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TUESDAY, December 06, 2022
Town in Akita offers new start for hikikomori

Town in Akita offers new start for hikikomori

MONDAY, March 06, 2017

Conservative Japan is struggling with a growing problem of adult hikikomori – people who withdraw from society. However, there is a town where social recluses are successfully reintegrating themselves into society.

How can individuals who have chosen to withdraw from the world for long periods of time manage to emerge from their self-imposed isolation? 
The mountain town of Fujisato has 3,500 inhabitants and in winter is cut off from the outside world by snowfall. But for the rest of the year visitors arrive weekly to study how it supports hikikomori. In the five years since the campaign began in 2010, 86 out of 113 hikikomori in Fujisato have reintegrated into society and become self-reliant.
“There are almost no hikikomori now,” social welfare council head Mayumi Kikuchi, 61, says. She introduces me to Tsukasa Hatakeyama, 45, who emerged from seclusion one month ago, after spending 29 years inside his house.
It is difficult to get a true figure of the number of hikikomori in Japan since there is stigma surrounding those who “come out”.
But after investigating residents aged 18 to 54, Fujisato authorities found 9 per cent of them, or 113 people, were hikikomori. 

Places to go to
When it comes to hikikomori support, many imagine counselling for recluses and their families, or alternative accommodation facilities. However, the support offered in Fujisato is different. The town has focused on creating a place where recluses, disabled people and the long-term unemployed can visit.
“When I urged a young recluse to make more of an effort to go outside, they responded, ‘And go where?’” Kikuchi recalls. After being told a centre for recluses was not necessary, she realised they want a place where they can play an active role.
The local government provided land and a building for the Komitto welfare facility. A dining room was placed on the ground floor, where people can learn cooking skills such as soba making and how to serve customers. A human resources agency was also set up to provide work experience opportunities at food delivery centers and welfare facilities. A training course for people who want to work as nursing care helpers was also developed.
Every two or three months, recluses receive a visit at home and are given newsletters containing information about available support and events happening in the town. Slowly but surely, such activities lead them to think they might give something a try. Finally, they seize an opportunity and emerge. 

Supporting, being supported

The key point when meeting hikkimori is to ensure they are not treated as weak individuals, to avoid hurting their pride. When they end their seclusion, the majority enter training courses to become nursing care helpers. They regain a normal daily rhythm and manage to take care of themselves again, such as by looking after their appearance and getting regular haircuts.
As the support system got under way, the mindset of the townspeople began to change. Previously, people regarded hikikomori as “strange individuals” or “lazy,” but now see them as “ordinary young people without jobs”. When maitake mushroom quiches made by former hikikomori brought in about ¥4.5 million to the town in 2012, people started to view the recluses as “valuable assets to the area”.
This year, the town council threw open its “Fujisato experience programme” to hikikomori nationwide. People can join various programmes providing work experience in the town for periods ranging from three days to three months, at a farm, a tavern or a printing company. There have been reports of participants experiencing a “new lease of life” when they return home after completing a programme.
Sachiko Kamata, 50, who is in charge of the venture, explains, “We want to create a place not just for hikikomori, but where anybody from the town can work. We grind down local kudzu and warabi [bracken] roots, mix them with water and create kudzu starch or warabi flour, which are products sold for high prices.”
The words of stuck with me Kikuchi, a qualified care manager, in the town, stuck with me: “If we regard social exclusion as a problem faced only by hikikomori, it won’t be resolved. Therefore, we are desperately creating a place for people to self-actualise.”
Tsukasa Hatakeyama, 45 and a veteran of the “Fujisato experience”, ended his seclusion from society after 29 years. 
“I returned to normal society one month ago,” he says. “I had lapsed into a mistrust of humanity after being bullied at elementary and junior high school. Aged 16, I dropped out of vocational school just three months after enrolment, and spent most of the next 29 years inside my house.
“At home, my time was spent online, playing games and watching TV or DVDs. I went to bed at about five or six in the morning and got up at about 4pm. 
“I always thought about going outside, working and overcoming my inability to talk with people so I could communicate with others. But I couldn’t take the first step because I had no idea how I should go about it.
“I often argued with my father, who insisted that the situation could not continue and worried about what would become of me.”
Hatakeyama was eventually jolted from his old life by a family tragedy.
“My father’s death finally forced me to end my seclusion. About a week after his death, a staff member from the social welfare council came to see me. I was suddenly asked if I wanted to participate in a work experience event taking place the following day. I replied “Yes, yes, I’ll go,” but I worried because I had no idea what I would be doing.
When I reintegrated into society, I felt lighter. I became less irritable. The scenery around me looks completely different now. I feel like I lost something during those 29 years.

Adult hikikomori
According to an estimate by the Cabinet Office in September, about 540,000 people aged 15 to 39 are hikikomori. There are no public data available about those aged 40 or older, but the problem is said to be worsening in this demographic. The KHJ national federation of families with hikikomori, headquartered in Tokyo, released an interim report after conducting a survey among its members, stating that hikikomori aged 40 years or older have been withdrawn from society for 22 years on average.