Editorial: Extend support to families coping with older “hikikomori” members

April 12 , 2019

Japan now faces a serious issue requiring urgent action: an alarming number of people, middle-aged or older, who are suffering from hikikomori, or acute social withdrawal. The Cabinet Office recently announced that an estimated 613,000 citizens aged from 40 to 64 are living in extreme degrees of isolation nationwide, individuals that refuse to leave the confines of their homes and meeting only with family members for the past six months.

While hikikomori has been identified as a major issue among younger generations, the Cabinet Office survey was the first that specifically targeted older people. Having heard the seriousness of the problem from constituents, Komeito was instrumental in the survey’s implementation.

What was exceptionally shocking about the findings was the duration of hikikomori, with around half of the total number having withdrawn from society for more than seven years, while 20% have been hikikomori for more than 20 years. The suffering of those afflicted and their family members is beyond imagination.

Many of the parents of the older-generation hikikomori are in their 80s, with their hikikomori children in their 50s. One in three are financially dependent on their parents—and that means after their passing, their children must bear the consequences, which is why the situation has been dubbed the “8050 problem” in Japan. Which is why any initiative that attempts to remedy the hikikomori issue must address the needs of the entire family.

The first step is to identify those families and individuals who need assistance and establish a support system. Such a system must promote and enhance coordination among local governments, non-profits and social workers, creating an interwoven “web” of support that focus on outreach programs that proactively entail home visitations, and this onsite counseling should help in restoring an initial phase of social interaction.

Meanwhile, regional support centers have already been established, while the setting up of programs to train individuals to engage the hikikomori on a long-term basis should also prove helpful.

A subtext to the issue is the fact that many of the older-generation hikikomori fell victim to the post-bubble economy employment freeze during which companies abandoned the time-honored practice of a regular, permanent long-term workforce for less costly, easily expendable non-permanent hires. Having endured that “ice age” and reached retirement age—with all the transitional trauma that entails—this grouping is seen as highly susceptible to acute social withdrawal.

On April 10, the government decided to provide support services for the ice-age generation. Much more will be needed and Komeito will be working to ensure follow-on measures will be forthcoming.