After a long day at work or school, you come home to rest your tired body. You drag yourself up to your room, close the door, and flop onto the bed, ready to give up dinner and just sleep in your work clothes or uniform. Your room is a place of solace for you, an exclusive haven where you can truly relax without having to worry about your appearance or actions.
However, your room is but one of many places in your life. Can you imagine staying within the confines of the small space for, say, months or even years at a time?
That’s exactly how approximately 50,000 people (mostly young men aged from their teens to their 30s) in Japan have been living their lives. Completely withdrawing themselves from all forms of social interaction, this unique demographic, known as “hikikomori, or 引き籠もり”, stay in their homes or rooms for extended periods which last months to even years at a time. Most of the time, they live with their parents, who take care of them and bring meals for them. In serious cases where the hikikomori refuse to leave the room at all, they will even use plastic bags and bottles as a substitute for a toilet.
However, these people don’t fully cut off contact with everyone; just physical interaction. Most of them use the Internet as a means to connect with others like them, or through games where they take on an alternate persona. By doing so, they discard their own reality and choose to delve into a universe where they could be anyone they want without facing the social problems in their lives.
How did this group of social outcasts come about? There are a few reasons accountable for the advent of the hikikomori. Many of these cases can be attributed to the result of school bullying. In extreme cases, victims begin a descent into social withdrawal by playing truant. These cases of truancy start to get longer and longer, and eventually they stop going to school altogether, choosing to stay at home where they can be safe from the bullies.
Another reason, which is linked to the first reason, is the tough Japanese economy that these youths are faced with when they graduate from college. Many hikikomori find that their chances of securing a stable job in the competitive job market are incredibly slim. It is very common in Japan for hikikomori and other young men in Japan to fully rely on their parents for financial support all the way into their late twenties or even thirties (these people are known as “parasite singles”), since it is actually a legitimate and more feasible option for them as compared to struggling to make it on their own.
Finally, the last reason, and the one most relevant to our local youth demographic, is the Japanese education system, which is utilised in Singapore as well. The harsh inflexible educational structure, emphasis on memorising fixed formulas and equations, and the massive amount of compulsory subjects have given rise to many stressed out students who are unable to see the relevance of many subjects they are studying. The lack of relevance and direction in their studies cause them to lose interest and drive, as the unforgiving pass-or-fail ultimatum proves too tough for them to take on.
The education system in Singapore might be similar, but we have not seen any social recluses on this extent here. However, some cases of “loners” have already risen, and although we do not have such a phenomenon as the hikikomori on our hands (yet), we must take care to ensure that our children, siblings, or friends do not degenerate into that state of self-inflicted solitary confinement.
– Bjorn Teo
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