Written by Vosot Ikeida
On 5 May, WHO declared that COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency, and in Japan, the medical classification of COVID-19 under the Infectious Diseases Control Law was downgraded from Category 2 to Category 5 starting today, on 8 May 2023.
This means that COVID-19 will be treated from now on in a similar way to common influenza. Some say that this transition is too late compared to other OECD countries, but we can also see this fact as evidence of Japan's cautious approach towards COVID-19.
Most Japanese people are now removing their masks after wearing them for three years and returning to our "normal lifestyle" before the pandemic. While COVID-19 will not completely disappear as a disease, it is worth noting that it took three years for the Spanish Flu, which struck humanity about a century ago, to reach a certain level of resolution.
Many people, therefore, share the feeling that this marks the end of an era, so I might be allowed to call the past three years the "Corona Era."
The Era When 'Normies' Became Hikikomori
The Corona Era was also a time when “normal people” were forced to become hikikomori. "We never know what normal people are" is a truth that will be immediately said, but we can’t help bringing up the concept from our hikikomori's point of view.
This discussion has divided us, the hikikomori community as well. Some tojisha(*1) of the hikikomori claim that no matter how much the normal people have experienced a stay-at-home policy and the inconvenience of not going outside to crowded places, it cannot mean they understood the internal suffering of hikikomori.
*1. tojisha (当事者): Japanese term whose abstract meaning makes translation difficult and complex. Generally, it signifies a person who identifies oneself as belonging to a given group or condition, or simply, a person who has a certain character or attribute by oneself. Therefore, it almost always requires the presence of a complement of specification that determines the "category" of belonging (e.g, "tojisha of hikikomori"). Usually opposed to "the third party", "observer" etc.
I fully understand and agree with it as a hikikomori myself. However, we cannot ignore that even normal people who have lived without any connection to hikikomori have had to experience the inconvenience of being hikikomori, even if they could not feel any of our internal agonies.
I, therefore, suppose it is fair to say that 'in the Corona Era, even normal people became hikikomori too.'
So did the number of hikikomori increase during the Corona Era?
What The 2023 Hikikomori Survey in Japan Tells Us
Here is one survey result. In March of this year, the Japanese Cabinet Office published a paper which estimated the number of hikikomori aged 15 to 64 to be 1.46 million in total.
Five years ago, they also conducted the same research in 2018, when the outcome was 1.15 million.
They surveyed 30,000 people between the ages of 10 and 69 across Japan in November 2022. The poll found that over a fifth of respondents aged 15 to 39 had been socially isolated for six months to less than a year. More than 20% said they had experienced problems with interpersonal relationships, while just over 18% cited COVID-19. Among people in the 40-64 age range, 44.5% said their hikikomori had started with leaving their jobs, followed by 20.6% who cited the pandemic.
Reading these figures, you might think: “That's terrible. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of hikikomori so much. The life in Japan has become that much harder after the corona".
Now, I would like to consider this calmly from the perspective of a hikikomori.
It is not surprising that the number of hikikomori has increased during the Corona Era because we were told that being a hikikomori would be a contribution to our society. People are kind - only sometimes - so they wanted to do something good for the society. That was why they became hikikomori, so we should not remark only their misery in their behaviour.
For about the first year after the Corona peril began, while normal people became hikikomori and stayed at home, social networking sites showed that some individual who are usually hikikomori - or even central active members in the KHJ; Japan's nationwide hikikomori organization still nowadays - proudly went out for drinking sessions and traveled across the country(*2).
*2.This reference is not a so-called criticism. They did it based on their belief that 'we hikikomori resist the comformity pushed by the Japanese society'. Therefore, I leave to write such a fact to record the truth about the hikikomori community in Japan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought us teleworking, remote learning, or home deliveries, which are very useful ways of life. Of course, we knew theoretically that such ways were available long before, and there were only a few who were practicing them. However, it was only when we were forced to adopt them by the arrival of the pandemic that we realised their usefulness and comfort.
Many of these lifestyles will remain in our lives even after COVID-19 has passed. When they do, the figures given by future statistics will possibly show that there are more hikikomori than before the pandemic. On this point, the "increase in hikikomori after COVID-19" is not something that needs to be worried or fussed about.
What is the True Number Like?
When the survey by the Japanese Cabinet Office estimated the number of hikikomori in Japan was 1.15 million in 2018, I imagined that the true number would be about three times higher, at around 3.5 million. The intuition did not have any objective evidence but was based on my experience running "tojisha activities"(*3) and observing that many hikikomori individuals do not admit to their condition due to shame.
*3. Tojisha Activity (当事者活動) : This is literally the activity of tojisha, by tojisha, for tojisha. The activity which is run as a self-help group
Dr. Tamaki SAITO, a top expert on hikikomori in Japan, also estimated at that time that there would be 3.0-3.5 million of hikikomori. We have different positions to stand on and different perspectives - I am involved in the middle of the tojisha activities and he researches for us from the sky - but we arrived at a similar figure at that time. It might be something.
This means that even the figure of 1.46 million given this year; 2023 has not yet reached the true number but it likely includes some who did not admit to being hikikomori in the previous survey and others who retreated from society newly due to COVID-19.
The Two Groups Pushing Up The Numbers
I suppose we must take into account the following two groups of people who have possibly increased since 2018.
The first group is those whom I mentioned just above. They have come to be convinced after 2018 that being a hikikomori is not shameful and feel more comfortable admitting to their condition of life honestly.
After the announcement in 2018, our tojisha activities appealed so much to society that hikikomori is not a shame. It was necessary for us to live with less stress to face on ourselves to seek for each exit.
It may sound forward to saying this from my standpoint, but I believe it has had no small effect. This first group was likely not to have been previously included in the number 1.15m in 2018 due to feelings of shame or stigma.
The second group is those who do not fit the official definition of hikikomori in essence but have come to realise that they can receive support and care from society once they claim themselves as hikikomori. A large part of these people too might not have been included in hikikomori yet in the 2018 survey.
We are aware that this type of thought process is often criticised as being consistent with gains from illness.
I think our tojisha activities are partly responsible for this phenomenon, but more than anyone else, responsible would be Masaki IKEGAMI, a Japanese journalist who is considered to be the top specialist on the subject who improperly expanded the category of hikikomori, I believe.
I can’t help but point out that he has created an unhealthy reality at present in which anyone can self-apply as a hikikomori if they manage to give a reason, such as "I'm hard to live with."
The Truth of “Women Who Become Hikikomori”
The cover of the Ikegami's book
The promotional strip says:
'Erased from statistics,
Can't become even a weak'.
In 2016, IKEGAMI published a book entitled "Hikikomoru Josei-tachi (Women Who Become Hikikomori)" and began insisting that many Japanese women are hikikomori nowadays, although there used to be an image that a hikikomori is always a man.
I think there was no problem up to this point. Around 2000, a certain image of hikikomori was formed, and it led people to believe that a hikikomori is a young, unmarried, dangerous, and potentially violent man who doesn't work, makes no money, and is entirely dependent economically on his parents to survive.
I was making objections against such a prototypical image too, because it was simply wrong and a source of various prejudices on hikikomori. Therefore, Ikegami pointing out the fact that there are also hikikomori women was agreeable and welcome.
However, the individuals whom Ikegami took as examples of "female hikikomori" in his book were not hikikomori mostly.
They were, for instance, a housewife who has never worked outside her home, which was quite a norm just a few decades ago in Japan, a wife who is frustrated with her daily life due to a lack of conversation with her husband, or a woman who has not fulfilled her professional dream that she had in her youth and is now only making easy money in a boring job.
I would not deny that those women may be having problems in life, expressing "I'm hard to live with", and deserve to be cared for somehow in each way, but it doesn't lead me to think their difficulty in life should be called ‘hikikomori.’
It is true, just as it is impossible to create a flat map of the world that accurately reproduces all elements of the earth's surface, it is impossible to establish an absolutely correct definition of the term 'hikikomori' that cannot be disputed by anyone. Nevertheless, it must still be said that the cases taken up by Ikegami are too far-reaching to be linked to 'hikikomori'. In short, 'hikikomori' is not such a thing.
Nowadays in Japan, a full-time housewife who has not experienced working outside her home is likely to be described by some feminists who promote women's advancement in society, "She has been enslaved by the male society, locked up in her house, and forced to be a hikikomori!"
However, I wonder if feminism was not a thought to respect the freedom and right of every woman. Every woman should be able to choose her own life as she wants, independently of the prevailing ideology of the times.
Likewise, if a woman is feeling isolated due to a lack of communication with her husband, it would be better for her to try and engage him in more conversations before labelling herself as a hikikomori. If he does not respond to her, then it is either a problem with him personally or with their relationship, not with the hikikomori.
And if she has not been able to achieve the dreams she once had, it may be unfortunate, but it's not uncommon for people in general. So many individuals in real society are living a daily life that one did not dream of. It is sad, but it does not happen specifically to women. Therefore, rather than adopting the term 'hikikomori', she should change her mind and life and strive to fulfill her aspirations and dreams from her youth. It is never too late to start working towards these goals.
After all, in my eyes, Ikegami looks to be eager to turn the women who are not hikikomori into the category of hikikomori. He is trying to use the concept "hikikomori" as an ambiguous and eerie-sounding term to fuel people's sense of crisis, promote his book, expand his own market as a specialist of hikikomori and increase his prominence in this field.
Ikegami is the director of public relations for KHJ, Japan's largest nationwide organisation on hikikomori, and his influence in the media world is outstanding.
NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, seems to be making programmes exactly as Ikegami says. One recent example of this is the program "Women's Hikikomori" broadcast on NHK General TV on 19 April 2023,
This programme seems to have been adapted directly from Ikegami's book 'Hikikomoru Josei-tachi’' (Women who become hikikomori), mentioned above.
The interviewees featured in the programme, whose faces were mostly blurred out, were women who, if you listened carefully to them, were not hikikomori, but the programme was made up on the basis that they were called 'female hikikomori'.
Flirtation with Feminism
In any era, those who earn their income by speaking out on social phenomena; so-called social writers, are attempting so much to be regarded as the ally by powerful trend. Nowadays, they are feminism, gender equality, the SDGs, and so on, for example.
I am not against those thoughts per se, but I have nothing but a dislike for underwater movements that bring up such concepts for the strategic purposes of social writers. It looks like they are just utilizing only the signs of those concepts, but they are not resonating with the contents.
On the other hand, Ikegami abuses the concept of 'hikikomori' too by those book and programme, but he does not expand or support the concept in the same way with regard to male hikikomori. I consider this to be a result of Ikegami's superficial attempt to bring feminist forces into his construction of argument. In other words, what he aims would be a strategic collusion between hikikomori and feminism.
As a hikikomori myself, I strongly object to this sort of trends. It makes people unaware of the real suffering of the true hikikomori.
Those kinds of attempts may be a part of the background of why the Japanese hikikomori population is getting larger and larger.
However, it is notable that the increasing number of hikikomori individuals are usually not aware of such reasons by ourselves. Although there are usually multiple factors at play for a person to become a hikikomori, people are unlikely to fully unravel these complex reasons when discussing their situation, as it requires a high level of self-analysis.
As a result, the most commonly heard reasons for their hikikomori tend to be superficially and only socially. For instance, many may attribute their withdrawal from society to the COVID-19 pandemic, because the explanation is a widely understood and accepted.