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  • Writer's pictureQingyi (Evey) Yu

How Hikikomori in Youth Generation is Created: Insecurity and Shame in Japan

Updated: Jul 29, 2018

In Japan, there is an increasing number of youth who are dropping out of society and isolating themselves in their bedrooms from years to decades at a time.[1] Both the phenomenon and those people are referred to as hikikomori (literally “staying indoors”). According to Tamiki Saito, hikikomori is defined as “the state of avoiding social engagement (e.g., education, employment, and friendships) with generally persistent withdrawal into one’s residence for at least 6 months as a result of various factors.”[2] Saito was among the first clinician to write extensively about the pathology of hikikomori, and he operates a clinic in suburban Chiba prefecture where he treats hundreds of hikikomori patients and their families. According to his estimate, there are about 1 million to 1.2 million young adults suffer from the syndrome, whereas some academics believe this is still an underestimate.[3]

According to the first annual nationwide research from 2002 to 2010: the majority of people who experienced hikikomori started withdrawing between the ages of 12-29 years, the average duration of hikikomori was 9.6 years and the longest duration of hikikomori was 34 years, and 50.9 % of these people reported experiencing futoko, or school refusal to school in the past.[4] They tend to be members of traditional middle- and upper-middle-class families.[5] Although some of the hikikomori cases include females, the majority of people are first-born males. [6] And it is estimated that males make up 80% of individuals in hikikomori.[7]

At the culture and social level, hikikomori phenomenon is rooted at the suppression of individuality due to the collective value. The shift of the family structure from ie to nuclear, along with the declining socioeconomic status increased the social precarity in both social and existential conditions, and material conditions of life, and triggered the phenomenon.[8] At the family and individual level, hikikomori is the result of improper childraising due to the family’s anxiety, and the parents’ lack of communication skill. The family failed to provide a secure base that is necessary for identity forming. The cultural emphasis on sekentei[9] puts such individuals at risk of developing the negative identity of “trait shame” or “internalized shame”. [10] Under the circumstance, any outside stress can be a precursor to hikikomori – e.g. inability to fit in, school bullying, academic underachievement, job insecurity, and etc.

Although the hikikomori phenomenon has only drawn a wide attention in recent years,[11] many scholars believe the groundwork was laid decades earlier. “Under the postwar regime of the “enterprise society” and Fordist capitalism, people were affectively ensconced in a very particular orientation to life grounded in the triple institutions of home/work/school and the desires/disciplines of working hard, (re)producing home, and consuming brand name goods.” [12] Japan successfully reinvigorated its economy under the regime.[13]

However, “due to a nagging recession brought on by the bursting of the bubble economy in 1991, the country has been seized by economic decline, labor restructuring - away from lifelong to flexible employment, and a loss of national confidence”[14]. The very particular orientation to life gets disrupted and became unreachable to many. Under the circumstance, middle class families in particular become most insecure about their future. They are unable to see the progressive betterment or even the sustainable maintenance of life through the lens of “reproductive futurism” - seeing one’s future in the image of the child.[15] Youths can hardly ­­­­­­­­­­secure a regular employment, not to say to achieve similar prosperity of last generation. That is probably the reason why the majority of children who are in hikikomori are from middle- and upper-middle-class families. Fear or/and hopelessness of the future, along with parent’s and society’s expectation, together work as a driving force of social withdraw. Hikikomori is thus a concomitant phenomenon of the increasing marginalization of youth generation since 1990s.

Nonetheless, the fundamental root of hikikomori traces back to Japanese harmony centered collective value, which embraces the hierarchical thinking and acknowledges the individuals’ two faces - tamemae and honne. The former is the public face, “visible when one speaks formally, officially, or to strangers.” While the later express one’s true feelings, and is only visible among the closest friends” and families. Successfully developing the tamemae is “essential for young children to survive within the rigid Japanese education system”, where homogeneity is highly valued and the expression of individual differences is often restricted. For the reason, when one is deprived of emotional connection with both families and friends, his/her individuality gets utterly suppressed. According to Yuichi Hattori, this suppression of individuality is believed to be the main cause of the hikikmori[16]

The overemphasis on tamemae and sekentai (perceived views through other’s eye) is fundamentally problematic, because it gives youth a false impression that their value depends on others views (sekentai), and they can only be approved and apprised by hiding their true feelings (tamemae). This belief only makes it more difficult for youth to form any intimate connection. They examine their tamemae more thoroughly in order gain people’s appreciation (e.g. be polite and cheering, construct the good students image), but still find themselves lack the interpersonal affections they desire. The front self, by nature lacks of individual characteristics and deep emotions, counterproductively has blocked any potential formation of intimacy. When everyone meets each other through tamemae, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to form any new connections. This ineffective effort makes interpersonal interaction burdensome and exhausting, and sometimes can also be misunderstood as a rejection by others.

Hierarchical thinking signifies the superiority and inferiority in individuals’ value. Especially as Japan moves from “a society of an expansive middle class to one of class difference, “what once was seen as within the grasp of most – steady employment, a family and home of one’s own, material comfort – divides the nation now into “winners” and “losers.””[17] Hence, once the individual failed to advance though the collective timeline,[18] they became keenly aware that they had fallen behind their peers. The “losers” are viewed both by the society and themselves as inferior, which is detrimental to one’s self-value. To develop a health and stable mentality in such harsh social reality, it requires the family to provide a secure alternative source for identity-forming. However, the reproductive family, valuing the external progressive betterment – productivity, prosperity, social status, etc., only exacerbates individuals’ inner instability.

The reproductive family is characterized as a nuclear family, where “children worked hard at school, women managed childraising and the home, and men gave a lifelong commitment to jobs for which they were given a ‘family wage.’” In traditional Japan, the Meiji government established and enforced the ie system in which a household included extended family.[19] This allowed many generations to interact and build connections easily. As a result of rapid industrialization, a large migration to the big cities from the countryside, and the catalyst of World War II, the smaller, Western-style nuclear family replaced the large ie system.[20]

Yet, in this reproductive family unite, the traditional gender role persists even today, in which men are expected to provide for the family, while women stay at home as housewives. The shift of the family structure has added more pressure upon the father, since now he is the only male to takes on the household’s economic responsibility. For the reason, the father usually spends most of the time at work. The mother then takes over all the tasks of childraising – including academic supervising, personality shaping, care providing, and etc. However, under pressure of changing socioeconomic status and the growing competition in school and market place, academic, as the only pathway to adulthood success, usually becomes the major, if not only, concern of the mother.

Moreover, in such a system, the mother’s identity is deeply dependent on the child/children’s performance. She has little alternative sources of fulfillment[21], since she does not have a job, and her husband is usually not at home. A child’s academic “failure” then, becomes the failure of the mother, which brings her guilt and shame. The culture embracement of “reproductive futurism”, and the lack of support from the father, further exacerbate the mother’s anxiety on the child/children’s performance. Out of the anxiety (for the child’s future), the mother usually turns out to be extremely demanding or overprotective, many times both. She is demanding in term of the child’s academic performance and the construction of tatemae, and overprotective in the sense of indulging the child/children’s dependency by providing basic needs/cares for a prolonged time. Since the kind of overproduction is materially oriented, does not help to construct an intimate connection either. The mother often heavily relies on emotional rewards and punishments to spur the child to work harder. Whereas to the child, the mechanism is manifested as conditional love. The child thrives to construct the “right” “false front” and become a “good child”, in order to gain mother’s love.[22]

In the situation, the youth grow up under father’s neglect, and mother’s high demands and overprotection. None of those succeed in providing a secure base that is necessary for children to obtain a secure attachment type, and to feel safe exploring the outside world. As mentioned earlier, the tamemea prevents individuals from forming close relationships. Therefore, when mother as well does not provide an intimate relationship model, and a space for honne to exist, the child fundamentally lacks information about intimacy and how it should be. Furthermore, the strict demands from family and school, and the high awareness of others’ views creates an environment that is likely for individuals to develop internalized shame. This personality trait is characterized by the tendency “to expect shaming experiences. Thus individuals learn to further hide their flawed sense of self from others, and they interact with others in a way that increases the likelihood of receiving shaming messages.”[23] Those negative mindset (internalized shame, insecurity) developed in childhood forms a vicious circle makes it likely to exacerbate itself.

In order to alleviate hikikomori phenomenon, it is important for the society to put less emphasis on the tamemea, encourage the individual differences and provide more social security, as well as for the family to understand the importance to provide a secure base and unconditional love for children to obtain a strong sense of self.


  1. Allison, Anne. Ordinary Refugees: Social Precarity and Soul in 21st Century Japan. Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2012.

  2. Fukushima, Maki. What Is It To Be in Hikikomori, An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. ProQuest LLC, 2012.

  3. Harper, James. “Regulating and Coping with Shame”. Re-constructing Emotional Spaces. Prague Psychosocial Press, 2011.

  4. Maekawa, Yumiko, And Atsuko Kanai. Effects of Sekentei on Seeking Psychological Help in Japan: The Interaction Effects of Moderating Factors Based on the Theory of Reasoned Action. Online Journal of Japanese Clinical Psychology, 2015.

  5. Norasakkunkit, Vinai, And Yukiko Uchida. To Conform or to Maintain Self-Consistency? Hikikomori Risk in Japan and the Deviation from Seeking Harmony. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 10, 2014.

  6. Rubinstein, Ellen. Emplotting Hikikomori: Japanese Parents’ Narratives of Social Withdrawal. Springer Science + Business Media, New York, 2016

  7. Tamaki, Saito. Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. PHP Institute, Inc., 1998. Tans. Jeffrey Angles, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

  8. Teo, Alan, And Albert Gaw. Hikikomori, a Japanese Culture-Bound Syndrome of Social Withdrawal? A Proposal for DSM-5. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 198, No. 6, 2010.

  9. Zielanziger, Michael. Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation. Vintage Books, 2007.

  • [1] Norasakkunkit and Uchida, 2014.

  • [2] Teo and Gaw, 2010.

  • [3] Zielenziger, 2006.

  • [4] Fukushima, 2012. (Sakai, Nonaka, Oono, & NPO houjin zennkoku hikikomori KHJ Oyanokai, 2010.)

  • [5] Fukushima, 2012. (Nakagaito, 2008; Yasukawa & Sugimoto, 2003.)

  • [6] Fukushima, 2012. (Nakagaito, 2008.)

  • [7] Fukushima, 2012. (Kinugata, 2000; Yasukawa & Sugimoto, 2003.)

  • [8] “Social precarity”, as used by Allison, is a condition of being and feeling insecure in life that extends to one’s (dis)connectedness from a sense of social community. The precarity of the soul, is an insecurity rooted in both the material conditions of life-making, including work, and the social and existential conditions of living, including the ties we have with others and the ways we define (and find) meaning, energy, and worth. (Allison, 2012.)

  • [9]Sekentei has been considered a main feature of Japanese behavioral principles, which has implications with respect to whether people should conform to social norms and avoid shame or keep up social appearances.” (Maekawa and Kanai 2015: Inoue, 1977.)

  • [10] The mother may use shame to urge the child to conform social norms, and become an “elite student”.

  • [11] “Hikikomori (social withdrawal) became a well-known term in Japan in 2000 after a few people who were described as hikikomori committed brutal crimes.” (Fukushima, 2012) So the public perception of hikikomori is likely to carries stigma at the very beginning.

  • [12] Allison, 2012.

  • [13] “The population enjoyed stable employment and the rise of consumer culture; by the late 1980s, 90 percent of Japanese identified as middle class.”

  • [14] Allison, 2012.

  • [15] Allison, 2012.

  • [16] Zielenziger, 2006.

  • [17] Allison, 2012.

  • [18] The social script in which it requires the generation to do certain thing at the same age – e.g. go to school, get a job, get married. Japanese have a strict demand on punctuality, which is also partly derived from the hierarchy system – they need to report to authorities. Such mindset also arises individuals’ daily and future-relating anxiety.

  • [19] Fukushima, 2012.

  • [20] Zielenziger, 2006.

  • [21] It’s the same for the child to have little alternative source of identity-forming except from the mother and school.

  • [22] Not to fit into the society necessarily.

  • [23] Harper. Regulating and Coping with Shame.

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