We have to be prepared to the prospect of a long period of monastic withdrawal, but also to the prospect of a sudden reversal of the global political landscape ( Franco Berardi, 2010. Ten Years After Seattle..).
Jack comes to the crisis centre to have his formal risk assessment commenced. Usually people come once or twice before we begin the procedure. We don’t want to scare them off, but likewise we want as organic a relationship to develop as possible. An organic relationship is hardly ever possible. He comes because the combination of heroin and valium and the grim dark side of sex work or drug dealing compounded by roofless homelessness have crippled and terrified him.
Jack is depressed. He is probably suicidal. He talks about paranoia but it is much more likely that someone out there really is trying to hurt him, that people really are looking aghast in his direction and commenting to one another about his appearance. He is dishevelled and there are bruised bulges on his arms and hands, abscesses swelling from his flesh where the needle went too far and the heroin was injected directly into the muscle. The cocaine doesn’t help. Jack uses it sometimes to pick himself up. He swallows too many valium because without them he can’t sleep. His skin is calloused by hard ground and cold and the rain of the Scottish west coast.
I sit on this side of the room and he sits on that. We look at one another and he begins to give me his story. I take mental notes. I want to meet him, to encounter him, but it is impossible when I’m half approaching him and half constructing the image of him that will go into his files. I ask him about a “support network”. Friends? Family? Anyone. Sometimes Jack will say he has friends, even clean friends who have never used or are a long time in recovery. Most of the time Jack has no one. He can’t go to any of the 12-step programs because they want you to be abstinent. He hasn’t been abstinent in a long time. Later, when Jack has returned to the streets, I will write in his risk assessment: social isolation, high risk.
Jack doesn’t have to be a drug addict. Jack could be Jill who is depressed and can’t face the world beyond her bed. Jill could be John who sees threat lurking everywhere and barricades himself in his tenement flat, hiding under his bed at night when a car’s headlights shine in through his window; the clear evidence of a malicious stranger with evil on his mind. John could be Jackie who has become too thin to leave the house without incurring stares and only dares to make the trip to the 24 hour gym once night has risen and the normal people have settled to their TVs and their beds. Jackie could be Jeff who has been unable to leave the house since he realised that doing so could leave him vulnerable to a gas leak, an explosion, and nowhere to live; or because the dimensions of the outside world are just too big and impossible to manage; or because they moved to a new city and struggled to find friends, and have no family at home to talk to. Social isolation; high risk.
For the obvious addict and the florid psychotic its even worse. Maybe you go out to beg or just walk down the street. Look at you: you can barely walk right, you’re muttering incoherently, shouting sometimes, you look out of it, off your fucking face; the children are frightened. You go out into the world to talk to someone, anybody really, and they all shun you, move back, cross the street, look away. They cannot see you because you are too visible to be seen. You’re too old to get out alone and you only remind them all of their own impending sicknesses and deaths. Stay home. Keep to the back streets. Play video games all night.
This is how it can be: you can withdraw from the others, or the others can withdraw from you. Even worse, you get so used to being unseen and hearing the older kids laugh as you go passed that you just stop bothering. You withdraw because the others have withdrawn; because the world has withdrawn; because there is no sense; no meaning.
Every few years a story emerges in the British media about Hikikomori- a Japanese psychiatric category that literally means ‘pulling inward, being confined’. Hikikomori is a psychopathology that affects somewhere in the region of one million Japanese youth and that has been recognised as a diagnostic category in its own right. Unlike the psychotics and the depressives, the agoraphobics and the socially anxious, the social isolation of hikikomori constitutes the illness. The isolation is itself the illness, rather than a symptom among a cluster of symptoms that might be associated with some pre-existing syndrome. Every diagnostic category has its champion, the one who pushes for its recognition and entrance into the medical codes, and thus sets into motion the diagnostic machinery of treatment-research-identity. In Japan hikikomori has its champion in Saitō Tamaki. In his book on the subject Tamaki defines hikikomori as
A state that has become a problem by the late twenties, that involves cooping oneself up in one’s own home and not participating in society for six months or longer, but that does not seem to have another psychological problem as its principal source .
This is an illness that is defined at the intersection of four axes: demographically; spatially; temporally; and differentially. It is immediately obvious that the key diagnostic moment is in the failure to participate in society. Before discussing this non-participation I want to focus on the axial components of hikikomori.
Demographically it is isolated to the youth, usually with an chronic onset in adolescence but reaching an acute pathological state by “the late twenties”. By the time you’re in you reach 26, 27, 28, 29 its no good to be coasting any more. There are socially normative milestones that one is expected to meet before one hits 30. By this point you have been sexually active, had a couple of partners, should be in long-term relationship, gotten engaged or married or at least be cohabiting. In Japan the expectation is that you will live at home until you marry, and that you will pay your filial duties to the family, caring for the parents and providing for them as they have for you. You should have good qualifications and a good job, being able to present yourself via an honorific that identifies your place in a highly vertically structured and normatively regulated society.
The idea that Japanese culture demands a strict and pervasive conformity- summed up in the image of nearly identically dressed workers performing their mandatory at work fitness regimes at precisely the same time (really a simulation, a demand that Japanese be conformist, an exotic conformism mask of our own domestic conformity). These are some of the expectations at least, or the image of the expectations- as if Japan had no punk, no subcultures, no autonomous zones. From the outside it is impossible to tell how much of this image of the Japanese world is mythological, and how much the mythology was written by the West or projected out of Japan itself. Perhaps this model of Japan has itself come to shape the public expectations (tatemae) and private desires (honne) of a (self-)fictionalised society.
That the hikikomori are approaching their adolescence-to-thirties today is especially telling: they are the millenials and digital nativesmarked by increasing technological acceleration, immersion into cyberculture and technognosis, multiple crises (ecological; social; psychological; semiological) and who have grown up with an insider knowledge of the production, consumption and manipulation of signs, desires, psycho-chemistry and images. It begs the question, to where does the hikikomori withdraw?
Although there are those who argue that the psychopathology belongs to Western cultures, the diagnosis remains spatially restricted to Japan. More specifically we see that it is about being ‘cooped up’ in one’s own home’. A shut-in, the hikikomori shrinks their world to a manageable size and eliminates corporeal social relations and with them the regimes of honorifics, familial responsibility, and role-identities performed by the rest of their peers. They bring their lives down to a single dwelling and often to a single room. They restrict the spatiality of their lives. They undergo a voluntary closing down of the horizons of their days and refuse to step-outside into the light of day, bathed instead by the electronic glow of laptops and smartphones. What does it mean to be ‘cooped up’? There is a sense of withdrawal, yes, but also of fortification, a siege psychology, a sense that one has spurned the world of the others. To be “cooped up” like a caged animal; one is imprisoned. But this is an imprisonment the kikikomori has chosen and that she prefers to your world, your luxuries and entertainments. Their sickness comes from their pathological aversion to the “outside”- to the confrontation with the face of the other and the many faces of alterity.
Is it that simple? Don’t the kikikomori have their historical predecessors? They must seems strange to the psychiatrists, and worrying to the parents who can’t get them to leave the private intimate landscapes of their bedrooms. The economists aren’t shy about telling us their concern: this is a generation growing up outside the economy: they are unproductive and costly, adding to the “burden” of disease and welfare. They are anti-social, existing in an interior archipelago of isolation- connected by the internet into incorporeal intimacies- these young people have turned their backs on things.
There have been others who have done the same: the mystics and the saints who left society to go out beyond and contemplate other realms, to become sensitive to other supra-sensible ontological forces, to swim in the dark emanations of a universe capable of generating more than the meagreness of everyday hallucinatory reality. They resemble too the monks of Christian monastic tradition, alone in their cells waiting for grace, that depart from the historical legacy of a Confucianism that rejected asceticism and monasticism. Connected together in digital hubs they provide an image of a new de-localised monasticism, a circulating monastery that moves in the data-streams and whose contemplatives already live so much of their lives free of the burden of the bodies that are not themselves, entering transcendental realms: a Confucian heresy, a Japanese gnoticism. Or perhaps they resemble the Tiqqunists who demand that we withdraw, become-imperceptible, anonymous, generating liberated psycho-spatio-temporalities that resemble the Temporary Autonomous Zones or of the protagonist of JG Ballard’s ‘The Enormous Space’? Or do they resemble a new “post-indigenous people” living in voluntary isolation and deserving of the same rights as other such populations? These are all possibilities, all candidate options, all ways of going dark in order to cope with being alive. Some mutant hybrid of these figures?
In future posts I want to outline these possibilities and to examine the hikikomori from each of them. I’ll also look at how readily the diagnosis was accepted in Japan and its spread to the Anglo-American world.
I want to palpate a sense in which the hikikomori’s withdrawal is an elective psychopathological mode of darkened coping, like a negative affirmation, that threatens by unsettling and unnerving. The hikikomori understands the aesthetics of disappearance and makes use of them to turn their back the material world in general and capitalism in particular. It has become easy to say that psychopathology is alienation, but alienation is also the condition for finding a way to live and to cope with the world. What is compellng about the hikikomori is that they die by staying in place. They cope by refusing to cope. Without reaching the ecstatic heights of annihilation of the suicide the hikikomori nonetheless practices an art of active passivity, a heroic autism, that issues the same accusation as the suicide: you get the world you deserve and your world is not fit to live in.
 Saitō Tamaki. 2013. Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End. Trans. Jeffrey Angles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.