funnier than Eric Rohmer romantic comedy series. I don’t know if any girl liked me secretly back in my high school years. I would like to think I had, so I can repaint my memory in a brighter color.

      I totally understand about sexual orientation thing you mentioned. It has happened to me too. Yes, I’ve been mistaken for being gay, I think soshokukei, gentle spirited boys are often mistaken for gay, but when they found out I was straight, they looked at me like an alien, yes, a lower creature from another planet. That time, even the word “soshokukei” didn’t exist in Japan. That time was still macho, nikushokukei period. But now Japan is changing, so the meek are getting more recognized, and hopefully this will eventually save hikikomori too. Meek, gentle spirited boy are the real gentleman. Because we are gentle! “Gentle” man!

      I don’t think hikikomori wants to fit in, at least I don’t want to fit in this patriarch capitalist society. I don’t want to be around guys. They are just violent and nasty. I only want to be around girls. But unfortunately I’m a guy, having being seen as gay or pervert or sociopath, nothing good happened as a dude, so I wish I was a girl, so I can chat with girls without any difficulties, yes, having tea time at park, or backyard, or eating sandwich together at picnic. That’s what I’ve always been dreaming.

      I totally agree, I rather live in countryside, not this megalopolitan. Megalopolis is too stressful for me, I’m hypersensitive to stress, I’m allergic to stress, just like some people are allergic to certain food. Yes, I have severe stress allergy. So, I want to live away from that.

      That’s lucky of you that you got intelligence to understand complicated subjects like computer science. I wish I had science brain, but science was never my thing. I just didn’t have a talent for it. I didn’t do good on reading and math either, but did good on music. So, I practice guitar everyday. But not enough cash to make ends meet.

      Yes, that’s true, people back in the days built a log cabin. Yes, like Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, Life in the Woods. Today, the government will get you if you built a cabin without permission. The government is not friendly to drifters, recluses, hermits like us.

      So yes, we got nowhere to hide, eyes are everywhere, mirrors are everywhere, so the only thing I can do is go inward. Yes, the best is go to 2-D.

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