Illustration by Heath Hipwell
The reclusive lifestyle is as old as civilisation itself. Stories of hermits pepper ancient folk tales and mythologies, with every cave seemingly inhabited by a mystic, heretic or lunatic. In a modern world, the geographic environment is significantly different, yet the relentless stress of the social environment is more oppressive than ever – so where are our modern equivalents of the archetypal hermit?
The Japanese have a term for it: Hikikomori. They’re solitary figures, hidden away from public eyes, often with the assistance of their concerned but enabling parents. For years, they spend their time in isolation, rarely leaving their rooms, if at all; living an existence that is rarely acknowledged publicly, due to Japan’s shame culture. It’s estimated that as much as 1% of Japan’s population are hikikomori.
The West has its own version of the archtype: the twenty-something slacker that lives in his parents basement or garage and plays World of Warcraft, surrounded by discarded snack wrappers and bottles of urine. Regardless of the surrounding mainstream culture, it seems that this sort of lifestyle is becoming an increasing phenomenon.
I spoke with a reformed Australian hikikomori, now resocialising and involved in society. For him, it was a slow, almost unrecognised descent into isolation. “I went overseas,” he says. “When I came back, rather than tell my friends, I decided that I’d like some time alone, to gather my thoughts and rebalance myself. I ended up isolating myself for eight months.”
It’s clear that hikikomori have a lot in common with people who suffer mental illnesses such as Avoidant Personality Disorder, yet very few hikikomori test positive for mental illnesses that accurately account for their actions.
“It was just solitude,” says my reformee. “But when you’re alone like that, structures break down. Your sleeping pattern becomes fluid and irrelevant. Bedtime is when you’re sleepy. Meals are when you’re hungry. It’s chaos… but there’s also an unbridled freedom that comes with that.”
Quite often, the phenomenon has been linked with affluence, and not without good reason. The vast majority of hikikomori receiving the financial support necessary to maintain their lifestyle through their parents, living in their childhood homes with their living expenses borne by their complicit and loving hosts. Yet the Global Financial Crisis has also brought another variant of the hikikomori to academic attention – one that is a victim of circumstance. Unable to find any employment, many hikikomori socially withdraw due to a lack of options available to them. The issue is becoming particularly noticeable in Italy, Spain and Greece, countries with exceptionally high levels of youth unemployment.
Whether the hikikomori lifestyle can be considered a true subculture is debatable, however, because hikikomori mainly use the Internet and online gaming as their main sources of entertainment, there is often a communal factor that goes largely unacknowledged. It’s not unusual for hikikomori to pass time reading, writing, or with any other average hobby, but MMORPGs are a very common pastime, and offer a forum through which they can escape their confined realities in a communal experience. Social websites like 4chan and Reddit also help to supplement the desire for social interaction.
Is this the future of humanity? It’s pretty unlikely. Doomsayers have been bellowing from the mountains suggesting that the simplest change to the communicative status quo will bring about the end of man for centuries. In the 18th century, a French statesman argued that newspapers would create social isolation, whilst Socrates was recorded as regularly speaking out about the dangers of writing.
Yet there can be no doubt that the future of the hikikomori as a subculture is unclear. In Japan, there is real concern as the “first wave” of hikikomori, now between the ages of 35 and 45, are now being forced to face the inevitable: the death of their parents from old age. Disturbingly, a survey conducted by a researcher at Osaka University asked hikikomori what they would do upon the death of their parents. A significant majority indicated suicide or starvation. Only a small fraction indicated an intention to re-enter mainstream society.
Is intervention necessary? Or is a life of solitude — as long as the hikikomori has the ability to be responsible for themself — a legitimate lifestyle? One thing is certain: if social isolation is truly an aspect of the human condition that people will inevitably be drawn to, then it seems likely that the phenomenon will continue well into our online-driven future.