Navigation Menu

My Quest to Find the Loneliest People on Earth

My Quest to Find the Loneliest People on Earth

My Quest to Find the Loneliest People on Earth

By on Dec 14, 2016 in Japan0 comments

Channing Joseph

SF Weekly’s editor traveled to Japan to find out why up to 2 million people won’t come out of their bedrooms.

(Photo by Senny Mau)

(Photo by Senny Mau)

Daiju Ogawa is 30 years old when I meet him inside the cramped storefront office, the gray summer sky spitting warm rain onto the sidewalk outside.

There is barely enough room for the four of us — him, me, and two staff members — to sit comfortably inside the Encounter Cafe, a tiny counseling center in Hachioji, Tokyo.

As I look at Daiju, I observe his dark, wavy hair and T-shirt, his black, rectangular glasses and blue jeans.

He seems completely ordinary. He laughs freely and smiles broadly. I could never guess by looking at him that he has spent a decade hidden away in his bedroom, unable — until just last year — to free himself from a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement.

“I come here for a reason to leave the house,” he tells me through the translator. “I feel a kind of companionship in the encounter group. There are no taboos.”

From 2004 until 2015, Daiju spent nearly every moment at home, doing basically nothing except occasionally surfing the internet, playing a video game, or merely staring out his window. Though he once held part-time jobs at restaurants and at factories, nothing stuck. Eventually, he simply gave up, overwhelmed by a crushing sense of failure.

Today, he still lives with his parents, but, he admits, there is not much conversation in the household. In fact, his father is an alcoholic, he says, and at one point in time, “we hated each other.”

Now, once or twice a month, for a brief respite, he travels two hours by train from Saitama Prefecture to the Encounter Cafe, for group counseling.

Leaving his home any more often than that would be difficult, he explains, because he cannot endure the sharp gazes of others looking down on him in judgment.

“People’s eyes are not comfortable for me,” he says.

Daiju Ogawa (Photo by Channing Joseph)

Daiju Ogawa (Photo by Channing Joseph)

WHO ARE THE HIKIKOMORI?

Daiju Ogawa is a member of a demographic I call the loneliest people on Earth, and my ongoing quest to understand him and others like him has taken me halfway around the globe and back.

I was curious to know why, by some estimates, as many as 2 million Japanese people have made the decision to withdraw from society, with some refusing to leave their bedrooms for six months or more — and in some extreme cases, nearly 20 years.

This summer, I went to Japan in search of answers.

But my quest to understand these extreme loners — also known as Japan’s hikikomori, or “withdrawn,” people — began in my San Francisco apartment, with the sinking fear that I might slowly be turning into one of a number of non-Japanese who are beginning to identify with the condition, which was once thought to be unique to Japan.

About two years ago, I found myself increasingly uninterested in going outside. Three days would pass, then five, then nine, before I would be able to drum up the courage to walk out into the brisk air for an important meeting or a routine doctor’s visit — or, occasionally, a visit to my favorite karaoke bar.

Because I was living alone — an increasing rarity in a town of skyrocketing rents — it was easy to arrange my day so that I rarely needed to speak to another human being.

I was living in the city’s Outer Sunset neighborhood, a quiet, serene area where I could smell the Pacific Ocean breeze and watch the sun go down from my window. But to my friends in the East Bay or even in the Castro, I might as well have been living in Antarctica. As a freelance writer, I could almost always complete my assignments without needing to stand up from my well-worn sofa. And the increasing proliferation of smartphone apps — like Grubhub, Sprig, Doordash, and Blue Apron — made it possible for me to have meals delivered each day without speaking to a soul. With Instacart, I could even have groceries and other household items brought to my door.

The world I saw outside my living-room window — the clouds and fog, the people and their dogs, the occasional raccoon — started to feel like just another humdrum daytime TV rerun. It was easy and comfortable to stand back and just watch it all go by.

For the most part, I was happy alone, at peace with my own company. But at times, I did feel sad, frustrated, wondering what meaning my life could have as long as I remained cooped up inside my apartment.

In some ways, it felt like I had entered a kind of cocoon, though I didn’t know then what brand of creature I was metamorphosing into behind the walls of my apartment.

I had read about Japan’s enormous problem with young shut-ins before. I remember being struck by the fact that the Japanese government has been so concerned about the country’s stagnant economy and low birthrate that it has opened hikikomori support centers available nationwide.

As I sank deeper into my own isolation, I became more obsessed with the plight of the hikikomori.

There is some minor disagreement about how to define the condition, but according to Tamaki Saito, the director of medical services at Sofukai Sasaki Hospital in Funabashi, a person can only be classified as “hikikomori” if he or she is not otherwise psychotic or depressed. That person must also be in isolation for more than six months, with no relationships with anyone outside the family. In very typical cases, the isolated person’s mother cares for them, leaving food at their bedroom doors.

Thankfully, by those measures, I didn’t qualify as a hikikomori, but I still felt such empathy for the condition, and a fascination with it, that I needed to find out more.

Such cases have been documented since the 1970s, says Saito, whose 1998 book, Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, made “hikikomori” a household word in Japan.

Perhaps what is most striking about these withdrawn people is their stamina for aloneness.

How can they possibly stand to be so isolated for so long — months or years at a time?

Saito has an answer. His research suggests that during periods of withdrawal, the minds of hikikomori people are intensely active, even though their bodies are quite sedentary.

“As the symptoms progress and extend over an increasingly long period of time,” he wrote, “it simply seems to others that the person is being lazy and acting lethargic, but often, there are deep conflicts and strong, fretful feelings hidden below the surface. As evidence, one can see that the majority of people in withdrawal do not experience boredom, even though they spend their days not doing anything. Their minds appear to be occupied, not giving them the psychological room to feel bored.”

Still, I had questions.

What was causing the phenomenon? Was it simply an unusual manifestation of a familiar condition, like depression or of schizophrenia? Or was it an altogether new condition?

Everything I read suggests that psychologists, medical researchers, journalists, economists, and sociologists all seemed to be speculating. No one seems to be certain of anything.

Dr. Takahiro Kato, an associate professor of neuropsychiatry at Kyushu University’s Graduate School of Medical Sciences, says he believes the hikikomori phenomenon is spreading to other countries. In 2011, Kato and his colleagues wrote in The Lancet: “Several hikikomori-like cases have been reported from Korea, Oman, and Spain, leading to debate as to whether hikikomori is a culture-bound syndrome specific to Japan or a new form of maladjustment or psychiatric disorder.”

On the internet, in English-language discussion forums like Reddit, I found Americans and other self-described hikikomori baring their souls, and often asking many of the same questions I had.

“Where a hikikomori relies on their parents for food, to pay the bills, etc. — what do they plan to do once the parents pass away?” a commenter wrote on Reddit in November.

“I got laid off my job yesterday,” a commenter in the Bay Area confessed in July. “I feel like I’m really going to descend back into the hikikomori lifestyle and probably gamble all my savings away. I’ll be completely honest, I don’t have any friends and no social life. I’m not sure if anyone’s had these feelings before, but they are very scary sentiments. I’m almost at the age of 26 and I haven’t accomplished much.”

“I was 16 when I dropped out of public school …” another commenter wrote in late September. “That is when my prolonged bouts of social isolation started. … I haven’t had a social outing in 5 years. It’s liberating but embarrassing at the same time to be saying that.”

The tiny bedroom where Ogawa spends nearly all of his time, except for one or two outings a month. (Photo by Channing Joseph)

The tiny bedroom where Ogawa spends nearly all of his time, except for one or two outings a month. (Photo by Channing Joseph)

AMERICAN COUNTERPARTS

No one knows how many hikikomori there might be in the United States and elsewhere outside of Japan, says Dr. Alan Teo, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Oregon Health & Science University. That question, he suggests, might be answered by future research.

But in a 2013 article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Teo published the first case report of a self-described hikikomori in the Americas. The patient, a 30-year-old White man, had complained of being isolated for three years.

“During the first year, he remained in a closet, ate ready-to-eat food, did not bathe, and urinated and defecated in jars and bottles,” Teo wrote. “He passed time surfing the internet and playing video games. A housemate helped supply food. He felt conflicted about his social withdrawal. While he explained his reason for withdrawal as a moral disdain of society, he … [also expressed] a desire to go out and gain insight into his lack of motivation for social interaction.”

Though it’s not yet possible to say how many people are affected by this kind of isolation in the United States, Teo believes that our growing dependence on technology, particularly in the Bay Area, could be a factor in the development of hikikomori here.

“There is a potential for some of our technological developments such as food delivery apps to inadvertently allow more social isolation,” he tells me. “I … continue to regularly get contacted by families in California and really throughout the U.S. who are absolutely at their wit’s end and desperate for help for their son or brother or other loved one suffering from hikikomori.”

Even in Japan, there are widely varying estimates of how many people should be classified as hikikomori. This is due to differing survey methodologies but also because many people are simply too ashamed to admit it on a government questionnaire.

One survey by the Statistics Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications seems to have the most reliable figure, according to Yuji Genda, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo. The survey, conducted every five years, asks roughly 200,000 people about their daily activities, like how often they go out or play sports. Since 1996, Genda points out, the survey has shown the number of hikikomori people steadily growing — from 746,000 that year, to 854,000 in 2001, to 1.1 million in 2006, and to 1.6 million in 2011. If that trend continues, the number should now stand at about 2 million.

A report released in September by Japan’s Cabinet Office estimated there are only 541,000 hikikomori, but Genda and Kato, of Kyushu University, point to flaws in that report, including its small sample size and the fact that it excluded those older than 39.

Interestingly, a February 2016 article authored by Kato, Teo, and Shigenobu Kanba in The American Journal of Psychiatry, described the case of a “39-year-old unemployed man living with his parents” who “for the past 19 years … has spent the vast majority of his time restricted to his room … and describes his attitude toward life as ‘taking it easy.’” After that patient’s 40th birthday, the Cabinet Office report would no longer have counted him as being “hikikomori.” An analogous situation in the United States would arise with discouraged workers who are no longer counted as unemployed when they stop looking for a job. In both cases, the numbers don’t actually reflect the reality.

As hikikomori age, and particularly as their parents or other caretakers die, they are likely to place an enormous strain on Japan’s economy.

“The National Institute for Research Advancement has … reported,” Genda says, “that if the non-regular workers and unemployed persons including hikikomori who were born between 1968 and 1977 will become old and need to receive social welfare, the recipients of the welfare aid will increase by about 800,000 persons and additional social expenditure will amount to almost $200 billion.”

The rise of hikikomori in popular culture has been helped along a great deal by Japanese manga, or comic books, as well as by anime and novels. Ernest Cline’s best-selling book Ready Player One, features hikikmori characters and is now being adapted into a feature film directed by Steven Spielberg, set for release in 2018.

But one book in particular has been of paramount importance: Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s wildly popular 2002 novel Welcome to the N.H.K., which was also adapted into a manga as well as an animated TV series.

Nearly all of the more than a dozen current and former hikikomori whom I interviewed had either read the manga or seen the anime.

In the story, the main character is a recovering hikikomori who is enticed from his isolation by a romantic interest. The book is based in large part on Takimoto’s own experience at university, skipping his literature classes — for three years before he told his parents — to spend all of his time on the internet.

“Many Japanese people don’t have any religion, and they don’t have any feeling of the meaning of life” or the motivation to pursue life goals or dreams, he observes. “Sometimes hikikomori time is necessary for the person. … When a person becomes hikikomori, they can get a lot of time alone to think.”

A year after finally telling his parents that he had lied about being in school, Welcome to the N.H.K. was published. A happy ending.

“I know 99 percent of hikikomori stories are really sad stories,” he says, “but 1 percent get a really happy story.”

Ken’ichiro Asami, 44, has another such story.

He is now on the faculty of human-environment studies at Kyushu University. I interview him at Yokayoka, a support center that provides psychological counseling and career training for recovering hikikomori people.

But nearly three decades ago, at the age of 15, he dropped out of junior high school. Overwhelmed by the stresses of Japan’s high-pressure and conformist education system, he went from a top-performing student to a full-fledged hikikomori in a matter of months.

He stayed home for about one year, leaving the house only to play with his remote-control airplanes, he adds in English. “I stayed at home … [because] there was no community or anywhere to belong to.”

Asami speaks softly and seems a bit nervous. I wonder why until he tells me that this is the first time he has spoken publicly about his withdrawal as a youth.

“If it is helpful to tell my story, I will tell my story,” he explains.

Unlike the dozen or so other current or recovering hikikomori I interviewed during my time in Japan, Asami is the only one who seems to have so thoroughly turned the painful experience into something positive. In fact, Asami suggests, his year of withdrawal was a “very rich experience.”

“Now I look back on my hard times, and I can see it as a rich experience. It is a good experience. At that time, I could never think like that.”

Today, he is a respected psychologist whose research was instrumental in establishing the community of friends that the the Yokayoka support center has become. He has devoted his career to helping others who are dealing with the same issues he overcame in his youth.

“Quitting is not a bad thing,” he says. “You just have to decide what to do next.”

“Without the [hikikomori] experience, I wouldn’t have the ideas I have. I wouldn’t be myself.”

Some hikikomori leave their bedrooms late at night to shop at 24-hour convenience stores like this one. (Photo by Channing Joseph)

Some hikikomori leave their bedrooms late at night to shop at 24-hour convenience stores like this one. (Photo by Channing Joseph)

‘THE FOUR WALLS OF MY NEW FREEDOM’

Back in Hachioji, my interview with Daiju goes on for hours. Eventually we decide to go out for a late-night meal at the Japanese equivalent of Denny’s.

As we eat, I ask him what he does to entertain himself now that he is recovering from his withdrawal.

I am surprised to hear that he still spends a lot of time just looking out his window. But instead of staring blankly, as he once did, he watches birds. Such is progress.

I look out my own bedroom window as I write this, and I think of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, described the cell in which he had sought refuge from society as “the four walls of my new freedom.” At the end of the book, Merton imagines God speaking to him, saying:

“You shall begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.”

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *