Tuesday, May 09, 2006

He Ain't Heavy, He's My (Rental) Brother

This past week, I was browsing articles I'd furled a while back, and ran across a fascinating story that The New York Times ran back in January. It seems that significant numbers of young Japanese are retreating from normal life, sequestering themselves in their rooms -- often for years at a time. They do come out, of course, for food and other necessities, but for the most part they don't socialize, not even with their families. They spend their time in their rooms; many of them play video games, listen to music ... and not much else. Most are male, but some are female. The Japanese word for them is hikikomori, which is translated as "withdrawal."

Obviously, they couldn't sequester themselves this way if their families didn't support them, but family culture in Japan is such that many families do. The shame of asking for help is huge, too, as it is felt that it will reflect on the parents. Yet the problem is large enough that a social service system has grown up around them. Agencies employ young men and women to serve as "rental" brothers and sisters, who go the the young person's home and try to engage him or her, much as a social worker might do here in the States. They'll keep this up, week after week, for up to a year before they move on to other youth. The ones they succeed in engaging go live at the agency, in a dorm with other hikikomori. There, they have the opportunity to obtain job skills and so forth, with the aim of reintegrating themselves into normal life. Some make it; some don't. (One rental brother kept going back to the house of one young man for 10 years -- and finally broke through. The man graduated from university, is now working and, we are told, vacationed in Spain last year.)

The most common explanation for their withdrawal appears to be a fear of failure. The pressure on them to do well -- in school, on exams, in the working world -- is intense, and as Japan's economy has changed for the worse, so have their chances of security. In response, they hide away.

Check it out for yourself. It's worth it.

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