‘hikikomori’: meanings and origin



The noun hikikomori denotes, in Japan:
– the extreme avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males;
– a person, typically an adolescent male, who avoids social contact.

This noun was popularised by the Japanese psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō (born 1961), who published Shakaiteki Hikikomori: Owaranai Shishunki [= Social Withdrawal: A Never-ending Adolescence] (Tokyo: PHP Shinsho, 1998).




Japanese hikikomori is the nominalised stem of the verb hikikomoru, meaning to withdraw into seclusion, which, in turn, is from:
hiki-, combining stem of hiku, to withdraw oneself;
komoru, to seclude oneself.

The form fiqicomori occurred in Nippo Jisho. Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam, a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary compiled by Jesuit missionaries and published in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1603:
—as reprinted by Iwanami Shoten in Tokyo, Japan, in 1960:

Fiqicomori, ru, otta. Recolherse, ou estar encerrado.

Portuguese recolherse translates as to withdraw oneself, and estar encerrado translates as to be shut in.




The earliest occurrences of hikikomori that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Christian Periodical Literature in Japan – 1997, by Kayano Mizuno, published in The Japan Christian Review (Tokyo: Christian Literature Society of Japan – Vol. 64, 1998):

The June issue of Katei no tomo features “Young People Who Got Left Behind.” Fujiya Tomita, Associate Director of the Tokyo Mental Health Academy, discusses hikikomori (“seclusion”). Hikikomori is not just a problem of a child who refuses to go to school but also a problem for young adults who refuse to join society. One example is that of a 22-year old youth who could not bring himself to go to work, saying he had pretended all his life to be a good boy as his mother expected and could no longer conform. Like this young man, hikikomori children often come from families who never experienced conflict followed by reconciliation, Tomita says. These children thus did not learn how to communicate openly with others and became hikikomori. They are so vulnerable and sensitive that they only think of protecting themselves and never learn to trust others. Tomita is an advisor at Friend Space, a private support group which provides counseling to such young people. Friend Space is a forum for hikikomori to meet each other and increase their confidence and maturity so they can stand on their own feet. Gradually the youth become able to work for a few hours, often stopping by Friend Space afterwards to grumble about what happened on the job site. Through this process, they are strengthened. Tomita concludes that his goal for these young people is not simply social independence, but the psychological liberty to trust people and not give up on communicating. It may take a while for them to find their true potential which has gone neglected, but eventually they will gain confidence in themselves and reintegrate as capable young adults into society.

2-: From Japan’s Lost Generation: In a world filled with virtual reality, the country’s youth can’t deal with the real thing, by the Japanese novelist and film director Ryu Murakami (born 1952), published in TIME Asia of Monday 1st May 2000:

Hikikomori has become a major issue in Japan. Loosely translated as “social withdrawal,” hikikomori refers to the state of anomie into which an increasing number of young Japanese seem to fall these days. Socially withdrawn kids typically lock themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to have any contact with the outside world. They live in reverse: they sleep all day, wake up in the evening and stay up all night watching television or playing video games. Some own computers or mobile phones, but most have few or no friends. Their funk can last for months, even years in extreme cases. No official statistics are available, but it is estimated that more than 1 million young Japanese suffer from the affliction. One such young man was the protagonist of my latest novel, Symbiosis Worm.
Hikikomori is a consequence of the phenomenal growth of the Japanese economy during the latter half of the 20th century and the tremendous technological progress the country made during that time. Japanese youth could not afford to be socially withdrawn if their parents were not affluent enough to provide them a home, meals and extras that have come to be thought of as basics—audio and video equipment, software, mobile phones, computers. And there are plenty of newer technological devices for these youths to pursue.
[…] Japanese society is caught in a paradox: it is concerned with the increase of socially withdrawn kids, while at the same time it applauds gizmos like the new Sony PlayStation, which comes equipped with an Internet terminal and a DVD player. Technology like that has made it possible to produce animated movies and graphics, as well as conduct commercial transactions, without ever stepping out of the house. It inevitably fixes people in their individual space. In this information society, none of us can be free from being somewhat socially withdrawn.
The cause of the malfunctioning is […] the fact that, by the 1970s, we had already achieved the national goal. We had worked hard to restore the country from the ruins of World War II, develop the economy and build a modern technological state. When that great goal was attained, we lost much of the motivating force that had knit the nation so tightly together. Affluent Japanese do not know what kind of lifestyle to take up now. That uncertainty has pulled people further apart and caused a whole raft of social problems. Hikikomori is naturally one of them.
“Socially withdrawn” people find it extremely painful to communicate with the outside world, and thus they turn to the tools that bring virtual reality into their closed rooms.

3-: From Wave of violence by teenagers leads to Japan hand-wringing, a correspondence from Tokyo by Sharon Moshavi, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Sunday 21st May 2000:

Japan is racked by a growing wave of teen violence, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing, as Japan wonders what is going wrong with its youth.
Japan’s violent crime rate is the highest it has been in 23 years, but the fastest-growing category is crimes committed by those under 18 years old. Specialists cite a combination of factors to explain why so many of this generation are lashing out: economic hard times, smaller families, an increased sense of isolation due to technology, and school pressures.
Most Japanese youth, of course, aren’t killing anybody, and the crime rate remains much lower than in the United States, but specialists said the assailants are merely extreme examples of a surging number of dysfunctional Japanese youth known as “hikikomori,” or socially withdrawn.
The average hikikomori might refuse to go to school, hole up in a bedroom, sleep during the day, stay up at night, and act violently toward family members.
They are also characterized by a lack of self-esteem, and according to adolescent psychiatrist Hidehiko Kuramoto, “an inability to separate the real world from the world of their imagination.” That’s one reason why a hikikomori teenager can become violent, he says.
The phenomenon of social withdrawal is not exclusive to Japan, but experts say one of the reasons it may be especially prevalent is that Japan is a reserved society. It is the kind of behavior a child can sink into and no one might notice at first.
“It’s peculiarly Japanese. These kids are being too passive. It’s a kind of passive aggression,” said Hidehiko Sekizawa, executive director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, which monitors Japanese lifestyles.

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