American sociologist Robert K. Merton’s strain theory of social deviance argues that deviance occurs as a function, or rather, dysfunction resulting from the conflicts between society and the self. In the case of Japan, renowned for a culture that asserts that the “nail that sticks out gets hammered in,” such conflicts are not only inevitable, but are a catalyst for a widespread cultural malaise.
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In 2001, Montreal-based youth counterculture publication Vice Magazine published a piece called “Made in Japan: From Video to Genocide”. Although the magazine maintains a consistently ironic pose and sardonic attitude towards youth culture in general, the piece strays from the editorial norm. In it Kakiuchi writes of the now widely-discussed Japanese youth malaise known as “hikikomori.” Hikikomori is regarded as a uniquely Japanese dilemma, where reclusive individuals choose to abstain from “normal” living by seeking extreme isolation from social interactions and adult responsibilities by shutting out the world altogether. The term is derived from a portmanteau of Japanese words that essentially transliterate to “to hide in one’s shell.” This is a figurative expression for “acute social withdrawal,” and it stands for both the phenomenon and the individual. (Jodice & Karman, 2004; Jones, 2006)
Kakiuchi (2001) frames the concept of hikikomori as the “frighteningly logical extension of ‘otaku’”, the latter being the expression for the obsessively fanatical pop culture driven teenagers of Japan at the twilight of the 20th century. She portrays the phenomenon as a direct result of work-based repression and academic pressure experienced by Japan’s youth. The result is not only a declining contribution to society from the youth but sudden bursts of extreme behavior. The most sensationalist accounts she mentions involve sons beating their mothers, brutal re-enactments of torture pornography, and the mass mugging of senior citizens. The Vice Magazine piece was published at a time when the phenomenon was not extensively documented by the Anglophonic media, let alone well-studied and narrowly emphasizes the aspect of youth violence.Phil Rees, a BBC Correspondent in Japan contends that the defining aspect of the hikikomori phenomenon is not transgressions of extreme violence, but the frustration and self-loathing that manifests itself in self-imposed isolation. It is in this light that cases of violence are merely expressions of a “desire to live a normal life but the inability to do so.” (Rees, 2002a)
Dr. Henry Grubb, a Maryland-based psychologist interviewed by Rees (2002b), notes that agoraphobic tendencies are not exclusive to Japan, but the hikikomori condition is a highly specific version of those tendencies. What exacerbates the problem, Rees argues, is that it is viewed largely as a family issue rather than a psychological illness which requires intervention from welfare agencies, schools or other government entities.
Dr. Tamaki Saito is psychiatrist who also happens to be a self-proclaimed hikikomori expert. Saito previously courted controversy for exaggerating the number of hikikomori, an act he defends as an attempt to draw attention to the problem rather than an attempt at sensationalism. In any case, Saito makes the interesting observation that Japanese sons and mothers often have a co-dependent relationship; the latter is often willing to care and provide for the former up until he is in his 30s or 40s. (Rees, 2002b) As one hikikomori expert notes, “Japanese parents tell their children to fly while holding firmly to their ankles." (Jones, 2006)
Hikikomori is more than an isolated product of the present state of Japanese society. Novelist Ryu Murakami (2002) argues that it is also a product of history, a “consequence of the phenomenal growth of the Japanese economy during the latter half of the 20th century.” Although the economy has stagnated significantly since then, Murakami observes that the phenomenon would not be possible without parents affluent enough to support them and provide them with the financial means to afford ‘basic’ luxuries such as Internet access and consumer electronics. Those luxuries are crucial to the hikikomori condition, as Murakami also notes that it gives people the ability to be fixated on their individual space, expressing a concern that American pundits would have a decade later regarding the potentially isolation-inducing effects of iPods and PSPs.
Some would argue that only the Japanese would develop such a peculiar relationship with technology, but Murakami disputes this by declaring that it is not a Japanese “uniqueness” that makes hikikomori, but a unique state of national affairs. He argues that post-War Japan’s goal was to restore itself as a technologically and economically developed nation. Succeeding that goal by the 70s led to a diminished unity and momentum. “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,” he declares. (Murakami, 2002)
Despite the pronouncement of hikikomori as a condition of abnormal youth, TIME Asia’s Tokyo Bureau Chief, Tim Larimer (2002) notes that many hikikomori are actually intelligent, popular kids who just suddenly cease to participate in normal life as a result of their frustration with their inability to cope with the high pressures of a modern and affluent world. One source of such frustration, Larimer writes, is the sense of loss that comes with an inability to conform. Conformity is crucial to the Japanese identity, self-imposed isolation is therefore an act of self-preservation. Like Murakami, Larimer asserts that modern conveniences play a role in the hikikomori. Without widespread supermarket home delivery and refrigerated take outs that were nonexistent before the war, it would be difficult for a would-be hikikomori to avoid interacting with their domestic cohabitants.
Ron Adams (n.d.) has also written about hikikomori, and his views on the matter are largely complementary to those of Larimer’s. Because of the emphasis given to rote learning by the Japanese educational system, Adams argues that it overlooks several other dimensions of personal development such as individual achievement and critical thinking. Adams reasons that the otaku is a ‘mutation’ of the culture of memorization and conformity, whose social connections are maintained exclusively over the esoteric of pop culture like video games and anime. Relationships are superficial and devoid of intimacy.
What Adams ultimately suggests is that the hikikomori phenomenon is a passive rebellion born out of an inability to ‘standardize’ oneself into a society that ‘creates robots’. Hikikomori are therefore “children do not want to be part of a society that has no individual thought” but by withdrawing from school, they “loose [sic] sight of education and complete social maturation”. As such, their withdrawal translates to a “fall in between the social requirements needed to live in Japan” and the lack of individuality necessary “to become an autonomous person.” (Adams, n.d.)
Expectedly enough, Psychology Today saw fit to discuss hikikimori in a capsule article by Tiffany Kary which summarizes the findings of psychological research on the phenomenon. Kary notes that Western psychologists fail to properly and consistently categorize the disorder, primarily because disorders are usually linked to violence rather than withdrawal. Instead, hikikomori may actually be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, despite a lack of sexually or physically abused patient histories. (Kary, 2003)
Japan Society media fellow and New York Times contributor Maggie Jones (2006) wrote an extensive piece on hikikomori in early 2006. Drawing from the collective observations of Japanese psychologists, Jones interprets the hikikomori phenomenon as a family-rooted disease, caused not only by the increasing pressure placed upon eldest sons to excel in the face of declining birth rates. With fewer children to put their hopes on, parents become more demanding. Hands-off parenting also plays a role, argues Jones who notes that in the culture of conformity that is Japan, parents expect their children to resolve their own interpersonal problems rather than teach them the skills required to manage their peer relationships.
Additionally, the declining stability of the “salaryman future” means that the work system the educational system has been training the youth for has become increasingly obsolete in the face of a global economy that values independent thought, interdisciplinary skills and entrepreneurial creativity. (Jones, 2006) Many commentators on the matter have pointed out that hikikomori are actually bright individuals who recognize this disconnect, and merely lack the esteem and buoyancy of personality to translate their individuality into autonomy.
Jones (2006) also notes that the above mentioned hikikomori violence is actually an anomaly, as many are too crippled by their psychological condition to initiate violent behavior. One could hypothesize that the disgruntled youth of Japan have gone unaddressed for so long simply because they are so ‘safe’: Japan’s crime rate remains low in spite of them. When we think of social problems, we think of something that manifests visibly: like the homeless man on the street corner or drug addicts sleeping on the train, but hikikomori lock themselves indoors with their self-loathing. Additionally, parents are hesitant to seek outside assistance in a culture that views psychological consultation as an abnegation of personal responsibility for one’s problems.
Not all is lost, though. Jones (2006) notes that in addition to psychiatric counseling, support programs have begun to emerge to address hikikomori, particularly the ‘halfway’ program known as New Start, which offers job training, social outreach and housing. The most crucial part of such a support program is an outreach counselor (also known as a “rental sister” or “rental brother”) who acts as negotiator between the hikikomori and the outside world. It is hardly a uniform twelve-step course that occurs between them but a program of gradual acclimatization to social contact.
Months can pass between the first words exchanged between a closed door and the first trip to a park or the movies, the objective being that the hikikomori in question will move into dorms and participate in small forms of meaningful and productive living, and perhaps the translation into a full and healthy adult psyche. (Jones, 2006)
This is not to pass judgment on the cultures of East Asia, for Western society has its own problems. Merton would observe that the suburban mother who sells drugs to support her family uses institutionally disapproved means to support her goals as a provider in “innovative” ways, while a discontent office work who continues to punch the clock is engaged in “ritualistic” behavior. More radical individuals seek “rebellion” against the hegemonic ideals and ways of living. But in the case of hikikimori, it is a most distressing manifestation of non-conformity, where a “retreatist” individual rejects conventional social goals and personal development, one that is difficult to rehabilitate.
Kakiuchi, M. (2001) Made in Japan: From Video to Genocide. Vice Magazine [Internet],
Jodice, F. & Karman, K. (2004) Hikikomori. [video: Quicktime]
Jones, M. (2006) For some in Japan, a room is their world. The International Herald Tribune [Internet]
Rees, P. (2002) Hikikomori Violence. BBC World News [Internet],
Rees, P. (2002) Japan: The Missing Million. BBC World News [Internet].
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