Shakaiteki Hikikomori: Understanding Japan’s Social Recluses

The Mental Disorder That Drove Over 500,000 Japanese To Self-Imprisonment

Shakaiteki Hikikomori (Social Recluse) is a psychological ailment that’s imprisoning a considerable number of Japan’s population in their own homes leaving a significant impact on the country’s workforce and economy.

But what exactly is hikikomori?




The upcoming university exams when she was a junior in high school were what triggered Hayashi Kyoko’s reclusive tendencies.

“High school wasn’t about fun anymore. Rigorous examination preparations replaced that happy feeling I felt, and it came as a shock to me,” the recovering hikikomori shared. “It was too much that I stopped going to school altogether.”

“We know many of the risk factors from poverty, trauma, maltreatment and social isolation through to bullying and the impact of excessive testing and unrealz`istic academic pressures,” –Katie Hunt, Clinical Psychologist

But her mother pressuring her was the ultimate factor that made her just suddenly shut down. Suddenly, she was afraid of leaving her home and meeting other people. Officially, she became part of Japan’s hikikomori population, which, accordingly, numbers to more than 500,000 to a million.


Japan’s Severe Social Recluses

Hikikomori refers to both the person who has the disorder and the condition itself. These people avoid social contact at all costs, even with other family members. This seemingly societal phobia inclination results in their imposing self-imprisonment – they lock themselves in their rooms only going out to use the toilet or take a shower. Some hikikomori is even reported to raid their homes’ fridges at night for food when everyone in the family is asleep. It’s an indication as to how they loathe coming in contact with other people.

Describing the lowest point of her life as she suffered from the disorder, Kyoko said: “I came to a point somewhere in my twenties when I felt like a living corpse. I only got up to eat, go to the bathroom and breathe. I spent most of my waking moments criticizing myself and thought of living as meaningless.”

“If your intention is to live a meaningful and healthy life, you will make decisions that support this intention, and feel good about yourself when you succeed in this purpose.” –Deborah Khoshaba Psy.D.


But while the disorder is believed to affect about 3% of the country’s entire population, a number the government couldn’t ignore, the hikikomori is a disparate group.

Experts can’t pinpoint one reason why an individual becomes a hikikomori. Kyoko withdrew from society because she didn’t know what to do with her life and was unable to cope with the pressures others were putting on her. For some, trigger points could be negative situations like bad grades and heartbreaks.

Furthermore, some social recluses show signs of having other mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive behaviors, schizophrenia, and depression. For instance, one individual who has the condition said he played video games all day as doing so “tranquilized him.”

“Generalities can often mislead others who are not well-versed with the condition and can result in the stigmatization of the sufferers,” said Professor Jeff Kingston of Tokyo’s Temple University. “However, we’ve come to know some things about the psychological ailment based on observations and data collating.”


These accepted facts about the condition are:

  • Since doctors first observed it in the 1980s to the 1990s, general indications of hikikomori are lethargy, self-imprisonment, and avoidance of the outside world. They limit contact with society through virtual settings (e.g., the use of the internet).
  • It is considered an ailment mainly affecting Japan’s middle-class families because only hikikomori belonging to this background can depend on their closest relations (parents) for support.
  • The condition is more prevalent among Japanese men than in women. They’re also the ones who tend to exhibit extreme societal withdrawal symptoms.


Rising Problems

Japanese government stats revealed that there was about 540,000 hikikomori with ages ranging from 15 to 39 in the country in 2015. And since the primary caregivers of Japan’s social recluses are their parents, authorities are increasingly concerned about the former’s welfare when the latter get old and couldn’t take care of them anymore.

Moreover, Japan’s workforce and economy are much affected by the hikikomori as they refuse to take part in the society.

“They cause two main problems in the country. Firstly, they limit Japan’s already aging workforce. It’s an added problem to a country that’s suffering from labor shortages. Secondly, when the hikikomori family’s assistance ends because of death or financial difficulties, the former has to rely on the state for support,” Kingston stated.



The country’s state and private sectors have joined hands to destigmatize and ultimately find concrete answers to hikikomori. The government offers therapies, has set up counseling centers and lets support staff visit the recluses in their houses in a bid to encourage them to join the society.

“Your environment, both your social and natural surroundings, can greatly impact how you feel.” –Marjie L. Roddick, MA, NCC, LMHC

Private institutions and groups, on their end, have set up programs like Rental Sister to coax hikikomori out of their rooms and into the world. Some recovering recluses even went on to establish a newspaper that caters to those who have a condition called Hikikomori Shimbun (Hikikomori Newspaper).

For her part, recovering recluse Kyoko has set up her support group in her area in Yokohama.

Kingston and Kyoko are just two of the thousands who hope that through these steps, there will be more public awareness about the condition and those who have it will eventually find help and manage their fears enough to join the society and go on to lead productive lives.