Akiko Abe has barely seen her 25-year-old son in six years, yet they live in the same small house. He leaves his room only when he's sure his parents are out or asleep, she said. She can tell when he has used the kitchen, and she knows he goes to the living room to watch television and use the computer at night.
She has waited patiently for him to tire of his isolation, sometimes standing outside his door and talking, to herself as much as to him. But, afraid that many more years would pass like this, she finally approached an organization that works with shut-ins by making home visits. "It will be difficult, because he won't open his door," she said quietly.
As many as a million Japanese -- most of them young men -- are considered shut-ins, either literally cloistered in their rooms or refusing to work and avoiding all social contact for periods ranging from six months to more than 10 years. Forty-one percent live reclusively for one to five years, according to a government survey. Some shut-ins suffer from such illnesses as depression, agoraphobia or schizophrenia. But experts say the vast majority shut themselves up at home for six months or more without showing any other signs of neurological or psychiatric disorder. The seriousness of the problem has increased dramatically over the past decade as Japan's economy has slid into recession, bringing record unemployment rates and little job security as companies restructure or go bankrupt.
Psychologists and other mental health experts here say that Japan has the biggest problem of this type in the world, and that it is growing. They give a long list of reasons why young men are dropping out of society, including a declining birthrate, which means there are more families with only one son on whom they place all their hopes in this patrilineal society. Also, boys grow up without male role models because their fathers are working all the time. Psychologists also cite Japan's "culture of shame," which makes people fear how they're perceived if they have a problem fitting in. Japan's wealth makes it possible for people to cut themselves off from society. Young adults live at home much longer than they do in the United States, traditionally until marriage. Teens and adults who drop out of school or leave work are simply supported by their parents.
"When I was young, there was no question that you would have to go to work," said Abe, 61, who asked that her son, who refused to talk to a visitor, not be named. "Now, families have enough money so that the children don't need to find jobs right away." In an attempt to get their son to communicate with them, Abe and her husband have decided that from now on, they are not going to slip an envelope under his door with his '400 monthly allowance. Shut-ins -- 70 to 80 percent of whom are men -- often sleep much of the day and are up all night, watching television, using the Internet and popping out to the 24-hour convenience stores that are located in most neighborhoods and sell all kinds of microwaveable packaged meals. Japan's convenience store culture caters to the solitary life -- providing everything for the person eating alone, living alone.
"In Japan, it's easy for anybody to live with walls around themselves," said Seiei Muto of the Tokyo Mental Health Academy. "And with the number of children declining, you play alone, eat alone, study alone."
Muto and other mental health workers talk about the decline of communication skills, the increasing anonymity of urban Japan and the collapse of a cooperative society. "If a child is walking down the street, it would be rare for someone to ask the child, 'Where are you going?' " Muto said. Others say the problem has deep historical and cultural roots. "Japan is a rich country, but we have no identity, no confidence, no ability to communicate with others," said Tadashi Yamazoe, a professor of clinical psychology at Kyoto Gakuen University. "Japanese have a passive personality." But most people say it is a modern phenomenon, evidence of a great generation gap between those who built Japan's postwar economic success, and their children, who cannot expect lifetime employment in today's weak economy and say they do not want it anyway.
"In Japan there has been only one path, and today an increasing number of people are not on it," said Noki Futagami, who began the nonprofit New Start Foundation to work with shut-ins. "It's easy to say that academic background is not everything. But the parents cannot suggest another path because they don't know one." The existence of large numbers of shut-ins in many ways encapsulates the social problems of modern Japan and the wrenching period it is now going through. The Japanese word for the phenomenon -- hikikomori -- translates as withdrawal, and it is becoming increasingly familiar. It is the subject of television documentaries and newspaper and magazine articles.
Many adult shut-ins start as school dropouts. For a country obsessed with education, there is a surprisingly high number of dropouts. A record 134,000 elementary and junior high students were absent from school for at least 30 straight days during the 2000-01 school year, more than twice the number 10 years ago.
Abe said her son's school years were normal, but in high school he failed the university entrance exam. That is not unusual; most who fail study for another year and try again. Abe's son said he was going to study on his own instead of enrolling in a cram school, and that began his withdrawal.
The family has tried to keep the problem hidden, not even talking about it to relatives, much less neighbors.
But Futagami said this means the family is shutting itself in as well, making the problem worse. "There are things parents can and cannot do," he said. "They should be more open and get help from others, nurture social ties. I regard this as an illness stemming from society. Nobody helps these people, so they accumulate." In a few recent cases, socially withdrawn young men have committed shocking crimes, including a 27-year-old who kidnapped a 9-year-old girl in 1990 and kept her in his room for nine years. His mother, who lived downstairs, was never permitted to enter his room.
"In America, the child's room belongs to the parents and is seen as being rented out to the kid," noted one of the actors appearing in a new play on shut-ins. "The child can be displaced for guests." This is a remarkable concept in Japan, where the norm is that teens or young adults can forbid their parents from entering their rooms.
As the problem gets more national attention, parent support groups, counseling centers and mental health clinics have geared up to help families. Home visits over the course of months and sometimes years bring many people out of their rooms. But finding a job after having spent several years as a shut-in is extremely difficult. To provide work experience, Futagami's New Start organization runs a welfare center for the elderly, a restaurant and coffee shop.
Takeshi Watanabe, a counselor with the Tokyo Mental Health Academy, and Yasutaka Masuko, 28, seem like brothers. For 10 years Watanabe visited Masuko once a week at the home Masuko refused to leave. Masuko said he doesn't remember anything specific causing him to drop out of school during his second year of junior high. "Maybe I was feeling pressure," he said. For a while he became physically ill when people came to see him.
But Watanabe's steady visits, their shared interest in music and eventually Masuko's purchase of a computer slowly convinced Masuko that he could go out. The turning point was soccer. He wanted so badly to go to the games of his favorite team -- an interest encouraged by Watanabe -- that he bought a season ticket, and before the first game practiced going outside.
"For night games I went early in the morning to get a good seat," he said. "I made friends because I was in the same place every game." Masuko has taken other big steps. He got his high school degree through a correspondence course and is now enrolled at Nihon University, majoring in philosophy and education. He said there are many other former shut-ins there, and they often talk. He also found a part-time job at a loan collection company. An understanding society is critical to dealing with the problem, Watanabe said. The mental health clinic in a Tokyo suburb where he works has cultivated about a dozen business establishments in the immediate neighborhood, where they have introduced themselves and the young men who come by. "We wanted them to understand we are not a cult," Watanabe said. At the bike shop, coffee shop and 7-Eleven, people started to talk to them, started to say, "Hi, how's it going?" They got emotional support from the neighborhood and some shopkeepers hired them to work two to three hours per week, he explained. "Many people feel nostalgic about Japanese traditions and the warmth that is harder to find today," Watanabe said.