Hikikomori: Is It A Social Issue, Or A Mental Problem?

By: kaye


In Japan, the hikikomori phenomenon is something that the country's government supposedly views with a mix of disdain and worry. The act of completely cutting oneself off from all social and human contact for an extended period is an understandable cause of alarm, particularly in a cultural and corporate environment like that of Japan. The phenomenon is still a subject of intense study, though subjects for observation can be difficult to come by simply due to the nature of the problem. A typical hikikomori can be nearly impossible to even contact, let alone be convinced to allow himself to be observed by mental health experts. Given this situation, it is not all that easy to get concrete, first-hand information on them. However, there is an ample supply of theories, covering both factors in the development of such behavior and the possible root causes of it.

Most believe the problem to be rooted primarily in extreme social anxiety, as evidenced by the act of cutting oneself off from all human contact. There are conflicting reports on whether or not the person involved in this still has contact with others through the Internet, though this may or may not be a factor, depending on whether or not it is strictly social anxiety or if there are other factors or issues involved. Indeed, it is too easy to simply state that the hikikomori problem is rooted in social anxiety.

Another potential factor, as some psychologists have suggested, is an acute form of performance anxiety, usually accompanied by a sense of depression over the state of the Japanese economy. Most reported cases of hikikomori in Japan come from middle-class families. Economically speaking, the average Japanese middle-class family can financially support a single, non-working child --- a situation that has given rise to the term “parasite singles,” In theory, a child who is afraid of not meeting the expectations of his family and, at the same time, the knowledge that he does not need to actually work leads to a form of performance anxiety. This type of anxiety has left them psychologically unable to work. This situations combined with the depression over Japan's current economic and political standing can even lead some individuals to become unwilling to work.

From what evidence is available at this point, it is possible to speculate that there is more to this than one would assume, as this may be more of a mental health issue than a social one. Some have gone so far as to mention that the hikikomori phenomenon may be an entirely new “breed” of mental health issue, though most psychologists and sociologists dispute this claim. While there is very little dispute that this sort of behavior is rooted firmly in mental health problems, most would consider it radical thinking to assume that this is an entirely new disorder. There is a possibility of this, though there has not been sufficient first-hand study of the behavior to back up a claim either way.

There have also been extensive claims that the hikikomori phenomenon is caused by factors inherent to current Japanese social norms. The argument that there are facets or aspects of how Japanese society expects people to behave and think is a strong one, mainly because the problem was first reported in Japan and bears a distinctly Japanese name. However, there is evidence that this sort of problem is not confined merely to Japan, as reports of similar problems are emerging in Taiwan, Singapore, and China. There are still common factors between these countries, most notably the education system, indicating that it may be a cultural factor common to the above countries. According to the BBC, however, citizens in the UK have claimed to have had personal experience with hikikomori in the UK, arguing that the problem was not an inherently Japanese or East Asian one.

The difficulty in determining the root cause of the problem has also lent itself to finding ways to alleviate it. Since there is no evidence to support one cause or another, there has been difficulty in determining whether the problem can be treated with therapy, psychoactive drugs, or both. As long as there is a lack of concrete information on the hikikomori problem, effective ways and means to help hikikomori overcome their problems will remain slow to develop. The lack of awareness and information about this complex psychological disorder has left hundreds of hikikomori secluded in their own little worlds, imprisoned by self-doubt and fear about the world outside.

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