A Man Who Can Live By Himself: Hikikomori in the US
Japan has long struggled with a problem: hikikomori. Young Japanese citizens who’ve stopped going to school, work, or even leaving home. And the Japanese government has stepped in to help. But as Sachi McClendon finds, Hikikomori are also in the US, but don’t have the same support system.
HOST INTRO (McClendon): Japan has long struggled with a problem: hikikomori [he-key-koh-more-ee]. It’s the term for people suffering from social isolation. They stop going to work, to school or even leaving home. The problem has become so widespread that the Japanese government has stepped in to help.
HOST INTRO (Horton): Hikikomori [he-key-koh-more-ee] are also in the US, but Sachi, you found they don’t have the same support here as they do in Japan. [00:20]
MCCLENDON 1: A decade ago, Daniel Griffies cut himself off from the world. He was 40 years old working in IT and completely burnt out. Since then, he says he has barely left his apartment in Houston. [00:18]
Was it Plato or Socrates who said a man who can live by himself is either an animal or a god? You know, I don’t know which one I am. [00:09]
MCCLENDON 2: If you’re wondering why he sounds jolly, it’s because he says he’s come to terms with isolation. And while Griffies isn’t sure whether he’s an animal or a god, he does know he’s hikikomori. That’s the name of a group of modern day hermits who cut almost all social ties and rarely leave their homes. The condition is most well known in Japan, but it’s spreading to many western countries to people like Griffies who have no Japanese roots. We spoke via skype. [00:32]
My mother will occasionally bring me food, so I can literally stay in my dwelling and because of the internet and so forth–I really don’t have to interact with the world at all. [00:14]
MCCLENDON 3: But hikikomori struggle with the condition and on the other side of the door are concerned family and friends. Like Vali Harrison in Kentucky. Her son Zack is 30. [00:13]
I will have to tell you, I haven’t seen my son for a year. He lives in my house. I take him food in the evening. I put it on a little cart so he hears me rolling it and I knock on the door and say here’s your food sweetie. [00:22]
MCCLENDON 4: Harrison says her son has been shut in his bedroom for over five years. She says she’s tried everything and feels like she has nowhere to turn.
But if Harrison were in Japan she’d have a number of options for help. Dr. Xander Krieg is a psychologist in the Japanese city of Kobe. He says Japan’s government funds clinics to help hikikomori. [00:32]
You know places where people can just kind of go and there’s normally some sort of therapist or school counselor or sometimes a clinical psychologist or a volunteer that’ll be there to kinda monitor people. But it’s giving people without a place to go a place to go. [00:17]
MCCLENDON 5: There are also job programs and a magazinerun by former and current hikikomori to spread awareness. There’s even a new “rent-a-sister” program that tries to rehabilitate them back into society. And for more severe cases, schools will send counselors to speak to hikikomori through their doors.
In Japan, it’s estimated 300,000 are struggling with hikikomori. But in America? We don’t know. [00:40]
In medicine we haven’t felt like social isolation is a health issue. [00:04]
MCCLENDON 6: That’s Dr. Alan Teo. He’s a psychiatrist in Oregon. He’s one of the few researchers looking into American hikikomori.
He’s been pushing for the condition to be taken more seriously in the states. He wrote a paper proposing the American Psychiatric Association formally recognize hikikomori as a mental disorder. Official Recognition often helps to improve diagnosis and research. But he hasn’t had any success there.
Dr. Teo says the reality is that hikikomori is complicated. [00:35]
In one way hikikomori is similar to all types of medical conditions in that there are biological factors, there are psychological factors, and then there are also cultural and social factors. [00:10]
MCCLENDON 7: In Japan, popular research links hikikomori to the country’s culture. Japan is known for its strict adherence to social norms–like not leaving work until your boss leaves first. Dr. Teo says another key problem is amea, an overly doting mother-child relationship. All of these are things hikikomori can find overwhelming.
But America has a completely distinct culture, so why is the condition showing up here? Dr. Teo has a hypothesis. It’s something found in many modern cultures: loneliness.
But none of this helps Vali Harrison, the American mom. She doesn’t know where to go next with her son. Her last ditch effort has been to reach out to online hikikomori message boards. [00:45]
I keep asking these people what can I do, what can I do? They just say keep telling him you’re there, telling him you love, and maybe someday he’ll decide to come out. [00:17]
MCCLENDON 8: So for now, Harrison waits.
Sachi McClendon, Columbia Radio News. [00:08]