Always Alone: The Story of Japan’s Hikikomori

Play episode

Have you ever felt like you have become invisible in society and you’ve given up on trying to fit in? Roger Basick and Alice Irrizary tell about the “Hikikomori” in Japan and the challenges to help these lonely people.

Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Roger Basick.

Voice 2

And I’m Alice Irizarry. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Click here to follow along with this program on YouTube.

Voice 1

Ito wakes up at 6 in the evening. He wears the same clothes that he did yesterday. His crowded room is filled with empty drink bottles and food wrappers. A huge desk takes up one side of the room. When Ito wakes, he does not get ready for class. He does not get ready for work. Instead, he goes to his computer. And, he plays video games for the entire day Sometimes, his mother comes to bring him food. He thanks her, but says nothing else. Ito’s life is the same the next day, and the next. He has lived without seeing other people for the past three years.

Voice 2

Ito is one of Japan’s hikikomori. A hikikomori is someone in Japan who withdraws from society. Usually, these are young men. They isolate themselves from other people. And they depend on their parents to survive. Today, there may be a million people living like Ito. But why? Today’s Spotlight is on the Hikikomori.

Voice 1

Japan has a very unique society. Traditionally, parents and children live together for many years. Several generations often live together at a time. And each family member supports the other. Younger people take care of the older, and everyone takes care of the children. This can be very positive for family members, knowing they will always have help. But it also lets people become hikikomori. A hikikomori knows someone will take care of them. So, they do not need to find a job or go to school.

Voice 2

But people do not become Hikikomori because they do not want to work. It is usually because of a great pain. A hikikomori might have lost a job. Or, they might be bullied in school. They see these events as failures. And, once they have failed, it is difficult to try again. Masaki Ikegami is a journalist who writes about the hikikomori. He told the Japan Times:

Voice 3

“The Japanese society makes it difficult for people to succeed once they have made a mistake. I think most hikikomori have had difficulty with their working life. They have been hurt by their human relationships there. Other cases might be people who have had bad experiences at school.  Or, they have been through troubles, accidents, or illnesses. Some have stopped working to stay at home and look after their aging parents. There are many different reasons. It can happen at any age.”

Voice 1

Many hikikomori isolate for economic reasons. After the second World War, Japan’s economy grew quickly. College graduates got jobs easily. A person could get a job in a company. And that company would employ them for the rest of their lives. But in 1991, the economy crashed. Companies stopped hiring. Or they continued to employ older workers. It became harder and harder to get a good job. Many people had to find lower-paying work. Or, they did not find work at all. This economic time period is known as the lost decades.

Voice 2

The lost decades hurt a lot of people. In Japan, much of a person’s self-worth is based on their job. Not having a job, or not doing well in a job, causes a lot of shame. And some people feel so worthless that they stop trying at all. Naohiro Kimura was a hikikomori for ten years. He told the Japan Times:

Voice 4

“If you finish University in Japan but do not get a job, people look at you strangely. People have a strong sense that you should be working. I was embarrassed. I did not want anyone to see me. When I saw someone wearing nice clothing, I would feel like I had caused trouble. I hated seeing working people. I would compare myself to them. It would make me feel very bad. I felt a strong sense of shame.”

Voice 1

Many hikikomori also have depression, a kind of extreme sadness. Often, a depressed person will want to move. They will want to work on things. But they feel that they have no worth. They believe their efforts will not change anything. So, they feel even worse, and become more depressed. It is difficult to recover from this way of thinking.

Voice 2

Vosot Ikeida is a hikikomori in his fifties. He became a hikikomori when he returned to Japan after living in a different country. He felt that he could not fit into Japanese society. So, he became very depressed. He told the Japan Times,

Voice 5

“I closed all the curtains. But the light outside still reflected on the curtains. I could see it from the back of the room. It felt like society was continuing on without me. That feeling made me lonely and insecure. Curtains were not enough. So I blocked more light from my windows. I made it like a cave. It made no difference whether I slept in the daytime or nighttime.”

Voice 1

Having a hikikomori child is also very difficult for parents. Many feel that they must continue to support their children. But they also feel responsibility. Most do not know how to help. And some fear talking about their children, because they also feel shame. Maika Elanis a photojournalist. She helped document the lives of many hikikomori. She told Muse Magazine:

Voice 6

“Parents know that people will see them differently if they talk about their children’s lifestyle. They expect them to return to normal for months or years before seeking help. Most parents feel that a hikikomori child shows they have failed. Having someone help with it islike getting rid of your responsibility as a parent. It is like getting rid of your child.”

Voice 2

Once a person becomes a hikikomori, it is very difficult to go back to normal life. Most do not know how to live by themselves. And, they do not have the skills to find a new job. The Japanese government has opened up some jobs for hikikomori. And there are special programs to teach them skills, like cooking.

Voice 1

But the most helpful programs for the hikikomori help them find friends. After all, a person who is lonely or depressed does not only need a doctor. They do not only need help with getting a job. They need someone who will tell them the truth. They need someone who will try and understand them. To make them feel like they are not alone.

Voice 2

Do you know anyone who is lonely? How could you reach out to them?  Tell us about it on our website at www.spotlightenglish.com. You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Voice 1

The writer of this program was Dan Christmann. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Always Alone: The Story of Japan’s Hikikomori’.

Voice 2

You can also get our programs delivered directly to your Android or Apple device through our free official Spotlight English app. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you know anyone who has isolated himself from society? How could you reach out to them? What could you say to them to encourage them to get out?

Join the discussion

25 comments
  • No,l don’t know a close person but when I find person stay with him self l am training to talk with him

  • I think the society should offer training stages in different classes and ages .Those will make person able to get a job easily

    • I don’t know how to advise to them when I see that person. Because I like being alone in my room and studying on something.Whenever I have a work, I only do by myself. if I don’t have to work, I’m watched movies and do I love. I feel like a freedom not being lonely. I used to isolated from society because I had a hurtful past . Now I trying to remove them from my heart.For me, living alone is better than treating to people as well. So, one thing I can advise is ‘ live alone not lonely, do not think other people…everyone have difficult times’ , ‘do to improve for yourself’.

  • In México they are known as Ninis. It is a word made up of the repetition of the word neither in spanish languaje (ni). And it means that this person neither studies nor works.

  • Reading this latest Spotlight program reminded me of the beginning of Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, which says: «All happy families look alike; every unhappy family, on the other hand, is unhappy in its own way »and I could not but feel admiration and respect for that great people with profound moral values.

  • Idon’t nkow anyone like that, but if i find one…maybe i will try to talking to him and i will encourage him to improve his skills

  • No I don’t know someone he is a Hikikomori. But I think that is our responsibility too. The society must help a Hikikomori to build a normal lifestyle and must change stereotypes about their mean of success. Success is not limited in the ability to find a work but it has many of sense like the innovation and creativity. Most of a Hikikomori peaple are innovative and creative, and they have a great talents. So, in sum, society must consider the difference of this people and to help them to sunshine with their different lifestyle.

  • Yes, this was my friend, when I know there is someone who isolated himself, I respect his feelings but I will try to make him talk about his thoughts…
    When you have different ways to get a person to talk, you achieve a big point!

  • I’ve been a neet basically since I’ve graduated and haven’t had real physical friends in ten years. I’m at home all the time and don’t see anyone except family. However, I’m disabled, so I can’t work or study and unfortunately what I have interferes with my ability to articulate my thoughts, process things, and socialize, as well as do certain things. It’s a lonely, highly unsatisfying life but for someone like me that’s just how it is, I guess.

    That said, I hope someday there’ll be programs that can help hiki. That society can come to be kinder and something can be done for people who have a chance.

    I hope someday there can be something for isolated people with mental disabilities too. I feel sad living only through a dream world, watching my real one pass me by…

  • there is no one comes to picks you up you don’t need any one just trust in your god and do what should you do

  • i have my brother like that so i ask you if you can get a job for him or at least give a little money to him so he can open own business’
    thank you so much .

  • Our life has ups and downs, so I sometimes suffer from these feelings but I recovered with faithful and honest help from my best friend.
    My advice for everyone is like this, try and try to find the best friend who really loves you and pray to god repeatedly.

  • Yes, i isolate the society but my case is not i like them but i am introvert and i love to become lonely all day watching movies, series, enjoying my time far than the trouble of the outside, but i also have a dream to become phychologist and help people’s who have depressions, and mental disorders.
    I hope i wll back this comment after years and see how i achieved my goal.

  • I have been living in social isolation for 20 years. I finished my study but I never worked. I do not have friends. Why is this happening ? I am afraid of people. I am afraid that people will laugh at me or humiliate me, put me down. I feel like I am worthless. I feel like I can not do anything. Sometimes I pray to God for help. Fear of people has made me mentally disabled. Thanks Spotlight team for this article.

  • With my respect to those persons I want to say that the society is not worth about thim so if you fall in this failed you maybe can’t stand again because you don’t find who help you I think even your family so always be strong and live whatever happens and thank you for broadcast

  • I don’t know someone had hikikomori, but i know a person had anxiety disorder. I don’t know if there are the same. He isolated himself from society, he talked less, had few friends. His daily life was simple: woke up, went to work and then went home, didn’t go out or hung with his friends. He withdrawed himself. He also depresstion too, he usually thoght that he had no woth, he believed his efforts would not changed anything. I was encouraging him, tried to talk to him more and helped him when he needed and now he’s getting better and better.

  • i dont know who next to me is depressed or not , but if i knew , i will sit down with them , i will try help and understand them

  • In some societies they unintentionally force a certain lifestyle and it would be difficult to have other ways to live yours, it puts a lot of pressure to make your own way of living, and it is not about work-life even on a personal level.

More from this show

Episode 12