October 20, 2002
A very Japanese problem

Even I did not spend all day tinkering with my computer, as I managed to hop over to the couch and watch some TV. On BBC 2 tonight's edition of Correspondent focused in on a very Japanese problem: hikokimori, or the wave of teenage hermits that are popping up in Japan. What happens is that teenagers, usually male, close themselves into their rooms and stay there for years. Only in Japan could this happen.

It's a combination of parents putting extreme pressure on their children to succeed by forcing them to attend "cram schools," where kids go after school on weekdays and during weekends. The program showed some footage of a 3-day cram camp, where 13-year olds were kept up in class till 10 PM, after which they had to do an exam. Those who failed, had to do it over. And over. And over. Until they passed (or passed out?). The last kid went to sleep well after midnight. It's a system that is designed to bestow status by passing exams; actual practical merit, achievement or learning is irrelevant. Taking exams is not a test of knowledge learnt; it's just a test of how well you can pass certain kinds of exams.

So that's one part of it. The other part is the parents' reaction when their son decides to lock himself up. They showed footage of several households with a reclusive child. In one, a kid had locked himself up in the kitchen for three years. What was the parents' reaction? They started off by ordering food, and then broke down and built a new kitchen! How fucking insane is that? You could even hear the kid (now 17) playing video games in the old kitchen. Another instance was shown where they ominously declared that no-one knows how he eats or drinks. Then later, the mother was speaking and said she had a job during the day... well, guess what? The house is empty during the day. Perhaps he sneaks into the kitchen while there's no-one about? And finally, they managed to interview a less reclusive recluse, who had not left his room for a few years. His mother keeps putting trays of food at his door, and he was filmed eating dinner in his room. It was very neat and tidy. When asked what he does all day, he said he listens to CD's (he had a big stack), and playing games on his Playstation 2. And he orders stuff from the Internet. His parents are very conscientious in making sure he has everything he needs, yet he won't so much as talk to them. He says communicating is really hard.

Is it just me, or is the solution blazingly obvious? Cut off his food, drink, money and electricity. Throw the circuit breaker. He'll come out when he's hungry and thirsty, and then you can have a good talk to him. I mean, jeeez folks... this really isn't rocket science, is it? The truly amazing thing is that so many Japanese parents refuse to parent. The conflict-aversion in Japanese society is apparently so deeply rooted that even in such cases, where the solution is ridiculously clear, they still won't take the required action. Cue for parallels with Japanese economic malaise. It's also interesting to see that this parenting failure is cast as a psychological problem of the teenage hermits. Hikokimori is a disease, they say. I think it is, but it's a societal disease rather than an individual one.

One point the program missed completely is the actual numbers involved, or rather the implications of the numbers. In a population of around 130 million, they claimed that there are now more than a million teenage hermits. The Japanese population pyramid is already dangerously imbalanced, and losing a large part of the working-age population is going make the woes of the Japanese economy even worse. The dependency ratio (those retired relative to working age) is already one of the highest in the industrialized world, and the projections show it getting much worse in the next 50 years. Unfortunately, the site linked to above does not show the actual numbers per age band in a table, just the graph. So it's a bit imprecise, but assuming there are about 800,000 per sex in each one-year band in the 2000 numbers for ages 10-20, we end up with a total population aged 10-20 of around 16 million. If indeed one million kids are now living as domestic, well-fed, Playstationed hermits, that works out at 6.25% of the total, or more worryingly, 12.5% of the male population. That's pretty scary. There are of course waster kids in the West too, but having one sixteenth of your youth locked in voluntary confinement is a sign of a deeply dysfunctional society. And as I said before, the economic consequences will be dire; they're going to be uneducated, unmotivated and thinking they can get away with outrageous behavior. The loss of such a large percentage of the future working population would be an economic cataclysm in itself, but coming on top of the malaise of the Japanese economy, words begin to fail. Perhaps it's indeed easier to do what the Japanese do when faced with the economic and demographic abyss of their future: pretend it's not there. Ignore it. Hope it'll go away. Stay quiet. Don't rock the boat. All will be well. Consensus above all. No conflict please, we're Japanese.

UPDATE: I should have added this sooner, but Ron Campbell has more background on Japanese culture.

Posted by qsi at October 20, 2002 10:49 PM | TrackBack (1)
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You wisely observed:
>If indeed one million kids are now living as
>domestic, well-fed, Playstationed hermits, that
>works out at 6.25% of the total, or more worryingly,
>12.5% of the male population.

In one word, "YEP."

Some (or most) of male population are demented weasels.

Here in Yokohama, I can go in my or any concrete apartment block at 3:10pm on a weekday and HEAR that many of the rabbit hutches are empty EXCEPT for one small room in the back that is going, "peeee, peeee, beep, beep, booo."

That's just the way it is, and why Japan is slowly fading away after 13 years straight of recession.

Yours for a globally warmer world,

--Taro, deep in the fetid bowels of JapanInc

Posted by: Taro HITACHI on October 22, 2002 02:31 AM

hier meer info over die japanse weirdo's...

ik dacht dat je het wel interessant zou vinden,
het fenomeen heet "hikokimori", en ik heb maar link met die naam op het gans het internet gevonden, waw...!!

Posted by: benoit on July 15, 2003 08:52 PM

those who see "ridicously clear" solutions are ridiculy simple mind"
You see the hikokimori syndrome like a stupid conflict between parents and their sons, but it's a little bit more complex, kid. Think of that a little bit.

Posted by: JotaEme on August 12, 2003 11:23 PM

I love an attitude of "this could never happen to me" ... don't base your world view on headlines hon.

Posted by: sylvia on August 12, 2003 11:50 PM

Ive been to Japan and I have many japanese friends that constantyly study and are stressed out due to the forcefullness of the japanese learning system.

Posted by: belinda on October 24, 2003 04:29 AM
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