Japan is dealing with the lowest birthrate in the developed world and the highest celibate population. “Hikkikomori” recluses, “worthless men” and parasite single women are often blamed for this crises. In this write up I take a look at this culture from the lens of an American and get insight one of Japan’s most prolific (former) hikkikomori, Welcome To The NHK’s Tatsuhiko Takimoto.
Hikkikomori or “social recluses” are estimated to make up 1% of Japan’s population; Currently there’s around 1.55 million recluses in Japan alone, however this estimation is not based on much empirical data. One of the main causes of these recluses is thought to be the extreme pressure Japanese society puts on youth to enter a good university and get into a good company for work.
The stereotypical image of a “hikkikomori” is a young male playing online all day with his mother sheepishly leaving his dinner tray outside of his bedroom door. While these cases exist, the typical recluse may leave the house but only at night or less crowded areas. The concept still stands however, they shut away from society whether or not they occasionally leave their room or not.
Perhaps the Western explanation for this would be agoraphobia, an anxiety driven condition that leads sufferers to avoid certain situation and perhaps may not leave the comfort of their own homes. However, Hikkikomori have some social element connected to Japanese society and expectations of men.
These recluses are often the subject of ridicule, of “making Japan go bad”. An extreme subset of ダメ男(dame otoko) or “worthless men”. Men who’d rather pursue their hobbies and interests than start a family, have a girlfriend or in some cases work a job. The female equivalent being “parasite singles”. Women in their late 20’s-30’s who stay in their parent’s home working part time or full time jobs, using their large disposable income to pursue what interests them as well. If you let the older generation tell it, society is being held hostage by various groups of young adults who couldn’t care less about tradition or social norms.
I myself can relate to the plight of social recluses and anti-social individuals. There was a time in high school I didn’t leave my room besides school or my mother calling me to get dinner, which I would eat in my room alone. Social media was the main way I communicated to other humans and I had no interest in inebriated house parties like most high schoolers.
If J.D. Salinger’s famed story was about a had been about a millennial black girl from Detroit, I would have been the angsty prototype. Call me Holdeneisha Caulfield. My main reasoning for shutting out? The world seemed so phoney to me and only in my lonesome did I feel authentic.
The term “Hikkikomori” and NEET(a person not in employment education or training)has caught on with international fans of Japanese pop culture — a serious social ill has now become a term of endearment in the Western world. Proudly worn as the badge in Tumblr and Twitter profiles of anime fans globally? Why?
One reason happens to be due to the 2007 anime wildly popular anime series “Welcome To The NHK!?” by Studio Gonzo. The series is based on a 2001 Young Adult novel written by Japan’s most profiling (ex) recluse, Tatsuhiko Takimoto.
Welcome To The NHK?! parodies Takimoto’s real life experience as a college drop-out turned marijuana LSD using recluse in a world with Beauty and the Beast-esque talking-appliances. While the animation was heavily censored for television, the novel is closer to his life.
When asked about the cool element hipster “weeaboos” have used the term Hikkikomori in, he says it’s funny and he’s glad to have started such a movement.
I happen to be a long time good friend of Tatsuhiko. I sent him a fan letter in 9th grade for school paper, appreciating his work and realizing there were other angsty Salinger-esque people in the world like myself. Now living in Tokyo, we occasionally have tea and talk about life. I’ve even recorded a guided mediation in English for his spiritual blog before.
I seeked his guidance for writing this piece.
We went to a cafe in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya neighborhood to chat. I had translated before for Tatsuhiko, so I wanted to ask his views on things I already didn’t know.
I decided to freely converse with him and ask more about the so called “recent” trend of young men shutting away from society, and see where the conversation goes from there.
A: “So, a lot of old folks seem to say technology is some mark of the beast. That the new generation is just odd therefore leans to anti-social reclusive tendencies…your thoughts?”
T: Well…there were people that were so called ‘Hikkikomori’ even in my father’s youth. I guess now they use computers and Internet… but back then it was television. Old people have a Showa(post-World War II) mindset. Young men don’t care about materialistic things so working isn’t that important. I think it’s good!
We talked a bit more and Tatsuhiko reassured me that recluses are somewhat like modern monks. Considering Japan’s low birth rate, I also inquired his thoughts on it.
A: The media likes to blame the low birth rate on things like ‘worthless men’ or men who shut away from society. Japan is pretty lenient on prostitution — do you think the easy access to these services plus introversion really impacts the birth rate? I mean you did write that segment for FAUST, ‘Go To A Soapland!’ where you implore young men to try working women from your own experiences.
T: Whoah…hold on. I think men who are going to go to stuff like that will go no matter what. Whether they’re extroverted or not. If it has any impact on the birth rate it’s pretty minuscule. People who are gonna go, are gonna go, reclusive or not.
He notes that he has no interest in such establishments as much as he did in his youth, but understands why young men go.
Takimoto, who seems to be happily divorced went on to talk about marriage in Japan as well.
T: I think young people in Japan have to deal socially with a lot of pressure when it comes to marriage. Specifically social pressures, therefore it seems too ‘heavy’. Society has caused this low marriage rate. The pressure for youth to get married, have this car, and keep up with the Joneses makes young men turn away. It seems like hell for them. In Japan there’s the expectation of keeping your public face and private face very seperate. It’s stressful and pure hell.
Instead of berating the so called “worthless men” and Japanese youth that seem to recluse and turn away, he provided more of understanding and background as to what social components play a role in the total picture.
Due to recent news and the rise of the Western nerdy young men of the “Alt-right”, I brought up the clear parallel between Japanese nerd culture which is often nationalistic as well.
A: So why do you think these social recluses and nerdy types tend to lean towards populism, and growing nationalist movements?
He laughed a bit.
T: Weak people often use escapism as a means to cope and a method of escapism is to find an ‘idol’. Whether the idol is an actual J-pop idol, an anime series or Donald Trump, these people need to idealize others. It’s understandable that the alt-right would draw in so many anime fanboys.
As the conversation devolved to idle prattle — “Which Neon Genisis Evangelion girl would you date?” “You’re totally like Asuka. I want someone like Rei!”,
I started to think about the social recluses in America. We certainly have them, people who turn away from society. Rather they watch anime all day or reality TV there definitely exists people who shut themselves off from society and a traditional lifestyle. We don’t really have a word for it in the West however.
I wondered if Japan’s criseses of young people refusing to copulate and shut-ins would inflict the West soon.
Only time can tell.