Monday, July 13, 2015

The Hikikomori and the Lost Decade That Never Ended

Many years ago Welcome to the N.H.K. introduced me to the term "hikikomori."

Much as I enjoyed the show, looking back later I noted that it lacked a particular virtue in its treatment of its issue--what one might call a social vision. Certainly Tatsuhiro Sato's problems were explained in terms of personal psychology--and rather quirkily, too--so that while his story sheds light on what they are going through, it does not say very much about why they are going through it.

Still, some have tried to explain the matter, often interpreting it as a type of social withdrawal. Quite often commentators link it to the transitional years of the '90s in Japan's economic history, which badly damaged the conventional path to "success." Certainly not everyone who went to school got into a competitive college, and went from there to a lifelong job with a prestigious company and a comfortably middle-class standard of living in even the most prosperous years. Far from it. However, the realities of credentialing crisis, higher structural unemployment, contingent employment and generally stagnant incomes and decreasing job security, made both the goal and the means for attaining it seem much less plausible than before--and retreat a more attractive option.

However, such writers rarely seem to delve very deeply into those troubles. This makes their discussion less persuasive because what happened in Japan also happened pretty much everywhere else.

Still, it may be that the shock was sharper in Japan's case. To go by the data, it may be said that the post-war boom that came to a halt in much of the world in the early '70s lasted two decades longer there.1 And on the whole the change in incomes and living standards was larger. Where per capita income in the U.S. doubled between 1945 and 1991, it rose fourteen-fold in Japan during those same years.

This was in part a reflection of the fact that Japan was so much further behind the wealthiest nations at the start of this period; and of the fact that where the U.S. had boomed during World War II, Japan was devastated, per capita GDP in 1945 reduced to about half the 1940 level. Still, the longer duration of the boom years, and the more dramatic expansion of prosperity, doubtless had an effect on expectations. So did the massive stock-and-real estate bubble of those last years of the boom, which likely made things seem even rosier than they were (even if it was mainly a case of the rich getting richer).

And just as the period of growth was more dramatic, so was the stagnation that followed it. The "lost decade" of the '90s never quite came to an end, growth in the last two-and-a-half decades consistently feeble, even when measured by the common experience of other industrialized nations.2

In short, the boom in Japan was longer and more spectacular than in just about any other industrialized country, followed by a seemingly overnight transition to stagnation that was lengthier and deeper than in just about any other industrialized country, almost as if a switch had been flicked. The inflation and puncturing of a historic bubble amplified the effect. And so hard enough as the shift from boom to bust was elsewhere, one may imagine that it was even harder here.

Making matters worse, it is not the middle-aged Company Man but the new job-seeker just out of school who is most exposed to the shock, so that they feel it all that much more--and get that much less understanding from their elders. The difference in personal experience between one generation and another likely meant that when the son or daughter was in the unenviable position of answering the question "Why don't you have a job yet?" mom and dad were much less likely to get it--especially with the Japanese media breathlessly stigmatizing and scapegoating "freeters," "NEETs" and others who, for whatever reason, do not conform to societal expectations, a tendency which did not change in line with the new economic realities.

Does that explain everything about the situation? Of course not. But the more extreme pattern of the boom-and-bust, and the inevitable lagging of social attitudes behind it (which would seem commensurately extreme), does seem something to take into account when talking about how the economic situation contributes to a pattern of social withdrawal.

1. According to the statistics at the Maddison Project, between 1973 and 1991 American per capita GDP grew at the rate of about 1.8 percent a year, but the rate was 3 percent a year in Japan, more like what the U.S. had in its boom years.
2. The Maddison data indicate that per capita income growth in Japan was 0.7 percent a year--compared with 1.5 percent a year in the U.S..

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