Hikikomori for months or years at a time

Hikikomori is a label, coined by Tokyo Psychologist Saito Tamaki (Saito 1998), which describes an increasing trend of acute social withdrawal amongst youths in Japanese society. Hikikomori emerged into public awareness as a social problem in Japan between the years 1999 and 2000, when a spree of shocking youth crimes were linked to the hikikomori phenomenon by the media (Lyons, 2001; Ogino, 2004, p.120; BBC, 2000b): “(s)ome of those accused in the crime spree–including the bus hijacker and a man who kidnapped a girl and held her captive for 10 years–have been identified as hikikomori.” (Larimer, 2000). Hikikomori were characterized as Japanese youth, primarily male, who shut out contact with society by hiding within their parents’ homes for months or even years at a time. In the process, hikikomori become truants, failing out of school and work through their long absences from the outside world (Lyons, 2001; Ogino, 2004, p.

120). Japanese families who can afford to support hikikomori children in the home for months or years at a time are those with middle-class resources (Kudo, 2001). Further, once a hikikomori youth has dropped out of the mainstream education track due to long absences, the preparation necessary to study and pass the college entrance exams becomes a difficult and stressful hurdle.

For this hikikomori youth, there are few second chances in the mainstream Japanese system for a middle-class career (Rohlen, 1992). In response to the hikikomori issue, “(t)he Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare organized a research group in June 2000 immediately after a murder case” (Ogino, 2004, p.121). This governmental group established an operational definition for hikikomori that is still used in the identification and treatment of hikikomori youth. This definition has four criteria: (1) individual circumstances for the cause of withdrawal are disregarded, (2) it focuses on the “state in which people are retreating into their living spaces and withdrawing from social activities, for example school or work”, (3) hikikomori do not have a mental illness or mental retardation- ‘hikikomori’ is not a name for a disease but a label for the act of acute social withdrawal and, (4) “the period of withdrawal is six months or more”. The research group surveyed Japanese health centers throughout the country in 2003 and yielded 14,069 cases that fit their operational framework for ‘hikikomori’. Of the respondents, 76.4% were males, their [email protected]

edu 2 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski average age was 26.7 years old, and 50% had been suffering as hikikomori for over five years (Ogino, 2004, p.121). My research examined one hikikomori rehabilitation institution, given the pseudonym Takeyama Gakko?, which is located in the Tokyo region of Japan.

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Over the two to three year span of Takeyama’s rehabilitation program, a normalization process was employed in order to re-socialize middle-class youth who had displayed hikikomori behaviors. That is, the construction of social rehabilitation based on an idealized norm of conduct through group participation, as well as routinization and repetition until desired behaviors were internalized and taken for granted (Foucault, 1995). In Takeyama’s normalization process, right conduct was rewarded with greater self-determination and status, while improper conduct was discouraged. After several years of rehabilitation at the center, a reclusive middle-class hikikomori, aged 15 to 29, was transformed into a normalized working adult.

I argue in this paper is that Takeyama’s rehabilitation process is gender socialization, namely the adoption of working class masculinities by male ‘graduates’ of the rehabilitation center. My central research question for this paper examines how the process of hikikomori rehabilitation observed at my research site was also a process of masculinization for male students at Takeyama. Director of Takeyama, Kazuo Ishida, Mr. Ishida, has three decades of experience with hikikomori. He estimated that the Takeyama facility has admitted over 1500 hikikomori youths over the years into its program, with 65% of these being boys (Kazuo Ishida, interview, 4 May, 2004). His wife, Mrs. Ishida, has overseen the daily operations of Takeyama for many years.

In this job capacity, Mrs. Ishida explained that Japanese families with male children are more likely to seek outside intervention, thus accounting for Takeyama’s gender distribution (Mizuho Ishida, interview, 1 May, 2004). As I explored staff members’ perspectives on the gender imbalance at the center, I began to perceive gender socialization as central to Takeyama’s rehabilitation process, from entry to matriculation.

Male re- socialization at Takeyama manifests in numerous ways, from the daily activities of physical labor, within the stages of rehabilitation as defined by Takeyama, to male staff-to-student role modeling. Staff mentors provided daily normalization cues, encouragement, and reinforcement of masculine behaviors. [email protected] 3 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski Takeyama’s rehabilitation process defines three stages of recovery for their students as they progress through the program. In my observations, I noticed that each stage had a discernable masculinization phase attached to the process.

Stage one students still exhibited the passivity and avoidance behaviors learned in the family home as hikikomori. As youth are normalized at Takeyama into behaviors considered acceptable for youth their age, they were also modeling the masculinities of staff mentors and more senior students in the program. By stage two, they were young men re-socialized into a functional male identity. Stage three students exhibited the self-reliant masculine identities of working adults, but were still attached to the Takeyama center in their daily responsibilities. At each stage through the Takeyama process, young Japanese males are exchanging one form of masculine identity for another, each with an increasing level of expected performance within accepted gender norms. My emergent research question is to examine these two features of the rehabilitation process for hikikomori at the Takeyama facility: the normalization of a male youth into an adult masculine identity that also involves the construction of a working class life.

METHODS The Setting The Takeyama rehabilitation center in Tokyo is a two-story building. Indoor de?cor in the public areas is simple and functional. Both floors of Takeyama had dozens of uniform doors that led to rooms that were the assigned sleeping quarters of the students. A lounge that spanned about half of the length of the first floor acted as the primary setting for staff/student mentoring activities as well as the three daily meals served by the center. Most of the day, the lounge functioned as a gathering place for students and staff between duties.

Situated in the center of the lounge were two low dining tables designed for users to sit on the carpeted floor. Despite the limited seating in the lounge, the two-hour window for each meal period was a generous time frame, so that the lounge was never over-crowded. During my research, Takeyama Gakko? had sixty-two youth in rehabilitation who were supervised [email protected] 4 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski by eighteen staff. Only twenty students lived at any one time in the main Takeyama buildings, and about 70% of those were male.

Youth that lived in the main Takeyama buildings were the newest arrivals and were still socially withdrawn hikikomori. Data Gathering I collected qualitative data in the form of field notes and semi-structured interviews at the Takeyama rehabilitation center for hikikomori youth. This was done during seven discrete one-week stays over a span of ten months, from September 2003 to May 2004, which totaled into a combined observational period of nearly two months. I directly observed young people being treated for acute social withdrawal, the facility’s staff, and the organizational structure and methodology used to rehabilitate youths in the program. I regularly recorded field notes each day after the scheduled breakfast, lunchtime, and dinner meals offered at the Takeyama facility.

The richest interactions and densest number of events occurred in the time leading up to, during, and after each daily meal. Gathering in the center’s common lounge/dining room for meals three times a day was an activity that everyone enrolled and employed at the hikikomori rehabilitation center was expected to attend without fail. On most days, attendance in the lounge for meal times numbered around sixty people, spread out over the span of the two hours scheduled for each meal period. I also conducted sixteen semi-structured qualitative interviews with permanent and volunteer staff at Takeyama. The purpose of this Takeyama interview instrument was to balance my own field observations of hikikomori behaviors with observations of the experienced Takeyama Gakko? staff. Interviews were conducted at the research site in the interview subject’s native language of Japanese. DRAWING IN FAILED SONS: STAFF EXPLAIN MALE BIAS Admittance to Takeyama as a stage one student is a gendered filtering process. This involves the arc of withdrawal into a hikikomori lifestyle interacting with the middle-class family expectations for [email protected]

edu 5 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski sons and daughters to behave within accepted gender norms. In the case of boys, the behaviors of hikikomori males run contrary to parental expectations for sons, that of the middle-class masculine ideal of the hard working white-collar salaryman (Roberson and Suzuki, 2003, p. 4). In post-war Japan, a successful middle-class lifestyle for an adult male has been the corporate salaryman who has “lifetime employment, the seniority system of company promotion and company unionism” (Roberson and Suzuki, 2003, p.

9). However, within the social isolation of a hikikomori, the boy fails to internalize the established social norms for young men. In this sense, Takeyama’s hikikomori are “failed middle-class sons”. When a family finally acknowledges that their child is a hikikomori, they seek outside intervention. At this point, Takeyama draws a family’s failed son into the rehabilitation program as a stage one student. According to the Takeyama staff, many hikikomori live in their rooms within the family home for months or years at a time.

To avoid any interpersonal contact, hikikomori sleep during the day and venture out in the late hours of the night, when the risk of face-to-face contact is low. During late hours, a hikikomori may go into the kitchen for food or even go outside to vending machines near his house. Parents may be forced to talk through the youth’s door to a hikikomori child within who refuses face-to- face contact. In this context, a hikikomori may be perceived in what can be described as a “failed son” in the eyes of his family. Mizuho Ishida acted as primary administrator for the Tokyo facility’s daily responsibilities. As Mrs. Ishida noted: In Japan, boys go outside, girls stay in the house. Therefore, boys who don’t go outside are seen as a problem.

Because girls who stay inside the home eventually come outside for the purpose of marriage, parents don’t see hikikomori girls as a problem. So, a girl becomes a little withdrawn, a hikikomori, but the parents don’t yet understand this. “Ah, you are staying in the home, that’s fine”, they think. (Mizuho Ishida, interview, 1 May, 2004)Besides Mrs.

Ishida, conversations with other Takeyama staff also supported this notion that families seek Takeyama’s outside intervention for hikikomori males who have failed to become socialized into expected male adult roles. Takeyama draws these failed sons into their program for rehabilitation, which by the staff’s rationale explained the higher ratio of male students at Takeyama’s facility. [email protected] 6 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski Expectations for Sons and Daughters The crux of the problem for hikikomori, according to the staff, is that recognition of social withdrawal among young men and women in Japan appears to center around the different gender expectations for their sons and daughters. Interviews and conversations with the Takeyama staff revealed a worldview that the reason more males were brought to Takeyama for rehabilitation is that the role of men is outside of the home earning a living to support the household, while the role of women is in the home. This conforms to the concepts of inside sphere or domestic sphere for the expected roles of females, and outside or public sphere for males in Japanese society (Brinton, 1992, p.79-107). Mari Ozawa was a part-timer who had worked for over a year at Takeyama.

Because her own child was a hikikomori, she possessed knowledge both as a parent and as a trained member of the Takeyama rehabilitation staff. Ozawa acknowledged the disparity of female students: In the case of female hikikomori, families have the attitude that it’s okay if females don’t work, so acute social withdrawal in females is better hidden from parents. Young males, because it’s unacceptable for them to refuse to work if they don’t go to school, those parents quickly feel a sense of impending crisis with their male child and rush him to the hospital. For that reason, on the surface, there are only a small number of females recognized as hikikomori, though there is no practical difference in the number of young males and females who are actually hikikomori.

The fact that only fifteen percent of Takeyama Gakko? students are female is attributable to the sense of impending emergency parents feel with male children they don’t feel with their young girls. (Mari Ozawa, interview, 1 May, 2004)The reclusive and passive behaviors of male hikikomori are a contrast to the expected behaviors of most male children their age who are in the process of transitioning into adult social roles. Adult social roles and adult identity are influenced by gender socialization. “Gender.

..is the activity of managing situated conduct in the light of normative conceptions of attitudes appropriate for one’s sex category”. Further, gender is rooted in social learning as “what is involved in doing gender as an ongoing activity embedded in everyday interaction” (West and Zimmerman, 2002 p. 5). Masculinity is thus a learned process, one that is imprinted into a normalization process that also contains the valuation of expected adult roles in society. [email protected] 7 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski In terms of young girls, passivity or shyness can be seen as a feminine trait in Japan, and a girl who hides in her room and refuses to leave the house is not necessarily acting too far outside of the expected social norms.

However, shyness can go to extremes, as Mrs. Ishida elaborates: Michael: At Takeyama there are students who are female. So, why did the parents of those girls bring their children to this place for help? Ishida: Although they are girls Emphasis mine, their parents felt there was a problem so they brought them here to Takeyama. The girls wouldn’t take even one step to go outside, they couldn’t make friends; it wasn’t that they weren’t obedient/docile girls; the girls were far too docile and quiet. Emphasis mine, The parents for those seven female students who are here at Takeyama didn’t think that the girls should have to work at a job like young males. What’s more, though they are girls, the parents wanted their daughters to become energetic and healthy.

(Mizuho Ishida, interview, 1 May, 2004)On the other hand, if a hikikomori girl is not ‘shy’ and retiring but is loud, aggressive and abusive by shouting at family members, the Takeyama staff believe that parents of such hikikomori daughters become alarmed and seek outside intervention. The staff reports that this aggression is a common stage of the hikikomori experience for both genders with the building frustration at their predicament after a long period of seclusion. The Takeyama staff believe that some of their female students were brought to them in this phase of aggressive frustration and acting out by hikikomori. These aggressive behaviors flag a female youth as hikikomori by their parents, for she is a daughter not acting within expected feminine norms.

The social expectations by Japanese parents with girls appears to be in accordance with lingering traditional values of Confucian and ie social hierarchy as they relate to the role of females in Japanese society (Lebra 1984; Hendry 1987; Rosenburger 2001). ADMITTING BROKEN BOYS: INITIAL EXPERIENCES AT THE CENTER When a young boy drops out of school, refuses to work, sleeps during the day or remains hidden in his room, some alarmed parents eventually identify their child as a hikikomori and seek outside intervention for their child (Kudo, 2001). These young males might be considered broken boys in the sense that the shrink from normal male behaviors- such as being active, going outdoors, rough-housing with other boys, playing competitive games, and doing sports. Hidden in their rooms, they fail to mature into normal male adolescents. Hikikomori are at risk of becoming severely damaged men later in life as [email protected] 8 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski single, economically dependent, and reclusive misfits.

The Takeyama staff believe that parents with hikikomori in their homes become locked into a negative parent-son dynamic that further reinforces hikikomori behaviors. Eventually, parents realize they need outside intervention to help their failed son. Takeyama provides this outside third-party intervention by admitting the hikikomori male into their rehabilitation program. Through video documentation as well as staff conversations, I was informed of Takeyama’s admittance process once concerned parents contact the center. At this point, Takeyama Director, Mr. Kazuo Ishida, travels to the domestic setting of the family home to meet the hikikomori.

Initially, Mr. Ishida may talk to the hikikomori boy through the door of their room, asking them questions, trying to get them to realize their situation, and to open the youth up. After numerous house calls, spanning months to a year or more, the hikikomori youth finally agrees to accompany Mr. Ishida to Takeyama’s facility where a room has been reserved. The Takeyama staff reports that, for an incoming hikikomori youth, the transition from the family home to the shared living environment of Takeyama’s main facility is often the hardest adjustment of the entire rehabilitation. In this sense, a family’s passive and broken boy is admitted into the public rehabilitation environment of Takeyama’s rehab center, one that thrusts the youth into daily routines and interactions designed to socialize youth into an acceptable and functional masculinity (Rohlen, 1989; Roberson & Suzuki, 2003). New arrivals to Takeyama, these “broken boys”, are considered students in stage one of their rehabilitation, a phase that usually lasts from three to six months. Fresh from the family home, stage one students are still withdrawn and are therefore kept under very close supervision, with boys living in the main Takeyama building and girls in the girls’ dormitory next door.

The first recovery phase involves the staff working closely with a new student to break older reclusive habits. This is done in part by involving new arrivals in activities with more senior Takeyama students—hikikomori youth in the advanced stages of rehabilitation. Takeyama’s supervised activities are designed to build a sense of belonging to the group. [email protected]

edu 9 ASA Paper From Failed Sons to Working Men Michael Dziesinski A new arrival’s first step into a normal identity is provided with a strong positive male role model found in Mr. Ishida, who has coaxed most of the student body at Takeyama out of their family homes to a life at Takeyama. I observed firsthand Mr. Ishida’s charisma and fatherly conduct towards the students- an indication of the role he plays in the recovering hikikomori’s lives. In his late fifties, he is quick to smile, has a disarming demeanor, and often laughs jovially. An example of his fatherly behaviors were his interactions with Takeyama students during an outdoor barbeque—his friendly banter garnered smiles and laughs from even the most withdrawn Stage One Takeyama students.

The net effect of Mr. Ishida’s circulation among the students at the barbeque was to give the impression that the students were a part of his extended family, a part of Takeyama. As a result of Mr.

Ishida’s efforts, a strong bond has formed between Mr. Ishida and the Takeyama students, even if he cannot be present at Takeyama on a daily basis. Despite Mr. Ishida’s moderating effect on hikikomori isolation, several weeks to several months are required before Takeyama’s daily routines and responsibility-taking behaviors take hold in a student’s behavior patterns. Like their hikikomori existence at home, new stage one students retain their social habits and sleep during the day and roam the Takeyama building at night, which allows the avoidance of as much interaction as possible. Starting at 11:30 P.M., the Takeyama night-shift staffer makes the rounds of the Takeyama facility, shutting down the main lights, locking up the doors, and finally returning to the office to record events in the logbook.

It is well after 1 A.M., when the halls are quiet and most people in Takeyama are asleep, that the new students to Takeyama venture out of their bedrooms. While the new students were not loud in their activities, the thin walls of the Takeyama center made it easy to hear them as they shuffled around the hallways late at night. 


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