Japanese Net Cafe

Anthropology of Japanese Hikikomori: The Sociocultural Impact of Increased Exposure to Technology and COVID-19

Japan Isolation and Hikokomori
Source: https://medium.com/@joseph_21774/hikikomori-japans-silent-sufferers-cf05b2228f51

In my most recent blog post, “Anthropology of Japanese Family Systems: Gender Roles, Marriage, and Aging,” Japanese family structures, gender roles, and the increasing gap between the younger and older generations are revealed. The younger generations are viewed as lazier and not as driven by some of the older generations (Hendry). Ultimately, the younger generations are choosing not to marry, not to work, and raise fewer children, and these actions are seen as eating away at the once strong social order in Japan. New incidents and observable trends have been occurring in the last fifty years in Japan with the rise of the internet including hikikomori, increased usage of internet, cell phones and connectivity, and net cafes.

Japanese Hikikomori- Never leaving the room
Credit: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190129-the-plight-of-japans-modern-hermits

Japanese Hikikomori

In the last thirty to forty years, a stunning phenomenon has been occurring amongst Japanese adults. Imagine never leaving your home and staying in one room with basically no contact with the outside world except through the internet, e-mail, phone, and text messaging. While Covid-19 pandemic has certainly forced the majority of us to stay in our homes, there are still a large number of hikikomori in Japan and it is growing to this day.

Japan’s modern day hermits are known as hikikomori (socially withdrawn) people who isolate themselves from all social interactions, family members, and employment. The number is growing to around 100,000 to 700,000, and one third of them refuse to go to school. Severity is classified by how often an individual will leave his dwelling or room. Parents will resume caring for their socially withdrawn children even if they are full-grown adults, and provide them with food, clean clothes and bed sheets. Without regular jobs, people cannot earn a whole lot of income, so they depend on their parents’ finances.

While one of the core features of hikikomori is being socially withdrawn, modern day psychologists are beginning to associate this act of removing oneself from society with additional psychotic illnesses such as anxiety, PTSD, depressive disorder, mood disorders, schizoid and avoid personality disorders (Teo A.R and Gaw, A.C 2010). Research has shown that those who choose to socially withdraw themselves are not as suicidal as one might think. By disappearing from most routine aspects in life, they have found a living alternative to suicide.  Simply put, while locked in their rooms for years most engage in no suicidal acts or behaviors, and are doing “nothing at all” (Dziesinski, 2003).

According to Takahiro, a person must meet the following criteria to be defined as a hikikomori:

  1. Marked social isolation in one’s home.
  2. Duration of continuous social isolation for at least 6 months.
  3. Significant functional impairment or distress associated with the social isolation.
Japanese hikikomori
Source: https://medium.com/@joseph_21774/hikikomori-japans-silent-sufferers-cf05b2228f51

Why do Japanese people commit hikikomori?

Educational, social, and employment pressures are the biggest reasons to why especially men socially withdraw themselves from Japanese society. Socialization can be seen as having to deal with pressure of expectations at school, work, and marriage. In American and British culture, being confined to one’s room as an adolescent is more often times a form of punishment.  When kids misbehave, parents will send their children to their room to think about their ill-behaved actions. However in Japan, retreating to an isolated room is more often times viewed as a protective shelter. One’s bedroom is considered as safe. Recent studies have shown that Japanese men are more likely to adopt a more negative view of the world, and are perceived to not be living up to the standards placed on them by the older generations (Matthews and White 79).

  • Education: Following World War II, Anne Allison reveals how the Japanese education system was built around a very high level testing program. Students are still required to study very rigorously and test scores matter the most to get into a worthy university in order to prepare them for demanding jobs. If students are unable to meet these demanding requirements as they continue through the education system, they feel as if they are a failure as they enter the workforce and are more likely to succumb to isolation and depression. Some may choose to commit hikikomori even in high school and just drop out completely. One student describes his life in the academia system, and says that “school is a monoculture, everyone has to have the same opinion. If someone says something they’re out of the group.”
  • Work: Men feel the constant pressure to perform at work and succeed in life. If they can’t live up to the standards placed on them by society they may withdraw and stay in their room in order to avoid work responsibilities. The Japanese generation known as dankai generation in the 1970s were considered to be corporate warriors. Men went out to work almost to the brink of “death” while their wives stayed home to care for the family and uphold female responsibilities (Matthews and White 2004). Men have been known to work all of the time and even are still known to stay at work until the next day almost. Recently, women have also felt pressured to find good jobs and navigate gender discrimination without having to remain at home. Western influence is shown to have an influence on Japanese society still while they try to navigate their rigid, cultural values.
  • Marriage and Social Lives: As work life puts enormous pressure on men, the long-standing traditions of marriage are no longer holding. Marriage and social pressures also play a role in causing some Japanese to withdraw themselves from society. Sometimes arranged marriages (still exist at 5-6%) burden men and that causes them to abandon their social obligation. Women are delaying marriage and are gaining greater occupational and marital choice as marriage is no longer viewed as the route to maintain a solid middle-class status (Matthews and White 140). Men also are starting to value their hobbies more than socializing. If they stop working and commit to a marriage, they feel that they will lose their hobbies. More and more men are choosing to remain single as they “like having their own time and space, being able to make decisions, eat when they want, go where they want” (com)

Japanese Youth Spending More and More Time Online
Source: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2021/04/04/lifestyle/kids-spending-time-online/

Pampered Japanese Children: Increased Exposure to Technology

After discussing the role of hikikomori in Japanese society, it is important to also show that there are those that are not pulling out from everyday life, but are playing a role in societal transformations. Changes in Japanese society reveal that internet usage has played a role in the youth veering away from traditional values. Another blog post on here highlights child usage of internet in the article “Digital Dependency.” According to Matthews and White (2004), Japanese parenting remains centered on children. Children that became pampered and spoiled in their youth, may be seen as weak and way too dependent on their parents care. Japanese children have appeared as more and more saturated by technology as they are often taken with TV, phones, and computers, and may be too indulged in material goods and pleasure. A child speaks to his pampered life and says, “I have my own room, where I have my TV, my telephone, everything I need. I don’t have to go into the living room…. Even though I’m at home, I can communicate with whomever I want to” (Matthews 74). It is not unusual even globally for children to be this pampered in the last decade while being surrounded by different modes of internet access. In this next section, I bring attention to Japanese usage of cell phones and the dichotomous views that come with cellphone ownership.

Japanese cellphone usage in Tokyo
Source: https://dailytimes.com.pk/634978/japan-bans-mobile-phone-usage-while-walking-on-road/

 Japan Keitai Denwa

As things become much more convenient, Keitai (cellphones) make it possible for one to receive fast and immediate information, and also provides a sense of anshin (piece of mind) (Matthews and White 72). Many adults have felt that are much more interconnected with their friends and they can frequently chat on apps such as LINE. However, the use of cell phones seem to increase generational distances from young people to their elderly grandparents as older people seem to lack the skill to navigate smart phones

On the contrary, in Anthropology of Mobile Phone Culture in Japan, the author states that cell phone usages in Japan have been “damaging youth sensibilities.”  In Japan’s Changing Generations, a Japanese adult said that with the usage of cell phones, “I have no time for myself. I noticed this for the first when I got a keitai. I had no privacy anymore. It’s like being a dog on a leash” (2004, p.74). These contradictions and views on cellphones provide an insight to how young people perceive their lives today and how useful phones are in their lives. The cell phone can contribute to a positive lifestyle, decrease stress, and relieve fears of isolation, but on the other hand it can be disruptive (Matthews and White 79).

Japanese Net Cafe
Source: https://travel.amerikanki.com/living-net-cafe/

 Net Cafes and Homelessness in Japanese Society

Net cafes are also known as cyber homeless cafes. According to a study in Japan, over 5400 people are said to be spending at least the majority of their week in net cafes. The rooms are private and the guests receive anonymity. Ultimately, most people choose to live in an internet café to avoid family members, colleagues, and/or the law.  All of the cubicles are separated by long, narrow hallways so people feel isolated and can maintain their anonymity. Surprisingly, the majority of the people who encompass these cafes are not tourists or avid gamers, but those who are viewed at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole which includes homeless people, or people who need a temporary place to stay and cannot afford rent.

Homeless people are known to sleep in a 24-hour internet café or manga café, and sometimes use them as their permanent homes. In a CNN Article, a 35-year old man named Takahashi spends around $17 dollars overnight in a internet café where over 4000 are internet café refugees. According to a social anthropologist at Meiji Gakuin University, “people started using (internet cafes) as cheap alternatives to hotels. From there these net cafes gradually morphed into a sort of slightly, exotic homeless shelter.” People can make use of the showers, reclining chairs, coin laundries and also snacks that are present at these cafes as well.

In a CNN article in 2019 , Japan was shown to have 22 million part-time and temporary workers compared to 17 million in 2011. Most of these workers were making minimum wage around nine dollars an hour in Tokyo, and are finding it very difficult to purchase affordable housing. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more internet cafes have been shutting down or trying to limit the numbers to which people can reside in these cafes.

Japanese Significance in Anthropology
Source: https://www.bokksu.com/blogs/news/what-is-shinto

Significance in Anthropology

Although some of these new phenomenon were first seen as an incident that occurred solely in Japan, now Korean, American, Spanish, French and other adolescents all around the world are also isolating themselves from society, and engaging in excessive internet consumption. In a world where people are disengaging and become more alone, the rise of net cafes, excessive internet usage and other types of social media networking are also becoming more and more global. As more and more are straying away from the Japanese traditional marriage customs, women are having a harder time supporting themselves where men feel that their duties lie to their work. Education, marriage, work and social life really forces people to evaluate their worthiness in society.

A comparative study is needed to see if Japan is really that different from the rest of the world. Are more people likely to socially withdraw themselves in Japan, or are people more prone to isolation when having preexisting mental health issues? What would happen if the internet shut down for a day? Would people similar to those who commit hikikomori be simply lost and unsure of how to participate in day to day life? These phenomenon have much to be addressed now that many people in the world have been isolated due to Covid-19.

Japanese Net Cafe and Isolation
Source: Net Cafe Refugees Documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5bVWzTyJ7E

Works consulted:

Hendry, Joy. 1995. Understanding Japanese society. London: Routledge.

Dziesinski, M. (2003, May). Hikikomori: Investigations into the phenomenon of acute social

withdrawal in contemporary japan. Retrieved from

Mathews, G.. “Can ‘a real man’ live for his family?: “Ikigai and masculinity in today’s Japan.” (2005).

Mathews, Gordon, and Bruce White. 2004. Japan’s changing generations: are young people creating a new society? London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Teo, A. R., & Gaw, A. C. (2010). Hikikomori, a Japanese culture-bound syndrome of social withdrawal?: A proposal for DSM-5. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 198(6), 444–449. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181e086b1

Ronald, Richard, and Misa Izuhara. “Emerging Adulthood Transitions in Japan: The Role of Marriage and Housing Careers.” Asian Journal of Social Science 44, no. 3 (2016): 391-415. Accessed May 8, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43954005.

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