The word hikikomori is now almost as readily understood worldwide as in Japan. It refers to a wounded withdrawal from society, often to the cozy but cramped confines of one’s childhood bedroom. Some people get over it and resume active life in the outside world. Others don’t. It can drag on for years, for decades, for life.
The problem is easing and the number of sufferers decreasing, says the government. Not so, counters Shukan Toyo Keizai (Nov 3).
Hikikomori people are aging. Their surging numbers first made them noticeable in the 1990s. The economic bubble had burst, firms were retrenching and not hiring, and an entire young generation entered the adult world to a harsh and hostile welcome. The strongest thrived, the less strong settled for trudging through a succession of part-time jobs that paid poorly and led nowhere, and the weak fell off the rails altogether.
As time passes, hikikomori becomes less a youth problem and more one besetting the aging. A recurring media term is “the 8050 problem.” It refers to “children” in their 50s whose only means of support are parents in their 80s. A government Cabinet Office survey counted roughly 540,000 hikikomori people in 2015, down from 700,000 in 2010. Thus its optimistic assessment that the situation is easing. Toyo Keizai’s objection is that that survey covers only a restricted age group: 15-39. Of hikikomori people in their 40s and 50s the survey says nothing. But they of course are the core of the 8050 problem which the natural aging process is feeding.
At its worst, it’s macabre: corpses thrust into closets, as when a parent dies and the “child,” helpless outside the house and not knowing what to do about funeral arrangements, simply does nothing. Abandoning a corpse is a criminal offense, and Toyo Keizai says arrests have been made – in Nagasaki and in Fukutsu. In Sapporo, a daughter in her 50s, having lost her mother, seems to have simply wasted away. The two bodies were found together. In the house was some 90,000 yen in cash. Whatever the immediate cause may have been, it was not, apparently, poverty.
A national law that went into effect in 2015 provides for supplementary welfare payments to families in extreme distress – but, says Toyo Keizai, the application process can be so intimidating that eligible people brusquely turned away by unsympathetic officials meekly accept their dismissal and don’t press their claim. At the local level, some prefectures and municipalities do better than others, the magazine finds, but even programs with the best intentions can misfire. One such focuses on finding work for hikikomori people. That’s seen as an ideal solution, and can be – but all too often the job turns out to involve part-time work at low pay under harsh, cost-cutting conditions, subjecting highly vulnerable individuals to power harassment, sexual harassment and other forms of bullying, which can drive victims even deeper and more hopelessly into withdrawal.
Inevitably, the passage of time will turn the 8050 problem into the 9060 problem – and beyond that, what? Government optimism notwithstanding, Toyo Keizai seems more credible in its conclusion, which is that things are bound to get worse before they get better.© Japan Today