Monday, May 15, 2017

The Hikikomori Phenomenon: A Sociological View

I don't think I've watched the Fusion TV Channel before this past week--but while scanning the TV schedule I did recently notice their running a documentary on hikikomori, which was something of a surprise. Anime and manga fans who look beyond the hardcore science fiction/fantasy-action stuff that dominates the American market to the more slice-of-life, comedic series' hear quite a bit about the phenomenon, but this kind of coverage seemed new.

Watching the documentary, I can't say that it offered anything I hadn't seen or read about before, but it did set me thinking about the issue again, and especially those aspects not addressed in it in an overt way--like the matter of social background (rarely commented upon, especially beyond the banality that the child of an impoverished household, lacking their own room, without a family able to bear the economic burden, cannot become hikokomori).

One exception to this tendency was this paper by Tatsuya Kameda and Keigo Inukai, which raised the possibility of a correlation between a lower middle class background and the hikikomori pattern of behavior.1 Kameda and Inukai remark evidence of greater "emotional blunting" (their reactions and expressions of their reactions muted) and lower social involvement (more time at home, less time out with friends) among lower middle class young persons as compared with those in more affluent groups--and that this correlates strongly with observations of hikikomori, suggesting a great many "undiagnosed" cases at this level.

Going further than Kameda and Inukai in approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a sociological issue rather than a psychological one was another paper by Felipe Gonzales Noguchi, "Hikikomori: An Individual, Psychological Problem or a Social Concern?" Noguchi's paper refers to the "strain theory" of Robert K. Merton, which Merton elaborates brilliantly in his classic paper, "Social Structure and Anomie."2

Merton's theory holds that society sets certain goals for its members, and certain means for realizing those goals. In the America of his own time (and our time as well, and also in contemporary Japan) the goal is upward economic striving on an individual basis. The means, by and large, is doing well in school and then getting "the good job" (or, alternatively, personal entrepreneurship, though this is for myriad reasons the road less traveled today).

Someone accepting goal and means--grinding hard at school in the hopes of entering the most prestigious college they can, on entry into said college single-mindedly chasing the most "practical" degree (e.g. best odds for most money) consistent with their talents (e.g. business or engineering rather than music or anthropology), seeking out the highest-paying job they can get as graduation approaches and then grinding hard at that job in the expectation of raises and promotion (and keeping their ear to the ground just in case something still better come along)--"conforms" perfectly.

However, there are alternatives to this acceptance of goal and means together. Some accept the goal but not the means. They want to get ahead, but try another way--like being a criminal in the most narrow, conventional sense of the term--which Merton called "innovation."

Some do not have much hope for the goal, but nonetheless abide by the approved means, going through the motions, at least, in what Merton called "ritualism." (The unenthusiastic bureaucrat doing their job adequately but no more, and counting the days until they get their pension, is a ritualist.)

Of course, some reject both goal and means, and this takes two forms. One is to try and escape the whole thing--"retreat," just drop out of the system. The other is to try and change the system--"rebellion."

Merton observed that "it is in the lower middle class that parents typically exert continuous pressure upon children to abide by the moral mandates of the society," a "severe training [that] leads many to carry a heavy burden of anxiety." This is made worse by the reality that the "social climb upward" stressed more severely here than anywhere else "is less likely to meet with success than among the upper middle class." (The lower middle class kid has less access to the "good school," the "good job," than their more affluent, more connected peers do.)

In short, lower middle class youth are under heavier pressure to conform, and at the same time, have less hope of a payoff at the end of the privations that conformity demands (while those privations may be more severe--college a different thing for the rich kid with the legacy than the scholarship kid, even if both take their studies seriously). The pressure and privation would seem more severe, and the hope dimmer, in a period where the economy is stagnant, the prospect of upward social mobility is declining, and the middle class is stressed, all features of Japanese life in the past generation.

Meanwhile, if Kameda and Inukai's observations are valid, those kids are also less able to express and thus cope with the feelings with which all this leaves them.

Of course, Merton suggests that the most likely response for the stressed but not very hopeful lower middle class sufferer from this situation is "ritualism." And it may well be that ritualism is the most typical response to such a situation. However, that by no means rules out "retreat," which (as Noguchi observed) seems to be exactly the hikikomori response. Indeed, the relative disconnect from life outside the home that Kameda and Inukai note as features of lower middle class life may further encourage this--especially if the mounting pressure, and the discrediting of conformity as a life path, make the bleakness of ritualism intolerable (while rebellion appears unworkable as an option meaningful in the individual short-term).

Even in taking the sociological view of the matter (e.g. approaching the hikikomori phenomenon as a retreat in the Mertonian sense to which lower middle class young people may be disproportionately driven), however, it is worth remembering that Western observers tend to make much of what are presumably unique features of Japanese life--its notoriously demanding education system, for example, or its low tolerance of nonconformity (while we Westerners congratulate ourselves on our freer and more tolerant ways). Still, as Lars Nesser asked,
can it be proved that the pressure Japanese youth experiences is any different from what American youth, or youths from other industrialized societies feel? Is the pressure to follow social norms so exceptionally strong in Japan compared to other countries? I do not think so.
The view of life as a demanding economic contest first and anything else a distant second at best; the combination of rising pressure and declining prospect for the lower middle class; the economic stagnation of recent decades; are things that have been more pronounced in Japan than in other places (the sharp shift from boom to bust circa 1990, notably), but none of them are unique to Japan by any means. And the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where nonconformity in any sense of the term, let alone this one (a life not dedicated to individual economic advancement), is easy. Or for that matter, social isolation or withdrawal unknown as a response to the pains that go along with this. (Merton could hardly have rounded out his paper the way he did otherwise.)

Indeed, I suspect a significant difference may be that where people are ready to accept that the hikikomori reflect a social problem in Japan, we look at their counterparts closer to home and simply mock them--making them the butt of smug jokes and sanctimonious social criticism about a generation "refusing to grow up" and just "needing a push" to do so, rather than seriously considering whether there is something bigger going on here.

1. This is, again, a situation where the word "lifestyle" is hugely inappropriate, and so I will pointedly not be using it.
2. For the purposes of this post I am using the longer version of the paper in his collection Social Theory and Social Structure. Both that version of the paper, and the whole collection, are highly recommended. Those looking for a quick overview can also get a longer version of the essentials from the Wikipedia article discussing strain theory, which seems to me to give a good round-up of his variant on it.

Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills
The Hikikomori and the Lost Decade That Never Ended
On the Word "Lifestyle": A Postscript

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