An Infantile Disorder

Hikikomori, Galia Offri

If jobs mean maturity, not everyone gets to grow up

There is nothing more desirable than a dead teenager. As soon as teenagehood was defined as distinct around the turn of the past century, nations developed industrial techniques to kill them on a mass scale. In boy form, the dead teenager is still the defense industry’s flagship domestic product. Fashion houses and magazines stalk it as a girl. And why not? Teenagers established themselves as a class by negotiating a confluence of unemployment crises, consumer-­society-building, and war. What could anyone do with this pool of spillover at the entrance to the labor market? Their consumptive bodies, with uncurbed capacity to work, lay just this side of receiving a wage. Dead, they are demand without demands.

But some teenagers don’t die. In Japan in the early 1990s, a young psychiatrist named Saitō Tamaki began seeing patients with a cluster of strange symptoms. Actually, he barely saw them at all; more often than not, other family members would approach him about a brother or a son who was afflicted with an unfamiliar state. Mostly men on the threshold of adulthood, they were retreating to their rooms, shrinking from all social contact or communication, and closing off into themselves, often for periods of a year or more. Not wanting to kill themselves but unable to live in society, these youths folded inward in an attempt to fit themselves away. Saitō began calling them hikikomori sainen, “withdrawn young men,” and in 1998 published a book with his findings called Shakaiteki hikikomori—Owaranai Shishunki, or Social Withdrawal—Adolescence Without End. 

Saitō ventured a count: There were 1 million people in a state of withdrawal or hikikomori, about one percent of the Japanese population. Eighty percent of them were men; 90 percent were over 18. “Social withdrawal is not some sort of ‘fad’ that will just fade away,” Saitō wrote. It is “a symptom, not the name of an illness,” and “there has been no sign that the number of cases will decrease.” His book became a best seller in weeks. Hikikomori joined otaku (a person with obsessive interests) and karoshi (death from overwork) as a loan word in English to describe a new social phenomenon that at first appeared uniquely Japanese. A few American authors have picked up on it as an enigmatic or convenient trope (in books like Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger and Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus, most recently). But only now has Saitō’s original work been translated, by Jeffrey Angles, published by University of Minnesota Press in March.

Culturally bound psychological phenomena always fascinate the press because they excite the categories of racism through a veneer of scientificity. But Saitō was explicit on this point: Though his patients’ ­symptoms all emerged in some way through the Japanese social order, there was nothing intrinsically Japanese about the phenomenon. In fact, he had coined the term hikikomori to translate work that an American psychologist had done on similar cases of acute social withdrawal and later joined it up with the sociological category of NEETs (not in education, employment, or training) in Britain. His internationalism slyly made room for an astonishing claim: The structure of age itself was beginning to break down. Japan might have been early to the trend, but it was an effect of the market, not any particular culture.

Age is the most generic attribute a person can have, but each age is also irreducibly personal. Every 35-year-old has been 16, but no one has ever been 16 in exactly the same way. No surprise: The experience is deeply striated by gender, race, and class, and then again by the most intimate hazards of family history and endocrinology. Even so, maturation feels so natural it’s hard to think about the work that it takes or that it could go any other way. But how you feel old is a historically recent development, embedded so close to our core we take it as synonymous with our selves.

The global spread of the teenager shows this. When the Sphinx had Oedipus solve the riddle of aging on his way to establishing the neurotic family, there were only three ages you could be in life: a child, adult, or old. But by the time the post-1945 social order was in place, the teenager stood apart, ready at hand to the market. Without a household of their own, they would consume and be thrown in or out of work as the business cycle demanded it. The unique teenage consciousness that accompanied this economic development gives away the tight integration of age in the structures that govern our lives and teach us how to understand ourselves. Being a teenager is not about how old you are. Age is a social form attuned to the market. And though it’s unevenly distributed, it operates super­nationally.

Still, Saitō was curious. With touching excitement about the new possibilities opened up by the Internet (this was back in the late 1990s), he contacted colleagues abroad to see if they were seeing the same thing. Koreans wrote back: Yes, they said, and their compulsory military service had no effect on the spread of hikikomori. One French respondent wrote, No, his society would never produce withdrawal like that; another anonymously replied that it absolutely did but that in France, these people become homeless, not homebound. Jeffrey Angles chimes in too. In the translator’s note to the American edition, he shares the story of a student of his who went through a period of hikikomori, dropping out of high school in his senior year. With therapy he was later able to pull himself back into society and to college, but without a name for his experience, he had no explanation for what made him lose that time. A Thai psychiatrist wondered, “What do people in withdrawal do about their living expenses?” It was a reasonable question. Saitō found that their parents cover them.

Saitō’s book was otherwise modest in scope. It aimed to establish a working definition of the condition and provide practical steps for worried parents to follow. Without pathologizing withdrawn teens, Saitō suggested that the parents were equally implicated through their relationship with their child in what he called the “hikikomori system,” a self-reinforcing state of disconnection between child, family, and society. “As the individual takes shelter from the social body, it holds both the individual and the family in its grasp,” he says. But even though elective solitary confinement seems like it must stem from extreme trauma if not psychosis, Saitō insists that there is no mental illness involved. Instead, he links it to our “era of adolescence” and concludes that “‘social withdrawal’ is the pathology that best symbolizes our moment in time.”

At base, the problem is one of mounting surplus populations. This is not the eugenicist fever dream of overpopulation but a concept that Karl Marx developed alongside a critique of Thomas Malthus. Essentially, since the working day can only be extended so far, increases in productivity happen only through labor-saving innovation. Extended across time and populations, this means fewer and fewer people must be employed to make a profit. More and more people become not only unnecessary but an impediment to fleet, low-cost production.

In Capital Vol. 1, Marx argues: “The degree to which the means of production are means of employment for the workers lessens progressively as those means become more extensive, more concentrated and technically more efficient ... The working population therefore produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous; and it does this to an extent which is always increasing.”
Like excess inventory, their labor power cannot be sold, so it must be written off or destroyed.

Certain populations are written off a priori. For old people who can’t work anymore, acute social withdrawal is not just expected, it’s imposed. If they’ve been lucky, retirees will have savings to draw from, so they can keep consuming until they die. But bowing out from society isn’t seen as illness or family shame. Likewise, a labor participation rate of 50 percent for Japanese women means that “people are less likely to see a woman withdrawing into the house as problematic behavior,” Saitō offers. And childhood was not always a time of nonwork—it was a labor victory. Like the weekend, it had to be fought for to wrest it from bosses as time off. Child labor laws were the worker’s movement’s earliest wins, though they were conceded in exchange for compulsory schooling.

The problem, Saitō says, is that the hikikomori patient is not exempt, but still has no place in society. It’s certainly not for discrimination or lack of qualifications: the demographic profile is overwhelmingly firstborn sons, often academically well-seated. But in their understanding, they don’t, and they drop out of school; they can’t hold jobs; they have no friends; they often stop speaking. They take refuge in the home because “the household is the only place they feel like they belong.” But it’s also where someone will feed them. (It’s not uncommon for hikikomori to hole up in a kitchen. The parents will sometimes construct a new one.) Because Saitō refuses a psychogenic explanation for the behavior, and because exclusion from society is taken as a given, the hikikomori phenomenon appears in his book primarily as a disorder of the home.

But a disorder of the home, however private, is still an economic disorder. The word economy derives from the Greek for slave owner’s household, and household wealth, not individual net worth, remains the metric for evaluating national economic well-being. Though we understand ourselves to be a market society, the naturalness of the exclusion of some people from the labor market—some women, children, and the elderly—depends on their staying close to home. (Their evil counterparts, people who don’t work or work the wrong way, are then understood as either homeless or from bad homes.) So if the social pathology that best sums up our moment in time is coming from inside the house, it’s because the economy put it there.

That’s because these are still people; they have to eat and sleep somewhere. What do they do? Saitō notes that even when mute, the person in withdrawal pays extremely close attention to what his ­family is ­saying. Well, the market speaks, too: You’re better dead. Hikikomori emerges as one response to the threat of destruction. It is the nightmare edge of the trend, more and more prevalent across the advanced capitalist core, which inspires so many identical think pieces on millennials and their infuriating ways. Kids these days—they live with their parents for so long! They don’t make major purchases or form households! Yeah, well. One 30-year mortgage ago, the labor market was fundamentally different. The markers of aging that corresponded to a programmatic course through it no longer hold. The adolescent condition of labor is generalizing.

Saitō calls hikikomori “a pathology of adolescence,” not adolescents. Teendom is spreading beyond its original cohort. The people who catch it may be in their 20s or 30s, but they’re stuck with a teen’s relation to the market, always at the entrance. Though he spends far more time cautioning parents to ­refrain from castigating their adult children as lazy, Saitō does at one point identify a cause: “The reason that the child goes into withdrawal is not because he or she does not want to work, but because he or she is unable to work, even though he or she wants to.” Since a job signals adulthood, being barred from one deranges the normal course of maturation, and manifests as psychic distress.

The family was the home of age. You arrived at your job already mature, supposedly, and left before a messy senescence. But with the entire category of work in crisis and family formation in terminal decline, age too is revealed to have been left open to the whims and ravages of the market. Hikikomori is a glimpse of the new moments in the life cycle wholly integrated into a system that breaks itself down as it grows. It’s not a particularly heroic response to being called into being as surplus. But if it is pathological, it is so only in having decided not to die.