The reaction was unpleasant but inevitable. What else can one say, after all, about a man who indiscriminately stabs children and adults at a school bus stop – killing two, wounding 16 – before taking his own life? “Die alone!” cried the horrified public – online, on air, and in private. Social workers and other experts who deal with the intense form of social isolation known as hikikomori warned against such outbursts. They deepen prejudice against people who have enough to cope with as it is, and may also, the experts warn, encourage suicide and murder.
The warning had its effect. Outrage grew guarded. But Friday (June 21) asks a disturbing question that cannot be suppressed: Is this the beginning of the lost generation’s “revenge against society?”
“Lost generation” is the label the media stuck on the generation coming of age in the 1990s and 2000s. Recession-mired corporations were not hiring. Young people coming into the job market during those 20 years and more were out of luck en masse. The result we live with today is a very large number of people who should be in their working prime either stuck in low-pay, dead-end part-time jobs, or, having given up on that, living as hikikomori recluses, at worst scarcely ever emerging from their bedrooms in their parents’ house.
Precisely what drove Ryuichi Iwasaki, 51, to his murderous pre-suicide assault at the school bus stop in Kawasaki in late May is not known, but the intolerable and unnatural stress of hikikomori life evidently underlies it. One indirect repercussion of his outburst, probably inconceivable to him, manifested itself days later. A father allegedly killed his 44-year-old hikikomori son – partly, apparently, in fear that his son would commit some similar assault on children.
Hideaki Kumazawa, 76, is a retired government bureaucrat. A Tokyo University law school graduate, he joined the agriculture, forestry and fisheries ministry immediately after graduation and rose very high in it. He is described as friendly but just a touch arrogant. “A Diet member would come to him with a question,” Friday quotes an acquaintance as observing, “and the expression on his face would seem to say, ‘You come to me to ask me this?’”
Such a man would naturally expect much of his son, but Eiichiro Kumazawa seems to have slipped through the cracks. As a computer gamer, however, he did distinguish himself, becoming notoriously expert, in his circle, as a player of Dragon Quest X. Gaming aside, he seems to have been mostly idle and solitary – living in his room in his parents’ house. His father, after his arrest, reportedly told police of violent behavior he feared would get worse.
There was another fear. Near the house was an elementary school. When the kids were noisy, Eiichiro would grow furious and utter threats. Would he end up emulating the Kawasaki attack? Desperate, the father reportedly felt he had to do something before it was too late.
Are these merely isolated incidents, or an early sign of worse to come? The hikikomori population aged 40-60 stands at roughly 610,000, Friday notes. Author Ryo Arakawa, who has researched and written about the issue, is dubious about labor ministry measures to move them into the workplace now that a labor shortage has opened up. The ministry underestimates, he says, the degree of support these people need after having been out of circulation for decades. There’s a lot more to it than simple job training.
Moreover, “it’s not just one problem called hikikomori,” psychiatrist Hideki Wada tells Friday. The term covers many personality types, wounded differently and responding differently. “Some,” says Wada, “failed to form social ties in school and have been hikikomori since then. Others were abruptly laid off at work, and never recovered from their distrust of other people.” There are many ways to go off the rails or fall through the cracks.
“Killing my son was the only thing I could do,” Hideaki Kumazawa reportedly said. It suggests the state a family can sink into without adequate social and expert support.© Japan Today