Drawing out hikikomori:

government youth outreach program a noble but narrow path

Tamaki Saito (Mainichi)

Recently, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests for lectures on the topic of “hikikomori,” or social withdrawal — a term used to refer to the phenomenon itself, as well as the people who demonstrate its symptoms. Not only have the number of lectures been growing, but the number of participants who gather for these talks have been significant; audiences around 100 to 200 are not uncommon.

On January 15, close to 500 people attended a lecture I gave, sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Office for Youth Affairs and Public Safety. Since my lectures only offer practical strategies for dealing with hikikomori, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would attend them for the purpose of mere educational enrichment or entertainment. I imagine that most of the participants are families of hikikomori.

The reason for this surge, no doubt, is the aging of hikikomori. The first generation of such “youths” are now in their 40s, and their average age has almost passed 30. The anxiety experienced by aging hikikomori and their similarly-aging parents has become tinged with further desperation.

The hikikomori problem exists on the same plane as the employment issues that plague NEET (“Not in Education, Employment or Training”) and job-hopping youths. For these young people — who for one reason or another have missed the opportunity to become fully-fledged members of society, merely growing older under unchanging circumstances — and their families, the situation is looking bleak.

In a Cabinet meeting on March 6, the government approved a bill promoting comprehensive measures against youth problems. The bill aims to help youths such as NEETs and hikikomori to become self-reliant, and includes plans for local government to set up youth consultation offices, along with the establishment of community committees which would serve as a liaison between public employment security offices, child guidance centers, public health centers and other related agencies. The installment of a new comprehensive youth issues headquarters in the Cabinet Office is also a part of the overall scheme.

“Youth issues” need to be tackled collaboratively by experts across various fields such as education, public welfare, medicine and economics, among others, by transcending vertical divisions. For that reason, the recent government bill should be hailed for its focus on linking various organizations and agencies. That alone, however, is not enough. The magnitude of Japan’s youth problems have long exceeded that which can be dealt with by haphazard legislative amendments and the establishment of a Cabinet headquarters for youth issues. It is about time that Japan considered the establishment of something akin to the youth ministries in EU countries, which focus year-round on youth-related issues.

Of most interest to me at the moment are the “outreach” activities that have been included in the revised General Framework for the Nurturing of Youth issued last December. According to the document, there are plans for “related public and private agencies to collaborate” in order to “provide outreaches” to “NEETs, hikikomori and youth who face difficulties becoming self-reliant or participating in society” through visits to their homes.

Strangely enough, these outreach programs are to take place concurrently with “research on effective support methods” and the “development of programs to train personnel who will be involved in support activities.” In other words, the support methods have yet to be fully established, but the government is going ahead with one anyway. This may be unavoidable considering the current state of affairs, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of exercising extreme caution in carrying out the proposed outreach activities.

Not only am I not against outreach programs, I know from experience how effective they can be. One can at times expect drastic effects from outreaches that outpatient treatments can never hope to achieve. Powerful methods, however, are often accompanied by just-as-strong side-effects.

Many bitter lessons have been learned from outreaches. While I would like to believe that such things no longer happen, there have been “support groups” armed with good intentions that have employed methods not unlike abduction and confinement in attempts to “reform” troubled youth. A series of such attempts resulting in deaths and injuries have been exposed in recent years, and in some cases, former boarders at such facilities have brought lawsuits against their reformers. It is crucial that we never forget that these incidents took place, along with the fact that certain intellectuals had at one time praised the methods that were used.

To reiterate, I am not trying to discourage the government’s outreach efforts. I only want to urge the government to be careful. I would first like to propose that the government give thoughtful consideration to issues of morality surrounding outreach support methods, more so than to their efficacy. What I mean by this is that in addition to respecting the rights and individual identities of outreach recipients, outreach providers must also maintain respect towards the recipients’ sense of personal pride.

Of course, I do not espouse the idealistic notion that consent of all outreach recipients must be obtained at all times for outreaches to take place. There will be times when outreach providers must do their job knowing full well that they are not welcome. Under such circumstances, it is important for the provider to take as much time as possible to carefully build a relationship with the recipient.

“It is important to guide them not ‘to take to feeding,’ but rather ‘to take to people,’ to communicate that ‘in this world, there are those who are neither that harmful nor that forceful who are trying, within limits, to be of use to you’,” says psychiatrist Hisao Nakai in his book, “Kazoku no shin-en” (The Family’s Abyss).

Those who only see the bright side of things, and those who never doubt the righteousness of their actions are probably not suited to provide outreaches. Those who have received outreaches themselves are not necessarily the best people to provide them, either. Why? Because as Goethe once said, humans are most unforgiving towards the very problems they have just escaped. The qualities most called for in an outreach provider — more than libraries of knowledge that can be learned or qualifications that can be attained — is the ability never to forget apprehension and modesty, fear of others and a skepticism towards one’s own actions. (By Tamaki Saito, psychiatrist)

(Mainichi Japan) April 19, 2009

Crimes among young linked to isolation


Tamaki Saito (Mainichi)

On March 11, a shooting rampage took place in the town of Winnenden, near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Many readers are likely to remember the incident, as it also made headlines here in Japan.

The 17-year-old suspect in the case broke into the middle school from which he had graduated last year, and within just 10 minutes killed nine students and three teachers. Police immediately arrived at the scene but the suspect escaped to a psychiatric hospital where he had received treatment in the past, and killed another victim. He then hijacked a car taking its driver hostage, eventually arriving at a car dealership and killing two people. There a gunfight broke out with police, and in the end, the suspect killed himself with a shot to the head.

I would like to pray for the souls of the 15 people who lost their lives. Such a crime is inexcusable, whatever the suspect’s circumstances may have been.

This most recent incident in Germany appears to have quite a bit in common with the series of random killings that took place in Japan last year.

First, the suspects did not have clear motives, and they attacked people at random. In 2002, there was a school shooting in Germany known as the Erfurt massacre in which 17 people died. The suspect is said to have been upset with the school for expelling him. But there has been no such motive found in last month’s shooting in Winnenden.

The suspect, prior to the incident, had reportedly posted a warning on the Internet about what he was planning to do (though there have been reports denying this). As soon as this news broke, fake warnings of more crimes to come popped up on the Internet all over Europe, resulting in a large number of arrests. Likewise, many readers will remember that after the Akihabara massacre in June last year, Internet bulletin boards in Japan were filled with similarly bogus announcements of crimes in the works.

Like the suspects of other similar killings, the boy in Winnenden was a videogame aficionado with a soft spot for shooting games. As a result of this revelation, advocates of regulations on videogames have sprung back to life in the media, which is the same response we saw in Japan last year.

The biggest difference between Tomohiro Kato, the suspect in the Akihabara attacks, and the 17-year-old in Germany, are their family backgrounds. According to the weekly magazine “Der Spiegel,” the German suspect was the son of a successful businessman who drives a Mercedes, and owned the latest computers and videogame consoles, as well as a collection of a dozen air guns.

More likely than not, however, financial circumstances are not so important here. What links him with Kato is isolation.

Those who know the attacker say that he hadn’t seemed like someone capable of such a crime. He was a talented table tennis player who also competed in arm wrestling at the national level, but he was also quiet and mild-mannered, a boy who just didn’t stand out. “Der Spiegel” described him as “the boy without qualities,” spoofing Austrian writer Robert Musil’s novel, “The Man without Qualities.”

He had trouble with his relationships; he had few friends and things were not going well with his girlfriend. The German tabloid paper “Bild” reported that the suspect had even tried to buy friends with money, to no avail.

In what is believed to be the boy’s profile on a certain Internet site, it says, “Things I like about myself: None. Things I dislike about myself: None.” In the warning he reportedly wrote about his planned shooting spree, he wrote, “I’ve had enough. I’m fed up of this pointless life. Always the same. Everybody laughs at me. No one sees my potential.” Kato had also described himself on Internet bulletin boards as “someone no one likes” and “ugly.”

It is odd that the Japanese media, which exhibited a hypersensitive reaction to the Akihabara rampage, has not expressed much interest in this almost identical massacre in Germany. Overseas media outlets, too, have emphasized the more mysterious details of the case in their reports, making it difficult to obtain a satisfactory explanation for the events. Still, it is possible for us to identify a definite trend: that isolation is becoming as significant a factor in crime among young people as are poverty and abuse.

Here, isolation refers to one’s exclusion from communication with and social circles comprised of one’s peers. The 2007 rampage at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in which student Cho Seung-hui killed 32 people and himself, is another example in which isolation is believed to have been a motivating factor. Cho is described as having been a loner.

I believe that the notion of “poverty” and “war” are no longer society’s worst ills. Neither is the idea of “disease” or “misfortune.” Rather, the biggest menace now is isolation. Even in the field of psychiatry, human interaction has come to be recognized as the antidote for an increasingly large number of ailments. The thing is, however, medicine is a system, and as such, cannot provide human contact. Only the accidents and coincidences spawned by encounters and relationships are capable of filling the prescription for human interaction that will provide relief to those suffering from isolation. The demand for this human remedy is higher now than ever before. (By Tamaki Saito, psychiatrist)

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