Holistic local sustainability; food, water, energy, money, people
Hikikomori is a state of social withdrawal most commonly associated with Japan, where there are recently reported to be at least 1 million shutting themselves into their bedrooms, sometimes for decades. Some estimates are much higher and projects up to 10 million have been made. It occurs in South Korea and other countries, too. Hikikomori “has long been observed in Japan mainly among youth and adolescents since around the 1970s, and has been especially highlighted since the late 1990s.” Most of them are men, but not all are and gender differences play into both discussions of causes and reporting.
I lived in Japan for thirteen years. The country has a lot going for it; a wonderful rural craft culture, appreciation of its history, sense of self and enviable standards of politeness. It has it’s challenges, too, sometimes being called a ‘Straightjacket Society’ – the title of a book by Masao Miyamoto, ‘An Insider’s Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan’. Open communication is not one of the Japanese’ forte. There is a lot of pressure on young people from kindergarten onwards to compete in education and employment. If something goes wrong, like parental relations or bullying at school, emotional issues can be compounded by feelings of shame and embarrassment. Japan is densely populated and highly urbanized. I spent all my time in the cities, except for some holidays. Nowadays, back in Australia, I live in a suburb where most of the homes have decent-sized yards. I spend a lot of time at home, growing food along permaculture lines, hosting BnB guests and tenants and dedicating myself to advocating sustainability. I have a leafy outlook and get out regularly, cycling to shops as much as I can. I don’t regret leaving Japan for a minute, much as I love it and appreciate the time I spent there.
Another term for hikikomori is ‘urban hermit’. This got me wondering, ‘Are there any Hikikomori in rural areas?’ I started searching online. What became apparent is a universal assumption that it is an urban phenomenon. For example, a Frontiers of Science report looked at subjects who “were randomly selected from 200 urban and suburban municipalities in Japan in February 2010”. “Multistage stratified randomized sampling was used to ensure that the samples represented all areas in Japan. Firstly, 200 locations were randomly selected from 198 municipalities stratified by area and population size. Secondly, in each location, 25 samples were randomly selected from the municipality registration list.”
In other words, nobody seems to be even looking at rural Hikikomori, or considering urbanisation as a contributing factor. Yet, the Frontiers of Science report states,
“Yong et al. found no significant differences between the prevalence of hikikomori in men and women in rural areas (30).”
Yong’s study is exceptional and shows that hikikomori does indeed occurs outside urban areas. However, there appear to be no studies comparing its prevalence in urban and rural areas. Is rural hikikomori underestimated? It’s hard to tell, but the picture so far is that it is predominantly an urban phenomenon.
Here, I want to draw attention to urban high-rise lifestyles as a contributing factor causing hikikomori. Japanese people living in cities have very little connection to nature because of just how densely the built-up areas are. This is because it’s a country of steep mountains and annual typhoons that cause landslides . City parks are rare. There are small, dirt play grounds for children with some swings. There are urban market gardens and some large parks, but these are the exception. Homes have little to no yard, and lawn mowing is unknown. There are no nature strips on roads. Walls and fences jut right up against streets, making intersections particularly dangerous. People living in these circumstances are highly dependent on systems to deliver their needs, such as food, utilities and garbage collection. It is nearly impossible to dream of any sort of urban self-sufficiency.
Might more open spaces and quiet parks entice Hikikomori outside? Is it a coincidence that they are common in built-up areas and densely populated Asian countries like Japan and Korea? The good news is that Japan’s population is contracting, meaning people should be able to spread out as the density eases up. But that will only happen if there is enough awareness and willingness to share the benefits. With planning, high-rises can be demolished as they reach end-of-life to make way for localized food production and recreational parks with large trees. As mentioned, Japan has an urban market garden culture. If people can be persuaded to let up on international economic competition and turn to more self-sufficient, steady state economic means of production with a better life/work balance, stress levels should drop and personal connections improve. Hikikomori might then start to recede, or to put it more aptly – come out into the sunshine.