06/04/2019, 17.07
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'Hikikomori', one of Japan’s major social ills, takes centre stage

In Japanese hikikomori refers to acute social withdrawal. The problem affects about 613,000 Japanese aged 40 to 64 and 540,000 aged 15 to 39. For PIME Missionary, “causing or experiencing discomfort in [Japanese] society leads to strong inner hang-ups.”

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Some recent incidents have put the spotlight on one of Japan’s major social issues, hikikomori, or acute social withdrawal.

The cases in point are the murder by a former Japanese ambassador of his 44-year-old son during an altercation, and the stabbing attack by a 51-year-old man against 19 schoolchildren and parents, which resulted in three deaths, including the self-inflicted death of the attacker.

Hikikomori refers to the people and the practice of withdrawing from social life for long periods of time (months and years) in the quest for extreme forms of isolation and confinement.

Last Saturday, Tokyo police arrested 76-year-old Hideaki Kumazawa, the former Japanese ambassador to the Czech Republic and a former senior official with the Ministry of Agriculture.

After yet another family row, Kumazawa killed his son Eiichiro, who had long been a recluse at home and had developed aggressive behaviour towards his parents.

The murder followed the recent mass stabbing on 28 May near a Catholic school in Tama, Kawasaki (Kanagawa prefecture).

Although the investigation is still ongoing, police have focused on the mental health of the attacker, Ryuichi Iwasaki.

According to the latest statistics, there are 613,000 hikikomori in Japan, aged 40 to 64. Another 540,000 are aged 15 to 39.

The issue is connected "to specific trends in Japanese society," this according to Fr Andrea Lembo, regional superior of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Japan.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the 45-year-old priest said that he has been working as a missionary in the Land of the Rising Sun since 2009. His work includes interfaith dialogue but above all pastoral outreach to young people.

"Japanese society is very competitive, geared towards output,” explained the clergyman. “When young or middle-aged people derail, they often try alternative ways. Sometimes, this leads to shortcuts that cause pathologies such as hikikomori.”

"In addition to social factors, hikikomori is also linked to the anthropological constitution of the Japanese: causing or experiencing discomfort in society leads to strong inner hang-ups. This is why the most fragile people prefer escapism.”

Through his youth outreach, the PIME missionary has been able to hear the stories of people who managed to go beyond their despair.

"Our pastoral work also makes us social workers, in particular when it comes to living together. We have hikikomori who find Christ after experiencing this problem. Usually, they start with meeting Christians. Friendship is followed by a personal journey of faith that can last one, two or three years. These experiences are frequent.”

"Being a hikikomori is a person’s disposition. Most of those who manage to overcome this condition will still have to deal with it for the rest of their lives. For others however, it is only a temporary state of mind, due to a particular failure in school, at work or with a relationship.

“Through learning about Christianity and communal help, they manage not to fall back. However, it is difficult to offer a general picture: a lot depends on the individual."

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