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Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Multitasking recluses find route to respectability

There are many factors behind the shoshika (the declining birth rate) trend. One is mistrust on the part of Japanese women toward child rearing. The feeling is: Why have children and divest the best years of one's life bringing them up when they're likely to metamorphose into shonen-hanzaisha (underage criminals), netto otaku (Internet nerds), geima (game freaks), toko kyohi (those who refuse to go to school) -- or all of the above -- some time after their 12th birthday?

Even if such a fate isn't in the works, "Dose hikikomori ni naruyo (in any case, they'll become recluses)" says my friend Tomomi, who has agreed with her husband not to have children, ever.

It's a sad development, but she has a point, of sorts. It's a heartbreaking task to be the parent of a hikikomori (someone who has withdrawn from society), and there's no guarantee it won't happen, no matter how isshokenmei (hardworking) the parent is.

An unofficial statistic is being circulated on Web sites dedicated to these recluses (generally early teens to late twenties males) that says 55 percent of Japanese youths between the ages of 13 and 24 have, at some point in their lives, gone through a hikikomori experience. During that time their families may yell, cry, make threats and pound on the door, but to no effect. They stay in their rooms, and at night, emerge like some sci-fi nocturnal creature from their six-mat tatami room for an outing to the neighborhood convenience store, where they stock up on snacks. Then they return quietly home and shut themselves off once more.

What's changed about hikikomori is that whereas once they were shunned as social outcasts and freaks, now they, like otaku, have gained semilegitimate status in society, partly because of their sheer number and partly because many more young Japanese are on the verge of becoming hikikomori themselves.

"Saikin komotteru? (Have you been staying indoors lately)?" has become a common enough salutation, almost as familiar as genki (how are you)? Indeed, to komoru (isolate oneself from the outside world) is not all bad anymore: It implies hard work, concentration, and a strong will to complete whatever task is at hand.

Many people, in fact, will admit to being puchi-hikikomori ("petit" hikikomori, or hikikomori in a small way), or shumatsu hikikomori (weekend hikikomori) -- recluses in so far as it doesn't damage their social reputations and/or sanities. "Sotoni iruyori heya ni komottetahoga ii (It's more fun to stay in one's room than venture outdoors)" is the refrain of one 26-year-old salaryman, convinced that, whatever the outside world has to offer, it can't get better than the comforting flicker of the computer monitor and television screen, accompanied by sounds streaming from the CD player. Unlike the American couch potato, the Japanese hikikomori likes to multitask, letting a steady stream of various digital information mildly but continuously wash over the senses, while the body sits inert at the desk inside small, cramped quarters. Tomomi's take on this? "Taerarenaaaai! (I can't bear it!)"

It's also known that boys, rather than girls, tend to be hikikomori for longer periods of time. By nature, girls are more sociable and seek the company of friends. They're also possessed by the overwhelming desire to kireini naru (be pretty), because they're ceaselessly hounded by the media to be as attractive as possible or risk being treated as subhuman. And any girl knows instinctively that kirei will not be achieved by locking oneself in the room, but is rather achieved by being oshare (well groomed) and going out in the world to be looked at by as many people as possible.

Boys on the other hand, are more indulged and spoiled; many parents profess to let their sons do as they please, solely because of their gender and tendency to kizutsuku (get hurt) more easily than girls.

Many child-rearing books urge parents to praise boys, build their confidence, and to pamper, cajole and coax them no matter what they do, since they're much more likely to get unruly or silent and withdrawn. Women's magazines warn their readers never to comment to a man about his personality, income, or, well, anything, unless it is to homegorosu (flatter to the point of death). Otherwise he may just walk away to his room and refuse to come out.

Kaori Shoji's column appears the second Tuesday of every month.

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