For decades in Japan, people have been disappearing. Coming home one evening, they have drawn the curtains or gone to their bedrooms and stayed there ever since, as though they have ceased to exist. It’s a social phenomenon known as ‘hikikomori’, defining over one million nationals who have chosen a lifestyle of extreme withdrawal from society. The term is recognisable to many an otaku, who are used to seeing it applied to a pale, thin, agoraphobic and sometimes comedic creature who comes out of hiding only when the plot deems it necessary.
Often just as visible as their anime counterparts’ under-eye circles, however, is the fact that these modern hermits live in fear. The terror of failing to blend into their social surroundings, or failing in their grades, or in the ruthless targets of the workplace. When facing pressure from their colleagues, classmates, teachers or parents to conform to a strict ideal of success, without any escape or compromise, there is little surprise in so many choosing to withdraw altogether. There is even less to wonder about in similar stories coming to be portrayed in stories by otaku en masse, who find it fascinating and perhaps admirable to so boldy state one’s difference from social norms. Where the shock lies is in the reality versus the fantasy of hikikomori in Japan.
According to a Cabinet Office survey from 2019, the majority of these extreme recluses are now over 40 years of age. The government had assumed that it was mostly the country’s youth who would cloister themselves in this way, as do many anime depicting hiki characters. The truth opposes most fictional hikikomori narratives, which put their protagonists at high school or college age. But the affluence which allows Japan’s middle class families to shelter their children into adulthood means that many of these former youths will have grown even further into their isolation.
An account from mother Mika Shibata says that her son has not come out of his bedroom for a year. “The longer this situation continues, the harder it is for him to step back into society,” she told The Economist, as much as she hopes he will eventually recover. Such a way of life perpetuates its own fear, the anxiety over being part of working society mounted on top of dreading what their family and community would think of them now.
More labels continue to appear for people who refuse to be normal. NEETs who are ‘not in education, employment or training’; freeters who are serial part-timers or freelancers; parasite singles living in their parents’ homes through their 20s, 30s and even beyond. Being either of these, or hikikomori, is a statement of rebellion against being groomed as a corporate pawn. Perhaps as a sign of these individuals being recognised as a movement, many hikikomori anime characters find a sense of victory in this life choice, not least among the gamers in this unseen crowd. No Game No Life stands in the uncommon position of having true hikikomori characters who come under attack from their social fears, and do not recover from them. This series’ older and stranger sister Sasami-san@Ganbaranai revels in her many fantastical realities, whether that’s in-game or the ones created for her by her technical wiz of a brother. To Sasami, any weirdness is preferable to the relentless security feeds and watching eyes of the outside world.
Shibata’s continued support of her son, feeding and housing him despite his evasion of family life, immediately reminds me of a repeating motif in Eromanga-sensei. Light novel writer Masamune Izumi leaves meals on a tray in front of his step-sister Sagiri’s door and hopes she will eat. But her social anxiety is often used for a joke or titillation, and many shows perpetuate this exploitative, mocking attitude towards people who were desperate to escape being exploited and mocked. Comedy series like Working!! and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei have secondary characters who are hikikomori as a shortcut to wringing humour or cheap sympathy from their situation. Many others such as Btooom!, WataMote and ReLIFE have hiki main characters whose condition has little real consequence. ReLIFE in fact erases its status of starring an adult hiki in the first episode, through a magic pill which allows Arata Kaizaki to redo his teenage years in school.
WataMote serves up a little irony by portraying the crushing impact of social anxiety through a comedic lens, but this could come off insensitive to anyone with experience of mental illness. A select few series show us the otherwise adult hiki who either has a healthy relationship to their lifestyle, or actively wants to return to social life. In I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying, Hajime Tsunashi is of professional working age, but he shuts himself in with anime and video games while his wife Kaoru goes out to work and socialise with colleagues. This particular example is striking because they love each other without feeling the need to try and change each other, or themselves. They bicker, as couples will, but it never pulls them apart, and they even face the challenge of parenthood as a perfect team.
The act of defeating social anxiety is shown elsewhere as the obstacle course of harrowing and embarrassing situations it truly can be. Welcome to the NHK lets the audience see Tatsuhiro Satou’s unhinged inner world, walled up with conspiracy theories, and Recovery of an MMO Junkie’s Moriko Morioka can only begin to emerge from her fictional sanctuary once she starts to discover her fellow gamers in her real life.
The reverse argument could even be made, that Moriko’s gateway to recovery is a literal fantasy which represents people from her life, in the style of The Wizard of Oz. It’s as though, in order to escape from the maze of depression and otherness, these characters must journey further in. Rozen Maiden’s Jun Sakurada, bullied into leaving school after he won a design contest with a princess outfit, receives a beautiful doll who comes to life and claims him as her master. In repeatedly rescuing her from her fellow living dolls, each competitors to become a real girl, he starts to believe he has the courage to rejoin his world.
And so many hikikomori in anime have taken the strangest way out, through, and sometimes back into society. Many of the real people suffering their condition will lack a fantastic doorway back into the real world, and will continue to be sidelined by their comedic counterparts in anime. Except perhaps for Jun, Morioka and others like them, who share their courageous recoveries with one million people who would otherwise feel hopelessly alone.