Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 641–663 | Cite as

Emplotting Hikikomori: Japanese Parents’ Narratives of Social Withdrawal

  • Ellen RubinsteinEmail author
Original Paper


Hikikomori, often glossed as “social withdrawal,” emerged as a sociomedical condition among Japanese youth at the end of the twentieth century, and it continues to fascinate and concern the public. Explanatory frameworks for hikikomori abound, with different stakeholders attributing it to individual psychopathology, poor parenting, and/or a lack of social support structures. This article takes an interpretive approach to hikikomori by exploring parents’ narrative constructions of hikikomori children in support group meetings and in-depth interviews. I argue that some parents were able to find hope in hikikomori by ‘emplotting’ their children’s experiences into a larger narrative about onset, withdrawal, and recovery, which helped them remain invested in the present by maintaining a sense of possibility about the future. Contrary to literature that examines hikikomori as an epidemic of isolated individuals, I demonstrate how parents play a key role in hikikomori through meaning-making activities that have the potential to shape their children’s experiences of withdrawal.


Narrative Hope Psychiatry Hikikomori Social withdrawal Japan 



I would like to thank Alessandro Angelini, Elif Babul, Nicholas J. K. Breitborde, Benjamin F. Crabtree, Jenna Howard, William W. Kelly, Nicole Labruto, Aubrey Moe, Karen Nakamura, and especially Joshua H. Roth, in addition to the anonymous reviewers, for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank Erika Kido-Kumah and Toko Shiiki for transcription and translation assistance. This study was funded by the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission (Fulbright IIE) Dissertation Research Fellowship, Yale University’s Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies Dissertation Grant, and Yale University’s Council on East Asian Studies Dissertation Research Grant.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Ellen Rubinstein declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of Yale University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB Protocol #: 0909005658).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Family Medicine and Community HealthRutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical SchoolNew BrunswickUSA

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