Shutting Out the Sun; How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
By Michael Zielenziger
As the plague of hikikomori spreads among the nation's young, someone needs to develop effective countermeasures. Yet Japan's central government, which should he taking the lead, seems paralyzed or uninterested. Such official indifference hasn't prevented a wide variety of self-appointed experts from prescribing everything from drug therapy and couch counseling to manual labor in the fields as "cures" powerful enough to overcome such deep disillusion. Dozens of centers have sprung up across the nation, many run by those without clinical training, counseling experience, or medical supervision. And while some of these represent well-meaning efforts, others are run by charlatans. In an environment suffused with shame and secrecy, there is no way of knowing whether any of these approaches really works. By early 2004, no peer-reviewed journal had published any research on the nature of this malady. Nor had any rigorous field studies into its causes been disseminated. My conversations with both the Health and the Education Ministries suggested that despite my sense that a national mobilization might be needed to address this behavior head-on, neither agency was eager to probe deeply. Yet parents who are desperate, demoralized, and shamefilled flock to any treatment that offers even a glimmer of hope.
A few psychiatrists, counselors, and low-paid teachers work at the periphery of the official radar and wrestle each day with the lost and disaffected tribe of hikikomori and their volatile emotions. Of this small cadre of activists, three stand out for their imaginative and determined approaches to the problem: Nobuyuki Minami, a layman; Dr. Hisako Watanabe, a child psychiatrist with extensive European training; and Sadatsugu Kudo, a counselor. Each believes that a hikikomori's condition cannot improve unless his environment is changed-an insight borne out by one hikikomori, Shigei, who said, "When doctors look only at biological symptoms and give me drugs, they don't solve the problem ... The environment is the underlying cause."
Nobuyuki Minami gave up his career as an advertising copywriter and designer in order to offer troubled youth a lifeline. Since 2000, he has operated his unlikely refuge, called a "free space," in the one-time farming village of Shiki. Saitama prefecture, now swallowed up into the vast Tokyo suburbs. His center is a broad, ramshackle building constructed of flimsy wood panels and metal siding, with a gently sloping roof. This spacious old farmhouse accommodates a communal kitchen, an indoor playroom, and a large dining area, while vegetable gardens, rope swings, and a recreation area are set out back. To the right of the farmhouse sits an asphalt parking lot and a ferroconcrete apartment block yellowed by age. To the left, green onions still poke up audaciously from the damp black soil-testifying to the area's past as a farming community. Sometimes, during a game of catch. Minami's kids tramp through the field to fetch a stray tennis ball.
"We try to create another home, like a family relationship, for the kids," Minami explained as they played.
Minami has no academic credentials or training to justify his work with hikikomori, only his sense of urgency. "We just can't treat kids as kids anymore, he told me, as if speaking for his young clients. "We have to treat them as humans. You can't cheat kids and just order them to do things. You also have to explain to them why they have to do them.
"These kids have been rejected by the school culture which forces everyone to be the same." Minami continued, after he'd led me into the living room to talk. "But each kid is so unique; each one of them is different. I don't want to do anything to damage that. I don't want to suppress them at all, so that puts me at odds with traditional Japanese culture."
For six years Minami has worked primarily with adolescent dropouts, known as futoko, as well as with the hikikomori who isolate themselves at home, he distills his school's lessons into two basic principles. "Choice and responsibility." he told me. "Choice and responsibility is what I want these kids to take away from here. II they can learn to make choices for themselves and take responsibility for those choices, then really, what else can I teach them?
I was struck by the simplicity of this credo. Give a Japanese teenager genuine choicer Demand that he take real responsibility for his own decisions? In Japan's collectivist culture, even parents and corporations usually eschew such accountability. But Minami nudges his students to accept autonomy and thereby slowly gain self-confidence. Most days, students choose which subjects they study, and are allowed to focus on areas they like, rather than shift, hour to hour, from math to science to history. They also take responsibility within the school for cooking and cleaning and do some of the gardening chores. From Minami's perspective, these "troubled" kids are actually less troubled than many of their parents and teachers. Like barometric gauges, they sense atmospheric changes most adults can't discern.