The sunglasses and mask are a clue to her condition – she prefers to be invisible. And yet she wants to talk. She hasn’t talked to anyone in years, other than her husband and son, who know nothing of her state of mind.
Journalist Masaki Ikegami, writing in Shukan Asahi (Jan 30), encountered her in his research on “hikikomori,” chronic withdrawal from society. It’s a vast problem, encompassing between 700,000 and 2.5 million individuals, depending on how you define it and where you set the boundaries, but even the latter figure may be an understatement. Hikikomori conventionally summons up images of people living alone in their rooms. But “Mrs A” is a “hikikomori housewife,” which seems oxymoronic but is not, Ikegami argues. The dysfunction is real. But it shows less, and so the statisticians are apt to miss it.
Mrs A is 51 and lives in a Tokyo-area “bedtown.” As Ikegami describes her, she almost never leaves the house. She chats online and shops online. Otherwise, her human contacts are limited to her husband, a company employee, and her son, a high school student. (Would she have been able to face an interviewer without mask and sunglasses?) She gets dinner ready on time and does a minimum of housecleaning. The veneer of normality intact, the family apparently has no suspicion of the crippling dread the outside world inspires in her. Either she’s a very good actress or her husband and son are too busy with their own lives to have much attention to spare for her – because this has been going on for 15 years now.
Fifteen years ago she was working. We’re not told what her job was but it seems to have been a responsible one. Among female hikikomori sufferers, Ikegami explains, many are victims of sexual and power harassment, and so it was with Mrs A. Her boss was a tyrant. She prided herself on being “the only one who could stand up to him,” but her resistance weakened and finally cracked. The world was just too “unreasonable” to cope with. She withdrew from it, and has never rejoined it.
How many are in her shoes? Ikegami says there’s no hard data, the issue being still beneath the research radar, but scanning the Net leads him to numerous others – to “Mrs B,” for instance, 34 and living in the Kinki region. Unlike Mrs A, Mrs B had problems connecting early on. In high school all her friends seemed to be breezing through – only she had to really study, and even at that she barely scraped by. She made it into a small local college but dropped out. A succession of part-time jobs led nowhere and she figured she’d better get married. She did, to someone she met at work, but without much enthusiasm. A move to a strange city when her husband was transferred put the seal on her isolation. She rarely leaves the house, does nothing all day, and suffers from chronic exhaustion. Her husband offers to help with the housework but in fact does little. “He’s a nice enough guy,” she says, “but he’s not the type to take a woman seriously.”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” the American Henry Thoreau wrote 150-odd years ago. He wasn’t thinking of women, or of Japan, or of the 21st century – but he may as well have been.© Japan Today