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Young hermits: Hikikomori in Japan

December 12, 2012
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(This is the second of a three-part series about the University of Michigan’s involvement with Japan.)

They are modern-day hermits – hundreds of thousands of young Japanese who have retreated to their bedrooms. They disdain social contact and are unable to go to school or work for months or even years. In Japanese, it’s called “hikikomori,” or withdrawing, pulling inward.

Alan Teo, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Michigan, discussed the psychological, cultural and social factors of hikikomori in a Nov. 8 lecture, sponsored by U-M’s Center for Japanese Studies. Teo is a Japanese speaker who is collaborating with experts in Japan researching hikikomori.

Here are edited excerpts and a video of Teo’s talk at the International Institute:

Alan Teo, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Michigan.

Hikikomori defined:

“In terms of an actual definition, this comes from an expert panel of researchers in Japan. They define hikikomori as a state of social withdrawal for more than six months, not going to work or school, except for occasionally going out, and not communicating with people, besides family members.”

“There is debate about the duration – how long this should be. Arbitrarily, six months has been chosen. In Korea, they use a shorter duration of three months to define what they call socially withdrawn youth.”

The difference between hikikomori and agoraphobia:

“Agoraphobia is a phobia, and from my experience people can have this social isolation behavior without the phobia of going out or being in public.”

Some of the criteria of hikikomori:

“Existence pretty much confined to home. Avoidance of both social situations as well as social relationships. Importantly, distress or some functional impairment, as we say in medicine. Some difficulty with basic parts of your life or a lot of emotional angst.”

Clinical features, things observed over the years in practice:

“One is a very strong predominance of males. Eighty percent of the described cases of hikikomori are male. The age of onset tends to be in the adolescent, early adulthood period.”

Delays in treatment:

“A feature that concerns me is that often it’s many years before people come to the attention of the medical community. Six months is the criteria for the length of hikikomori, but when people actually present to a hospital, clinic or social welfare center, it’s often years. One of my collaborators in Japan observed in his set of cases that three, four, five years was the average length of time before people came to his social welfare center.”

The size of the problem in Japan:

“In Japan, hikikomori is considered to be relatively common in terms of medical issues. There has been one good epidemiological study where they try to study the whole population and try to give a sense of how expansive it is. They found that 1.2 percent of people in the young adult range have had a history of this six-month period of social withdrawal and isolation. If you extrapolate to the population level, that’s 200,000 or more in Japan (1.2 percent of Japanese between ages of 20 and 50).”


Hikikomori beyond Japan:

“We’re starting to think about how this might exist beyond Japan. We already know that hikikomori is not limited to Japan. We’ve seen cases in culturally distinct societies, too. I’ve talked to colleagues in Europe: Spain, France, Italy and Latin America, also.”




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