Total Eclipse of the Son

Why are millions of Japanese youths hiding from friends and family?

By Tiffany Kary, published January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A syndrome known as hikikomori, in which the outside world is shunned, wreaked havoc on young people in Japan, a country known for its communal values. And an older generation—the very bastion of those old-fashioned values—may have been to blame.

Hikikomori (the term refers to the behavior itself and to those who suffer from it) was first recognized in the early 1990s. One million Japanese, or almost 1 percent of the population, are estimated to suffer from hikikomori, defined as a withdrawal from friends and family for months or even years. Some 40 percent of hikikomori are under the age of 21.

Western psychologists compared hikikomori with social anxiety and agoraphobia, a fear of open places. The affliction has also been likened to Asperger's syndrome, a mild variant of autism. But these theories carry little weight in Japan, where the disorder is considered culturally unique and is linked to violence.

Yuichi Hattori, a psychologist who treated 18 patients with the disorder, believes that hikikomori is caused by emotionally neglectful parenting. Hattori argues that none of his patients had been sexually or physically abused, yet they all show signs of posttraumatic stress disorder.

As the cultural gap between Japan's youth and elders widens, some young Japanese may view their parents as too stony-faced and reserved. Hattori speaks of Japanese society's deep-rooted division between hone and tatemae—one's true feelings and one's actions—to illustrate the frustration his patients express toward aloof parents.

"Patients tell me their mothers have no emotions," says Hattori. "Six patients have called their parents zombies."

Hattori's findings are reminiscent of the now-discredited theory of the "refrigerator mother," which attributed autism to a detached style of parenting.

"Hikikomori looks more to me like an extreme case of social anxiety," says David Kupfer, a psychologist in private practice in Virginia. Emotionally unresponsive parents are only one of the factors involved in the development of this disorder, says Kupfer, who points out that "in Japan, the pressure to succeed is a unique cultural source of trauma."

Eastern and Western psychologists agree only that hikikomori is unique to Japan and has serious ramifications for both generations.