Back in 2013, we mentioned a disturbing cultural trend in Japan in one of our weekenders, where culturally disenfranchised youth become shut-ins. The official Japanese word for these shut-ins is Hikikomori- and while examples of this have been observed in other places around the world (including Italy, the US, and South Korea), in Japan, the trend has become a cultural phenomenon. For a multitude of reasons, Hikikomori give up on human interaction, choosing to cloister themselves away from the world rather than interact in it.

The Hikikomori phenomenon is worth bringing up again because new studies suggest that as much as 1% of Japan’s population has embraced that Hikikomori lifestyle. It hasn’t gone away since the 2013 BBC write-up we covered in the weekender. Here’s a January 2015 article from the Wall Street Journal:

In Japan, hikikomori has been a household word since the 1990s, with many experts calling it one of the biggest social and health problems plaguing the country. Yet the causes and treatments of the condition—or even whether it’s a mental illness or not—remain poorly understood. And while the Japanese government has poured significant funds into helping hikikomori, treatment success rates remain low…

Solving the hikikomori riddle has taken on greater urgency in recent years. Sufferers often are men in their 20s and 30s who would be in the workforce but instead are being supported largely by their parents. Government officials worry about who will take responsibility for long-term hikikomori when their parents retire or die.

The piece goes on to argue that Hikikomori is different from what we’d traditionally label “mental illness.” Often times, the condition seems to be a result of bullying, over-aggressive parenting, rigorous societal rules, the pressure to perform, and the one-two punch of shame and fear that leads one away from society. It sounds eerily similar to hiding in the garden. Cases of Hikikomori exist that have lasted decades. From the Austrailian Broadcast Corporation:

The road to recovery from hikikomori can be a long one and the longer a person stays in their room, the less likely they are to make it out.

One of Dr Kato’s patients, a 23-year-old, has been in therapy for a year.

He said a domineering mother and pressure to perform at school caused him to drop out and barricade himself in his room.

“I just wanted to suppress everything, put a lid on everything,” he said.

“I didn’t want to think… I didn’t want to feel.”

 

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A quick detour: in the latest episode of Comedians in Cars getting Coffee, host Jerry Seinfeld and guest Stephen Colbert get existential, with both comedians trading barbs about the futility of happiness and the frustration of suffering. This little side part of their conversation really hit me:

Stephen: Existence is a complete… what a trial!

Jerry: One of my favorite Richard Prior lines is this bit about racism. He says: “you know, forget about racism. It’s hard enough just being a person!”

Colbert then goes on to quote Neutral Milk Hotel’s Airplane Over the Sea, which causes Seinfeld to double over laughing and crying at Colbert’s earnestness. But that all takes place within the realm of that greater conversation about suffering.

One more anecdote. In preparation for a summer-length evangelistic mission to a country known for its less-than-friendly attitude toward western missionaries, I took a class on intercultural communication. I expected the class to teach us “magic bullet” cultural cues that would help keep our occasionally offensive American quirks to a minimum- don’t show your feet, be indirect with your conflict. etc. In other words, I thought the class would help us be more racially aware. Instead, the class taught us what boiled down to empathy skills– how to listen, how to observe, how to apologize and ask forgiveness. In other words, the class taught us how to be more humanely aware.

 

One of the unhelpful dismissals of the gospel is its to limit it to a time or a place. The New Testament scholar might say, for example, that nobody read Romans like Martin Luther until Martin Luther came along (an understandable, but not 100% accurate, claim). A cultural analyst might suggest that it’s inappropriate for one group (reformation-minded bloggers) to think their solution is best for a second group (Hikikomori). Until, of course, that group hears the message and welcomes it into their culture (or, in some cases, keeps the faith after it was forced upon them, like sub saharan Africa’s relationship with western colonialism and religion).

As we’re fond of saying, reality is reality, and that cuts across major categories of identity. A bit of little-g grace modeled after the big-G gospel might just help a generation of shut ins too scared to face the world. As long as the human condition is, to quote Colbert, “a trial,” then the question of all times and all places in all languages remains: “Who will deliver us?” Or in the case of our Hikikomori friends, 誰が私たちを救うのだろうか?