Hikikomori – The Progressive, 2/28/2006

When I was four or five, I was fascinated by sporadic National Geographic stories of the lone Japanese soldier emerging from some island jungle to surrender years after the war was over. He’s squinting into the sun, waving a tiny shred of white, frail but proud in the immaculate tatters of his uniform. I was so embarrassed for him. It’s painful to be the last to know. I never wondered how the photographer happened to catch that moment.

And, full disclosure, in this era of Oprah-okayed emotionally redemptive “truth”, and given my unreliable memory, perhaps it was a scene from the movie “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” I rented from Neflix. I don’t know. One thing I do know: it wasn’t a million pieces. It was more like four hundred and seventy-eight. And, conversely, the Harry Potter books are all true.

Recently that youthful iconography has been updated by the new phenomenon of “hikikomori”, a Japanese word meaning withdrawal. Ironically, the withdrawal syndrome is finally coming out of the closet in Japan. Given the media tendency toward laziness and its attendant swarming, many stories about this phenomenon of withdrawal have appeared recently. No telling if it is as catastrophic as it is portrayed.

It certainly must be for the parents of the [mostly] boys who in their teens retreat to their rooms for years at a time, occasionally venturing out to the convenience store for a to-go bento box if their parents are trying last-ditch, tough-love and are no longer leaving meals outside their bedroom doors. Experts in the hikikomori treatment industrial complex, which has inevitably grown with the disorder, posit that the condition is caused by a perfect storm of Japan’s sagging economy, job insecurity, parental and school pressures, declining birthrates, and feelings of humiliation.

Equally fascinating is the role of the “rental sister.” After a distraught parent telephones a hikikomori help line, these women are dispatched as outreach counselors to the boy’s home to try to coax him out of his self-imposed exile. The rental sisters, who sound like distant cousins of comfort women, have more success than the few rental brothers. They will talk softly and persistently through the boy’s bedroom doors for weeks and months. Whatever if takes. If the boys emerge, they are then encouraged to attend day care programs to help them learn real world coping skills.

Out of the jungle or out of the bedroom, my interest in the updated surrender-to-the-world motif comes, not from any Orientalism, but rather from an abiding interest in post-Imperialism. I find myself studying post-imperial cultures – the Ottoman empire, Portugal, England, the New York Yankees, the Ford Motor Company – for signs of what a post-empiric America will be like in my waning years.

We are already in our own post-imperial hikkimoric moment with a rash of articles and specials about “the boy crisis”. They are falling behind at every level in school. Say it isn’t so! The difference is that in Japan they go to their rooms; here they seem to go on American Idol. The code red subtext, of course, is that young girls are in ascendance.

In another boy crisis, the sisters, Karen, Condi and Laura Rental have been coaxing young George out of his weight room, giving him DVD highlights reels of hurricanes, the Cuban baseball crisis, and photo-shopped pictures of Jack Abramoff without him. The war is over and he is the last to know. At this rate, I’ll be in my nineties before George comes stumble bumbling out of an island gated community waving a tiny white flag. Karl Rove will already have given the camera position instructions from his cell.

Kate “can’t go to Canada now either” Clinton is a humorist.