Fujisato is a small town (population 3,214) in Akita Prefecture. Mountains enclose it. In winter, snow fairly buries it. Nearly half its population (47 percent) is elderly. In 2006 two elementary school children were murdered there.
Generally speaking, when you’ve said that about a place in the remote hinterland, you’ve pretty much covered the subject. What else can there be to say about it? In Fujisato’s case, a great deal, says Weekly Playboy (Sept 2). It is one of very few municipalities in Japan that have made inroads against the seemingly intractable social problem of withdrawal from society – better known, even in English, as hikikomori.
The issue first came to public attention in the early 1990s, when the economic bubble burst and economic opportunities shrank. Companies stopped hiring. Young people forced to settle for part-time work leading nowhere experienced frustrations quite new to postwar Japan. There’s more to it than that, but that at least gives a general idea.
The Health, Labor and Welfare ministry counts about 1.15 million hikikomori sufferers – 613,000 of them over 40. The ministry defines hikikomori as inactive isolation from society – often in one’s childhood bedroom in the parental home – for more than six months. But the oldest sufferers have been in this state for 25 years. For many, there’s no end in sight.
For some, there may be. Fujisato is one municipal government – not the only one, but their numbers are few – that has had some success in integrating hikikomori people into society. A Weekly Playboy journalist pays the town a visit to find out more. There he meets Mayumi Ikegami of the Fujisato Social Welfare Council.
It’s one of some 75 “consultation centers” established nationwide in response to 2015 legislation mandating assistance to individuals incapable of caring for themselves.
“Frankly, it’s not much use,” Playboy hears from a disgruntled staffer at a center in another prefecture. “Almost nobody comes. It’s hardly surprising. These are, after all, people who haven’t stepped out of their houses in years.”
Elsewhere again, the mother of an adult son living in his bedroom for 10 years tells of visiting a center and being referred to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist told her, “I can’t do anything unless you bring your son to me.” To which the mother retorted: “If I could have done that, would I have come alone?”
Ikegami, 63, is a care manager by profession. She became aware of Fujisato’s hikikomori problem while visiting elderly people needing assistance. Some of them spoke, with varying degrees of despair, of grown children hidden in the bedroom. Was there anything she could do for them? she wondered.
The first step was to quantify the problem. How many were there? She thought 10, 20. Conducting a survey in conjunction with other local organizations, she counted 113. She was astonished.
She decided to introduce herself to the families in question. Not all were glad to see her. Some turned her away: “We don’t need help!” If the parents’ defensive barrier was breached, there remained that of the sufferer him- or herself. Many resented – or feared – the intrusion. To those who didn’t, she proposed volunteer activities. Some accepted eagerly – only to fail to show at the appointed time.
The key insight, she explains, was that what these people wanted was not recreation or social openings but work. They wanted it but also feared it. Most had been wounded by early work experiences. Unable to find regular work in the post-bubble hiring freeze, they were vulnerable as part-time workers to exploitative “black companies.” Their escape from them led them back to their bedrooms.
Ikegami drew them out slowly. For some she found work at the Council – receiving visitors, serving at the coffee shop and so on. She saw that as a sort of halfway house between isolation and full employment. She encouraged them to qualify as caregivers.
Evidently she struck a chord. Of Fujisato’s 113 hikikomori people in 2010, Weekly Playboy says, fewer than 10 remain.© Japan Today