Although the term “hikikomori,” which describes people who shun social contact and seek extreme degrees of isolation in Japan, has been in common use for several decades, it has taken on a more sinister cast recently as the media has come to view it as a social problem.
In the wake of two incidents that have been linked to hikikomori — the stabbings of children and adults at a school bus stop in Kawasaki that resulted in two deaths, and the murder in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, of a middle aged man by his father — the word has suddenly become synonymous with “potential criminal.”
According to a June 6 Tokyo Shimbun article, the government has said the public should not connect the term to these two crimes, but the Justice Ministry does not keep statistics related to hikikomori. In order to examine whether a relationship existed, the newspaper checked articles from Kyodo News and other outlets from 1999 to 2019 and found 43 cases where persons identified as social recluses committed violent crimes, an average of two a year. Nonetheless, some are saying the perception of a causal relationship that is now being spread through media outlets could drive those labeled as “social recluses” deeper into isolation.
The two incidents are being blamed on hikikomori because the label is applied so broadly, and news organizations adore labels because they make their job easier. According to US-based journalist Makiko Iizuka writing for Yahoo News, new labels are always being introduced in Japan and they invariably create negative stereotypes: “Parasite singles”, “freeters” (young part-timers who are not students), “hinkon joshi” (destitute girls) and so on. News outlets cling to these terms “with a sense of titillation,” she writes, making them “trendy” and establishing them as behavioral predictors that exacerbate prejudices. Such labels tend to be suspect in the US, where diversity has more of a purchase. In Japan, however, the public is receptive to them, and they are sometimes used to describe people who may not display many of the attributes affiliated with a particular label, if only for the sake of convenience.
This is how hikikomori became the link between the Kawasaki case and the Nerima case. According to the Asahi Shimbun, Yuko Ando, the host of Fuji TV’s afternoon news show, noted on the day of the Kawasaki tragedy that the perpetrator seemed to want to broadcast his discontent with society, but that “just killing himself” would have accomplished the same thing. Lawyer Haruo Kitamura, who was in the studio, expanded on Ando’s implication, saying if people wanted to die, they should die alone.
The same sentiment was expressed frequently on social media, the Asahi Shimbun said, alarming professionals who try to help hikikomori cope with their situations. Such views, they warned, are likely to cause more despair that could lead to suicide or another incident such as the one in Kawasaki.
This view is now seen as a possible motivating factor in the Nerima case. The murder suspect, a retired top-level government bureaucrat, allegedly killed his adult son in a kind of preemptive action, since he believed the son showed hikikomori traits and thus feared he might carry out a crime similar to the one in Kawasaki. It appears to matter little that the victim had almost nothing in common with the Kawasaki suspect except a short temper, and manifested few qualities associated with hikikomori.
Nevertheless, the murder suspect has become a kind of hero to people who believe that hikikomori pose a palpable existential threat. One of these people is former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who wrote a long essay on the idea that those who contemplate killing themselves should just do it and not harm others in the process. Excerpted in the online version of President magazine, Hashimoto’s essay criticizes those who complain that this position is cold-hearted. He is skeptical of the consensus that says people inclined to commit suicide should always be talked out of it.
Hashimoto believes it is impossible to eliminate suicide completely, so he supports an individual’s right to self-annihilation. People who think otherwise, he argues, are trading in abstract ideals and ignoring reality. It could be argued that people who want to commit suicide must be persuaded to leave this world without hurting others, and it is the media’s job to focus on the families of victims of such murder-suicides, since that kind of publicity will impress on those people the grief they cause when they kill others as part of their final act.
Consequently, Hashimoto finds the Nerima suspect’s stated motive commendable, since he took his obligations as a parent to the ultimate limit. He admits he might do the same thing if he were in the same position.
Hashimoto’s assumptions are problematic. Although the Kawasaki suspect ended up taking his own life, there is no indication that his primary impulse was suicide. Writing in Gendai Business, Masae Ido theorized that the alleged killer acted out of malice toward his uncle and aunt, who raised him after his parents divorced and supposedly discriminated against him in relation to his cousins. However, instead of inflicting violence on them, he inflicted it on innocents, presumably with the aim of hoisting on his aunt and uncle eternal guilt and public opprobrium.
Japan is admired for its low violent crime rate, but it should be noted that 55 percent of murders and attempted murders carried out in Japan in 2016 were committed by relatives of the victims, a possible consequence of social pressure on families to be responsible for their members, no matter what their age. In fact, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is seeking to codify this responsibility in its proposed revised Constitution.
However, this is already addressed by the judicial system. Murder convictions for family members rarely merit sentences of more than a few years, and seldom the death penalty. In that sense, the existential threat to society isn’t hikikomori but the family structure itself.
*Philip Brasor is a contributing writer for The Japan Times.