, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 552-576
Date: 26 Sep 2008

Japan’s Hidden Youths: Mainstreaming the Emotionally Distressed in Japan

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Abstract

One of the most talked-about social issues in Japan in recent years has been the problem of the nation’s purportedly one million “hidden” youths, known as hikikomori (literally, “the withdrawn”). Most observers agree that the category of hikikomori encompasses a wide range of problems and provocations. The fact that these various dilemmas lead to the shared outcome of shutting oneself away at home is the point of departure here. The article explores the spheres of mental health care, education and family, focusing on the reluctance to highlight underlying psychological dimensions of hikikomori and the desire on the part of schools and families to “mainstream” Japanese children, accommodating as many as possible within standardized public education. Hikikomori can perhaps be seen as a manifestation of Japanese democracy, in which the good society is imagined as cohesive, protective and secure, rather than one in which the individual can freely exercise the right to be different. Schools, families and the sphere of mental health care have focused on producing social inclusion but have discouraged citizens from being labeled as “different”—even when such a distinction might help them. The dearth of facilities and discourse for caring for the mentally ill or learning disabled is, in many respects, the darker side of Japan’s successes. Those who cannot adjust are cared for through the institutions of families, companies and various other spheres that offer spaces to rest and to temporarily “drop out”; however, the expectation is that rest will eventually lead to a re-entry into mainstream society. Often the psychological problem or disability that led to the problem goes unnamed and untreated (hikikomori, psychiatry, special education, youth, family, Japan).