The new, British Hikikomori?

By Robert MacDonald, Teesside University

In Japan there is a thing called Hikikomori. It is difficult to describe to British people, where there has been no obvious parallel. In Japan, there has been significant sociological debate about its dimensions and social demography (but not its existence, which is accepted). It refers to ‘extreme social withdrawal’: possibly hundreds of thousands of young adults, mainly young men, possibly more often from middle-class backgrounds, who, apparently because of the pressures of modern life, escape to the privacy and security of their bedrooms living permanently alone, rarely going out if at all, being fed and looked after by their concerned parents.

Hikikomori has been the source of much public debate. Does it signify a social or psychological malaise? Is this just a moral panic? Or is it the outcome of parents molly-coddling their children? Agencies have sprung up that forcibly ‘rescue’ such individuals, offering friendship, therapy, re-education classes and sometimes shocking young peopleback to ‘normal life’. It is worth watching this short You Tube animation to get a sense of what Hikikomori is about:

Prof. Andy Furlong has written on the Hikikomori phenomenon (view here). He interprets it as a form of anomie; in a highly traditional and culturally organised society, where rigid routes to conventional employment have collapsed, young adults have lost their place and their way, and thus resort to extreme social withdrawal.

One of the aspects of my teaching, for Youth Studies students at Teesside University, is to bring in comparative (cross-national) thinking and analysis. How is being young ‘here’ different to ‘there’? What can we learn from studies of youth in less developed economies or in those outside of the West? How, for instance, is youth in Japan similar or different to youth in the UK? Hikikomori is always a topic that fascinates students – possibly because it seems so strange. Very occasionally UK comparisons have been given by students. ‘Gamers’ hooked on the latest fad, rarely emerging from the darkness of their rooms. Most often, though, we conclude that there is no British counterpart to the Japanese Hikikomori.

Given this, my attention was caught by a new survey in January from the Prince’s Trust (2015) (view here) It reported that: more than half of unemployed young people in the UK feel anxious about everyday life and four out of ten said this anxiety had stopped them from leaving the house and nearly 50% said they avoided meeting new people.

They felt ‘like prisoners in their own home’, said the Chief Executive of the Prince’s Trust (view here). This at least has parallels with Hikikomori.

In the same week, a wider and powerful analysis of insecurity and anxiety in the UK was published by Michael Orton (view here). This was not specific to young people – but it helped locate the findings of the Prince’s Trust report in the social, political and economic context. Orton argues that virtually all of us are now experiencing a cultural condition of insecurity that feeds recurrent anxiety. People – not just young people – are worried, fearful, anxious about their world and their futures. It is in this sort of context that extremist, hateful politics take hold. We turn on Others and psychological stress make us turn (in) on ourselves (as indicated by the Prince’s Trust report).

These reports do not amount to a description of a new British Hikikomori. I still don’t think we have a similar experience here. But they are interesting and important for at least two reasons. One, they connect with and confirm very long-standing and well-established findings about the overwhelmingly negative social and psychological effects of unemployment; findings that date at least back to the 1930s and which span research across many different societies (as shown, for instance, in the work of Marie Jahoda (view here). Two, partly because of their long historical resonance, they would appear to give a more reliable, believable picture of the human costs of contemporary unemployment and insecurity than the depictions of a ‘welfare scrounging’, ‘benefit dependent’, ‘living it up on the dole’ underclass offered by many pundits, politicians and programme makers.

Photo: Loren Kerns. License: CC BY 2.0

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