The darker end of the spectrum
Over the last two years I've come to the conclusion that hikikomori are not a unique group but rather towards the less functional end of a spectrum of young people unable to cope and adapt to societal changes due to globalization. Beyond hikikomori, on the extreme end of this spectrum of youth feeling alienated and lacking purpose are those who opt out of life completely, youth who commit suicide.
From the LA Times 12/14/01, Japan's Suicide Epidemic:
Japan's economic deterioration is damaging a lot more than balance sheets and bank statements. Extreme stress and mental instability are at record highs. About 425,000 people were treated for stress-related mental disorders last year. In 1998, when the economy started tanking, suicides jumped 25% to more than 30,000 and haven't declined. Suicides directly attributed to employment, personal debt and the economy now number 8,500 annually, up fourfold from a decade ago. Because of population changes, the mortality rate per 100,000 people has eased slightly.
Mental health professionals say the actual number of stress-related illnesses may be much higher because psychological difficulties are often ignored or swept under the tatami mat in Japan, where depression is still viewed as a character flaw and treatment is inadequate.
"There's a very dark cloud hanging over Japanese society as more and more people lose their psychological signposts," said Dr. Yoshitomo Takahashi, a researcher with the Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry. "Mental illness still carries a lot of shame, so most people are referred only at the terminal stage. This makes our job very difficult."
Countries around the world have for decades lived with high unemployment and the social, economic and political costs it engenders. But in Japan, workers saw a job as an entitlement, and for years that was the case until Japan's economy faltered.
Companies began pruning payrolls, and the pain now is jolting the core of Japanese society: breadwinners in their 40s and 50s. This generation sacrificed almost everything for the company and now feels betrayed, isolated and worthless at being let go.
"Japan is suddenly waking up from a 56-year dream," said Hirotake Araya, general manager of Tokyo Shoko Research, a private data-collection company. "The end of lifetime employment is very difficult to accept, particularly for middle-aged people.