- A Cocoon with a View:Hikikomori, Otaku, and Welcome to the NHK
All art reflects the culture from which it arises. And while most contemporary anime and manga serve merely as escapism from modern Japanese life—flights of fantasy or romanticism that allow the viewer a short break from the pressures and confinements of school or work—there are a few series that touch on more serious social issues, using the comic relief of the animation or manga medium as a way of facing a painful or uncomfortable subject. An example of the latter type is the anime/manga series Welcome to the NHK (NHK ni yōkoso!), which takes a darkly comic view of both the rise of the Japanese social phenomenon of hikikomori, young people rejecting their role in Japanese society and becoming reclusive shut-ins, and the current otaku culture in Japan.1
The term hikikomori is derived from the Japanese words hiku (pulling in) and komoru (retiring) and refers both to the syndrome and to the person with the syndrome.2 In most cases these are young males (although a significant fraction are female) in their teens or twenties who have developed a psychological fear of social interaction with the outside world and who spend all their time in their room at home. In extreme cases, the hikikomori refuses even to interact with other family members. This phenomenon was first reported in [End Page 311] the 1990s, and the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare officially recognized the problem in 2001.3 The cause of this behavior is uncertain, with various psychological and sociological explanations being debated. Some psychologists believe Japan's severe bullying problem in schools is part of the root cause.4 The Japanese social system, with its Confucian ideal of conformity, results in bullying of students who are seen as different or unable to fit in with the group norm, and if the student sees his or her self-identity as so flawed that they can never join the larger group, then retreating to a solitary existence in their room may appear the only viable option. A sociological explanation can be found in the postbubble economic world of Japan, in which some young people feel hopeless, with no sense of a future for themselves, and become hikikomori as an act of rebellion against the pressures to succeed imposed on them by parents and society.5
Further, there is the question of just how widespread this phenomenon is. Because being a hikikomori is seen as something shameful, something many parents and family members would hide from outsiders, reliable statistics are difficult to obtain. Expert estimates of the total number of current and former hikikomori in Japan range from a low of 50,000 to a high of 1.2 million.6 Part of the problem in determining accurate numbers may arise from how broadly a researcher defines a hikikomori. In fact there is a wide range of severity of hikikomori, ranging from futōkō or "school refusal," in which a student stops attending school but still has social interactions with friends and family, all the way to the hardcore recluse, who has developed behavioral problems and severe psychological phobias about leaving his or her room. Regardless of the exact numbers, the phenomenon is real and has been picked up by the Japanese media as a major social problem and threat to Japan's future. If Japan's future is bleak because of its faltering economy and declining birth rate, a rising number of hikikomori will only exacerbate the problem.
The concern about hikikomori has echoes of the fear about an earlier marginal group that was propagated by the Japanese media, the otaku. "Otaku" (derived from a Japanese honorific meaning another's person's house or family) was appropriated in the 1980s to refer to obsessive fans, particularly of anime and manga, who were generally loners on the edges of Japanese society.7 Because these otaku were generally withdrawn, had interests in unconventional subjects, and did not participate in the "normal" Japanese social activities, they were seen by the media as a threat to the cohesive Japanese social structure. The murder...