Japan’s Hikikomori of Capitalist Social Alienation

A trend has appeared in Japan among young men who seem to have given up on life. They’re called Hikikomori a word that means “withdrawn”. It’s a class of younger men that have become secluded and locked themselves physically and emotionally away from the rest of society. Many have dropped out of school and are unemployed, preferring to remain isolated from real life to the point of being a serious problem. This extreme social alienation is becoming an increasing problem among Japan’s youth.

The BBC just recently did an article on it:

“Tamaki Saito was a newly qualified psychiatrist when, in the early 1990s, he was struck by the number of parents who sought his help with children who had quit school and hidden themselves away for months and sometimes years at a time. These young people were often from middle-class families, they were almost always male, and the average age for their withdrawal was 15.

It might sound like straightforward teenage laziness. Why not stay in your room while your parents wait on you? But Saito says sufferers are paralysed by profound social fears.

“They are tormented in the mind,” he says. “They want to go out in the world, they want to make friends or lovers, but they can’t.”

Symptoms vary between patients. For some, violent outbursts alternate with infantile behaviour such as pawing at the mother’s body. Other patients might be obsessive, paranoid and depressed.
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When Saito began his research, social withdrawal was not unknown, but it was treated by doctors as a symptom of other underlying problems rather than a pattern of behaviour requiring special treatment.

Since he drew attention to the phenomenon, it is thought the numbers of hikikomori have increased. A conservative estimate of the number of people now affected is 200,000, but a 2010 survey for the Japanese Cabinet Office came back with a much higher figure – 700,000. Since sufferers are by definition hidden away, Saito himself places the figure higher still, at around one million.

The average age of hikikomori also seems to have risen over the last two decades. Before it was 21 – now it is 32.”

Unfortunately the Japanese society blames the Hikikomori on mental illness, which it no doubt is, but it doesn’t look at the material conditions of society that are causing such distress. Medical fields have a tendency to do this, remove things they study from the conditions in which they exist, eliminating the possibility of identifying the causing factor.

Some studies suggest that Hikikomori affects as many women as it does men. These are believed to be underreported because it is considered natural for women to be withdrawn to a certain degree.

Capitalist social alienation plays a huge part in the Hikikomori. Capitalism defines people by their wealth, meaning their self-worth is determined by how much money they have. In our society (North America) it’s extremely important, in Japan social status based on income is much greater. Everything in this system is based on the ability to purchase commodities, from basic needs, to entertainment, to interactions with people (going out to a bar, seeing a movie, even something as small as mini putt). This tremendously affects one’s social life

The Hikikomori manifests itself, as the article says, often in the purchase of Mangas and Anime. Their painkiller for alienation from commidification is to purchase commodities. The hobbies and interests that spring from it also appear in a commodified form.

Socio-economic status also plays an astonishing part in the romantic relations between the sexes. Japanese society (to a greater degree than our own) views potential male partners largely based on income and social status. If someone isn’t particularly successful they can end up alone quite easily, which can make an already depressive state much worse. Romantic relations between the sexes are already extremely strained for a number of reasons leading to men actually marrying fictional characters. This is an extension of that alienation, it is not only alienating, but also isolating.

The opportunity to obtain such a social status is decreasing year by year as it is with every other industrialized nation. Unemployment is fluctuating, meaningful opportunity is disappearing rapidly. Wages have stagnated and in many places they have shrunk. Underemployment has skyrocketed leaving countless unable to pay their bills. Depression as a result of this dismal situation is increasing as well as suicide rates. There should be no surprise that people become withdrawn from society or begin to give up on a meaningful life. The conditions of capitalism and the demands it makes of social relations beat people into the ground and drives them into submission.

This situation is particularly worse for the youth who are naturally more prone to suicide. Globally there is a phenomenon known as the “Youth Bulge” where mass amounts of young people are unemployed because there literally is no place to go. As the global economic situation makes it increasingly difficult for the elderly to retire, they tend to hang on to their jobs longer. When you combine this with rising unemployment in general, (that is worse among the youth,) you have an entire generation of citizens that can’t break into the higher paying jobs. Many get into jobs that don’t pay enough to live by (under employment). This causes tremendous tension in society as people can’t find a decent life. With no way to end it many become withdrawn and essentially give up on life.

Japan tends to demonstrate an extreme in social phenomenon, particularly in the realm of alienation. The previously mentioned marrying of fictional characters is becoming an increasing problem, to the point where there are entire industries dedicated to serving this phenomenon. What we truly see is the breakdown of the social system due to the alienating nature of the capitalist production, distribution and interaction. It should not be overlooked that Japan has its own unique character when it comes to these problems.

There is little doubt that this problem, like many of alienation in Japan, can be dealt with in the context of the capitalist system. Only a radical break from the social relations determined by our productive relations can possibly end this poisonous problem.

Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23182523