One day in 2009, a nervous young man rushed out of his home in Incheon, South Korea, head held down. Having not showered in weeks, his skin was oily, his hair unkempt. The loungewear he had on, one of only two sets he owned, was badly stained. He knew he smelled. But he’d run out of necessities, so he’d have to go to the shop down the street. It’d just be five minutes. All he had to do was stock up on instant ramen, Coke and cigarettes, and then he’d be back.
After picking up his supplies, the man walked home. But as he was approaching the front entrance, a panic spread over him: he didn’t know the passcode to open the door. It had been so long since he’d gone outside, he’d forgotten how to get back in.
At this time, Kim Jae-ju was 29 years old and in the most extreme phase of his social seclusion. He’d already spent, off and on but mostly on, two years in his bedroom, and he would go on to spend another eight in the same manner. In this four-by-five-metre box, with little more furniture than a bed, desk and chair, Kim kept confined for close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year – eating and smoking and staring at his computer screen.
He left only when he absolutely had to – to run to the bathroom, meet the food delivery driver, refill supplies and, very occasionally, go to work to earn a bit of money. Though Kim lived with his family, his room down the hall from his parents’ and younger sister’s, he saw them just once a month. He’d synchronize his comings and goings to avoid everyone, rushing out and back in when they were at work or asleep.
Time passed in this way for a decade. The door opened and closed. Outside, the world changed, but inside, Kim did not. No matter how many times he left his room, he always, and it seemed to him, inevitably, returned. “When I look back on that period, I feel incredibly sad,” he says, now 41. “I lost ten years of my life.”
A group of hikikomori live together at the K2 centre in Seoul
In South Korea, people like Kim are known as hikikomori. A Japanese word that cannot be precisely translated, hikikomori essentially means “to pull back” and “shut oneself in”. South Koreans first borrowed the term when the phenomenon was newly emerging in the country in the early 2000s, and it is still more commonly used today than the Korean eundoonhyeong oiteollie.
Typically, hikikomori are young adults, mostly men, in their teens, 20s and 30s. They reside alone or, more often, stay holed up in a bedroom at their parents’ home. Because hiding from public view is their very motive, it’s hard to know exactly how many there are in South Korea, but the government estimates around 300,000. Some psychologists and former hikikomori, however, believe there may be many more that go unnoticed and unaccounted for. Some estimate the total is closer to 500,000. Others say over a million.
The term hikikomori was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychologist Saitō Tamaki, and is used to refer to both the person and their condition. In his book Social Withdrawal: Adolescence Without End, Saitō defines hikikomori as “those who withdraw entirely from society and stay within their own homes for more than six months… and for whom other psychiatric disorders do not better explain the primary causes of this condition.” In 2003, the Japanese government came out with its own, very similar definition. In extreme cases, the period of withdrawal can span a decade, as it did for Kim, or longer.
Because there are no standardised criteria for hikikomori, who qualifies is up for debate. The stereotype that has captured global attention looks much like Kim – a twenty-something East Asian male who hasn’t socialised in so long he’s completely forgotten how. But in addition to this “hardcore” type, who never leave their room or speak to anyone, some researchers have hypothesised a “soft” type, who might occasionally talk to other people. They have also proposed a distinction between so-called “secondary” hikikomori, whose social avoidance can be attributed to an underlying psychiatric disorder – say, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder – and “primary” hikikomori, who do not have another condition. Others, like Saitō, argue that only the latter can really be considered hikikomori, rendering the primary-secondary classification moot. “This alludes to directional uncertainty on whether prolonged social withdrawal is caused by, correlated with, or causes psychiatric disorders,” researchers write in a 2019 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Although Japan was the first to identify, name and study hikikomori, cases have since been reported across Asia – in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and beyond, but perhaps most prominently in South Korea, Japan’s closest neighbour both geographically and culturally. Whether the phenomenon occurs outside of Asia is a point of controversy. Many researchers say that it can and does, pointing to documented instances in the US, Europe and other countries. Some, though, contend the syndrome is “culture-bound”, meaning it arises out of, and is unique to, the cultural context of Asian countries, with their particular emphasis on notions of shame, conformity, hierarchy, family structure and individual industrialism for national success. In recent years, this idea that hikikomori is “culture-bound” has given way to the broader “culture-influenced”.
Lee Ah Dang is a counseling centre in Seoul that specializes in hikikomori. Its clinical psychologists have treated dozens of hikikomori and say that, while their patients have varied widely in their individual conditions and rehabilitation needs, most have something in common: they feel they can’t cope in South Korea’s ultra-competitive society.
Ahn Yoon-seung in the K2 centre in Seoul
Lead psychologist Park Dae-ryeong says that this atmosphere, along with a poor job market, has put overwhelming pressure on people to perform, while disincentivising collaboration, discouraging the pursuit of passions and exacerbating feelings of inadequacy, disappointment and anxiety. Many young South Koreans compare their lives to running on a hamster wheel, because in order to get the suitable partner, the good job, the nice home, it feels like they can never take a break.
It doesn’t help that South Korean society’s concept of success is so rigidly defined. Counsellors at Lee Ah Dang explain that because hikikomori live outside the mainstream, they have often been subjected to some form of ostracism or marginalisation. They may have been bullied for low academic achievement, criticised for their shy personality, or pushed to conform to convention – and then rejected for failing to do so.
In Kim Ho-seon’s case, being more interested in hair and makeup than maths and science meant he didn’t get along well in secondary school and ended up dropping out. “It didn’t feel right doing things I didn’t want to do,” the 25-year-old says. After struggling with judgment and stigmatisation, he ended up calling the police to ask for help with his psychological problems.
Similarly, Yoo Seung-gyu, 27, says his goals didn’t live up to South Korea’s standards. He dreamed of being a content creator, he says, but was belittled until he lost all confidence. Lee Seung-taek, 24, says that not having any lofty plans for the future made him a social outcast. All he wanted was to earn a decent living and lead a simple life. But that wasn’t ambitious enough for everyone else – except for his father. When Lee was 16, his dad became ill, and in 2016 he died. “I became evasive. I ran away,” he says. “I could only achieve so much without my father, so why should I even try?”
For Kim Jae-ju, his retreat from public life came after the breakdown of a relationship. Before that, he was on the traditional road toward marriage and children and saw himself as a different person: outgoing, talkative, friendly. In retrospect, he now thinks it was all a show. Trying so earnestly to be the confident extrovert was just a way of covering up that, in truth, he was not. He began his withdrawal by turning down friends’ invitations to have dinner or drinks. That escalated to changing his phone number and not telling anyone but his family.
Finally, Kim says, he “crawled into his room” and entered seclusion. He gained weight and his skin became dotted with acne. His room deteriorated, too. Disposable noodle cups and empty bottles and cans collected in heaps. Ash and dust cloaked the furniture, and the once-white walls turned a dingy brown. Looking back on his confinement, Kim says he’s repulsed. “I started becoming complacent in there,” he says. “One day became two days, then three days, then a year. I started thinking, ‘Maybe this lifestyle is okay?’ And my new friends just became the computer inside my room.”
Kim Ho-seon has sought help to feel less isolated
If hikikomori are the misfit underdogs of their stories, their computers are their steadfast sidekicks. While excessive tech usage doesn’t cause hikikomori, researchers say, it does help make their near-total confinement possible. What previously required some interaction with society – feeding, clothing and entertaining oneself – now calls for nothing but the internet.
It’s for this reason that some researchers suggest the phenomenon is not so much culture-bound as it is society-bound – a reaction, perhaps, to the internet-enabled changes that make for an increasingly global society. “Hikikomori could represent the clinical answer to a social evolution,” write Italian psychiatrists in a 2020 paper in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice. This echoes the suggestion by Japanese researchers in a 2018 edition of the World Psychiatric Association’s official journal: “Within decades, following further advances in internet society, more and more people may come to live a hikikomori-like existence.”
Fourteen years ago, when Kim first began retreating, “untact”, a portmanteau of “un” and “contact”, was a yet-to-be-named concept in South Korea. Now, it’s a full-blown industry, making it easier than ever for hikikomori to live invisibly. “In Korea, it is so convenient to live alone,” Yoo says. “We have an amazing delivery and on-demand system. The whole environment, from restaurants to entertainment, facilitates hikikomori, and everything caters to the single lifestyle.”
When hikikomori need to eat, they can order takeout with Yogiyo or Baedal Minjok, the country’s two major food-delivery apps, paying digitally and selecting contactless service so that the driver skips the face-to-face handoff and instead alerts them with a text that their meal is waiting on their doorstep (although often their mothers cook their meals and leave them outside their rooms). When hikikomori need to buy essentials, they can shop on the e-commerce site Coupang (although again, often their mothers shop for them). When they want to entertain themselves, they can watch a movie on Netflix or play a game online. And when they want to engage in some form of social interaction, they can turn to the non-threatening environment of forums, where they can shield themselves with anonymity.
When he was secluded in his room, Kim’s companions were the characters in the dramas he streamed and the vloggers he watched on YouTube. They were the porn stars he was intimate with and the avatars in the first-person shooter games he played. Aside from one friend he texted from his former life, the only other people he talked to were fellow gamers. While playing Sudden Attack, his favourite game, he would type to them in the chat. It wasn’t anything meaningful, little more than a jumble of gaming slang, but it was routine. After five years of casual chatting, there was one gamer in particular, whose real name he never knew, with whom he thought he’d formed something of a connection.
But, in Kim’s eyes, his most important connection of all was the search engine. The internet made his room feel deceptively expansive, as each new search result led him in a different direction, down another rabbit hole, to another discovery. “My biggest friend and enemy was Google,” he says. “It never gave me the time to feel bored. I was always entertained. Whenever I searched for something, it was always there.”
If technology enables hikikomori to stay in, however, it can also give them the push to get out. It was when Yoo came across a study online mentioning a rehabilitation group called K2 International that he says he finally gained the courage to seek help. Kim Ho-seon says he was binging YouTube when he happened to see an ad for the same organisation that inspired him to escape his self-imprisonment. Within a month, both had moved out of their rooms and into K2. After a year, Yoo even became a programme manager there.
The foundational activity at K2 is communal living. Founded in Yokohama, Japan, in 1988, K2 has since expanded to Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, where, for the past eight years, it has run a shared house on a quiet street in northern Seoul. Here, 14 hikikomori, including Yoo and Kim Ho-seon, live together in a three-storey brick building, where the staff encourage them to establish healthy habits, complete assigned chores, keep up their hygiene and follow a routine. With funding from an organisation called the Korea Youth Foundation, K2 is able to offer the housing rent-free to some residents.
In addition to supporting communal living, the Korea Youth Foundation co-ordinates between K2, Lee Ah Dang and a nonprofit called Gong Gam In to provide hikikomori with one-on-one counseling, group therapy, activity clubs, employment training, job search assistance, socialisation practice and educational programming like lectures and creative workshops. Gong Gam In also manages a support group for the parents of hikikomori.
There is scant evidence on how best to treat hikikomori who seek help. Because the field lacks wide-scale systematic review, there has been very little research that would make it possible to know which of the variously offered treatments, from psychotherapy to medication, are effective. What is known is that because hikikomori vary so widely, individualised treatment is necessary. To that end, further international study is crucial. If psychiatrists can work towards a greater clinical understanding of the condition, it will promote earlier detection, but also improved assessment and services.
Technology may have a bigger role to play, too. Some researchers have been trying to figure out how to hijack hikikomori’s computer usage for interventionist purposes, perhaps by using augmented reality to entice people outside, introducing therapeutic gaming to build self-esteem or trying out VR exposure therapy to practice skills like maintaining eye contact and being in group settings.
But advocates contend that the most important thing is for the government to do more. “There is no national support to help hikikomori,” says Yeo In-joong, a psychiatrist and social recluse expert in Korea. In a 2013 Korean study of hikikomori, 20 per cent believed that, had they been helped earlier, they wouldn’t be in their situation.
Ahn Yoon-seung was awaiting news of a job offer when Covid-19 struck
It sounds silly, Kim Jae-ju says, but the online encounter that propelled him toward rehabilitation was a reality TV competition for aspiring K-pop stars. “I saw this young kid putting so much effort into achieving their dream,” he recalls. “That made me realise the reality I was in, and start to question what I was doing with my life.”First, he got to work cleaning his room. Then, he turned his attention to himself. It had been so long since he’d been a part of society, he no longer knew how to behave or what to say. But he did know where he could begin to relearn. From that point on, Kim dedicated nearly all of his time to readying himself for the outside world. He watched TED Talks on self-acceptance and empathy, and YouTube videos about the art of conversation, weight loss and skincare. He studied up on all the new slang he’d missed while in seclusion. He Googled “how to tell a joke”. For Kim, it all felt as heady as a drug. For the first time in a long time, he was thinking about the future – and was looking forward to it.
But when he shared his new plans with his Sudden Attack buddy, he was met with disinterest. “Even though I had been playing games with this person for the past five years, he didn’t care at all,” Kim says – which gave him all the more motivation to get out. After months of preparation, he was finally ready. Venturing out of his room, his first voluntary outing to a public event in a decade was to attend a lecture in Seoul about self-esteem.Kim continued to seek out social activities that would help him reintegrate. He wrote and published a book, Unexpectedly Hikikomori for 10 Years. He lent his expertise to government officials, who were growing alarmed by this once-hidden phenomenon now emerging from the shadows, and its potential societal impact. He also started advising reintegration groups and mentoring other hikikomori.Ultimately, Kim’s hard work led him to the chance to launch his own rehabilitation venture, a space with food and drinks and games, where all the people who reminded him of his former self could come and take a peek at life beyond four walls. Partnering with a social enterprise company that had some government funding, Kim opened a cafe he called Playground. He also started making plans to move into his own place in Seoul. He couldn’t wait.
“Korea loves fads,” he says. “When there was the figure skating queen Kim Yuna, everyone sent their kids to skating lessons. When there is a golf star, everyone is interested in golf lessons. I wanted to be that successful example for hikikomori. My dream was to be standing outside the cafe and to see someone who used to come here walk past. And they would say hi and tell me they got a job.”
The K2 centre in northern Seoul. Here, 14 hikikomori live together and re-learn skills
In 2020, hikikomori found themselves confronted with a new reason to fear the world outside their rooms. In January, reports of the novel coronavirus in China took over news headlines, and, soon after, the infection appeared in South Korea.
It would be easy to assume that amid a public health crisis that makes shared spaces so dangerous, hikikomori, already accustomed to solitude, would fare better than most. But hikikomori are not immune to pandemic pain. For those currently secluded, there is a risk their isolation may only get more prolonged and more severe, making it harder to reintegrate later. And for those who have begun efforts at rehabilitation, there is the risk of relapse.
The Korea Youth Foundation’s work was suspended for much of 2020. As more and more was cancelled, recovering hikikomori found themselves with less and less to do. “There was nothing fun or meaningful anymore,” says Yoo, the programme manager at K2. “Some people were sad because their opportunities were gone. Some were depressed. I felt concerned for them.”
Ahn Yoon-seung, a resident at K2, had applied for a role as a cafeteria worker at a secondary school and was anxiously awaiting a job offer. But because of Covid-19, it was delayed by over a month. He started to spiral. “I saw myself back in my old life, not doing anything,” he says. “I was worried that all the things I’d planned for might fizzle out, that nothing would work out for me.” Kim Ho-seon also wondered if he might be set back. “I don’t identify as hikikomori now, but I could return to that lifestyle at any moment,” he says.
Since the start of the pandemic, psychologists at Lee Ah Dang say they’ve observed increased stress, loneliness and despair among hikikomori. In one case, a woman who had improved so much that she was ready to find a job ended up completely regressing. Because of Covid-19, she couldn’t receive face-to-face assistance for two weeks, a gap that proved too long. “The pressure of doing it on her own was too much,” says Han Chae-won, another psychologist at Lee Ah Dang. “She couldn’t bear it. So she gave up.”
Lee Ah Dang switched its individual counselling from in-person to Zoom, but found it simply was not as effective. Some hikikomori even declined to participate. “Because they’re hikikomori, you might think that they would prefer Zoom or phone calls, but ironically, they don’t,” says Park, the lead psychologist. “They’re not used to it.” A 2014 study of male hikikomori across four countries found significantly more interest in in-person therapy than webcam therapy.
One reason for this may be privacy concerns. For many, talking from home means family members might be able to overhear. But most crucially, online meetings are not able to provide the same intensive therapy as in-person meetings. “When we met through Zoom, patients didn’t feel like they were really meeting me, and they didn’t have the same connection to me that they used to have,” says Lee Seung-min, another psychologist at Lee Ah Dang. “With in-person, you can look into each other’s eyes, you can hear each other’s breath – it’s more humane. With Zoom, it feels like there is more distance, so some people became even more isolated and depressed.” It wasn’t long before the clinic abandoned virtual sessions.
Another challenge for service providers was the anxiety some hikikomori felt, as they witnessed outbreak after outbreak, over catching the virus. It seemed to them that a public health crisis was the worst possible time to rejoin society. Many who had previously been in touch with the Korea Youth Foundation to begin their rehabilitation process ended up backtracking, according to co-ordinator Park Jae-young, with about 30 per cent postponing their start dates or no longer answering the centre’s phone calls. “For some of these individuals, the pandemic might have given them an excuse not to recover,” he says. “Because of this long period of time without any meetings, it worsened their fear of society.”
For those considering reintegration, he says, timing is everything: “It takes a lot of courage for them to ask for help.” If systems and staff aren’t ready the moment they do, there’s a good chance they’ll quit. To be hoping so desperately for change, and to have Covid-19 push it back, can be catastrophic.
And it’s not only current hikikomori that care providers are worried about. “Everyone has this small desire within to seclude from society… In this era of the coronavirus, it kind of ignites that tendency,” says Nam Ki-woong, manager of the Korea Youth Foundation. “We are concerned that if the pandemic continues on for a long time, there might be even more hikikomori created.”
Yoo Seung-gyu lives at the K2 centre
As the pandemic progressed, Kim could see cafes were suffering, but he couldn’t help but hope that his might survive the slump. Despite multiple postponements, he forged ahead and opened Playground in May. But the dream was short-lived. Ministry resources were redirected. Funds dwindled. On some days, the cafe only saw one or two visitors. When it was forced to shutter in October, Kim was let go.Now, with his life on hold, Kim finds himself exactly where he was before – in his room. “It’s disappointing to be tied to my room when I had an opportunity to get out. I’ve been waiting for this moment, to be part of society, for many years,” he says. “Physically, I am used to being at home, but psychologically, I am nervous and worried it will trigger me to repeat the isolated life.” When he thinks about those ten years, though, he knows he won’t.Not long after seeing the K-pop episode that changed his life, Kim watched another online video that both terrified and galvanised him. This one was about eternal return, the idea that the dead are destined to repeat their former errors again and again in the afterlife. “I was afraid of living a life where I wasn’t able to communicate with other people, a life where I was secluded in my room, a life where I couldn’t speak out about the things that I want to speak out about, a life filled with low self-esteem,” he says. “To think that I had to live that same life over again felt miserable.”Reflecting on the pandemic, Kim makes a comparison. “Someone who’s been living in the cold climate for a long period of time, like I have, is able to continue on in the cold weather,” he says. “But if that person is from a hot place, they will find it hard to adapt to the suddenly freezing climate. I would say I’m numb to the coronavirus situation because I am so used to being secluded in my room. But I wouldn’t say I’m completely indifferent to it, because I’ve experienced, briefly, the warmth of being part of society.”
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