Recently, I was asked a series of questions by a person researching the phenomenon of suicide in Japanese society. I'd like to share that discussion over the next several blog entries for the benefit of others. I'll call the individual 'E' in this blog.
Do you see any religious influences, or a lack thereof in this phenomenon (hikikomori and suicide)?
The ‘komori’ part of the word ‘hikikomori’ is taken from the verb ‘komoru’ which means ‘to retire’, ‘to go into retreat’, and is a reference to the old practice by Buddhist monks of going into retreat to find their inner selves.
Psychologist Saito Tamaki coined this word for acute social withdraw about seven years ago, so any linkage there with actual Buddhist practice is dubious at best.
To be honest, in my years of living in Japan and even meeting and interacting with Buddhist and Shinto clergy, I never got the sense of overt religious influence in Japanese life on a spiritual level for most people.
Oh, there was a few that I did meet with whom I was absolutely stunned by their religiosity, Mount Koya comes to mind (Koya images), but on the whole, the personal impression I get is that religion in the western sense of the term does not apply to Japanese daily life. ‘Religious influence’ in Japanese life seems to operate at a purely functional level— Shinto ceremonies for births and weddings (more), Buddhist for funerals and memorials, and festivals throughout the year that are remembrances of the ‘old days’ as much as commercial events.
On the other hand, it would not be fair to conclude that the lack of ‘strong faith’ is cause for these social problems. In some ways, the social cohesion of the group, amae, on/giri and various other aspects of Japanese culture would appear to make unnecessary the need for the unifying sense of community and self-defining role that religion serves in the west.
Being ostracized in Japanese society (it even has a specific term in Japanese, Mura Hachibu) and rejected by the group in events such as bullying or the media stigma for a behavior, is when the crisis for identity manifests when you are 'outside' the 80% of mainstream Japanese culture.
Until that time, most Japanese people are comfortably nested in a definition of self-identity based upon the interrelationships with those in-groups and out-groups around them.