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Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 19:50 GMT 20:50 UK Japan: The Missing Million By Phil Rees Reporting from Japan for Correspondent

Teenage boys in Japan’s cities are turning into modern hermits – never leaving their rooms. Pressure from schools and an inability to talk to their families are suggested causes. Phil Rees visits the country to see what the “hikikomori” condition is all about.

I knew him only as the boy in the kitchen.

His mother, Yoshiko, wouldn’t tell me his name, fearful that neighbours in this Tokyo suburb might discover her secret.

Her son is 17 years old. Three years ago he was unhappy in school and began to play truant.

Then one day, he walked into the family’s kitchen, shut the door and refused to leave.

Families adjust

Since then, he hasn’t left the room or allowed anyone in.

Tokyo skyline Sprawling city suburbs harbour hikikomori sufferers The family have since built a new kitchen – at first they had to cook on a makeshift stove or eat take away food.

His mother takes meals to his door three times a day.

The toilet is adjacent to the kitchen, but he only baths once every six months.

Yoshiko showed me pictures of her son before his retreat into isolation; he was a plump, cheerful young teenager, with no symptoms of mental illness.

Bullying tipped the balance

Then a classmate taunted him with anonymous hate letters and scrawled abusive graffiti about him in the schoolyard.

The boy in the kitchen suffers from a social disorder known in Japan as hikikomori, which means to withdraw from society.

One psychologist has described the condition as an “epidemic”, which now claims more than a million sufferers in their late teens and twenties.

The trigger is usually an event at school, such as bullying, an exam failure or a broken romance. Dr Henry Grubb Dr Grubb: “I’d knock the door down and walk in”

Unique condition

Dr Henry Grubb, a psychologist from the University of Maryland in the United States, is preparing the first academic study to be published outside Japan.

He says that young people the world over fear school or suffer agoraphobia, but hikikomori is a specific condition that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

“It’s really hard to get a handle on this” he told me, “there’s nothing like this in the West.”

Dr Grubb is also surprised by the passive, softly, softly approach followed by parents and counsellors in Japan.

“If my child was inside that door and I didn’t see him, I’d knock the door down and walk in. Simple. But in Japan, everybody says give it time, it’s a phase or he’ll grow out of it.”

School children ‘Crammer’ schools wield heavy pressure If children refuse to attend school, social workers or the courts rarely get involved.

Most consider hikikomori a problem within the family, rather than a psychological illness.

Historical origins

Japan’s leading hikikomori psychiatrist, Dr Tamaki Saito, believes the cause of the problem lies within Japanese history and society.

Traditional poetry and music often celebrate the nobility of solitude.

And until the mid-nineteenth century, Japan had cut itself off from the outside world for 200 years.

More recently, Dr Saito points to the relationship between mothers and their sons.

Most hikikomori sufferers are male, often the eldest son.

“In Japan, mothers and sons often have a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship.

Mothers will care for their sons until they become 30 or 40 years old.”

After a period of time – usually a matter of years – some re-enter society.

The mystery remains

Increasingly, clinics are opening, offering a half-way house for recovering sufferers.

Another sufferer, Tadashi, spent four years without leaving his home.

Two years ago, he sought help and now has a part time job making doughnuts.

Tadashi is slowly re-entering society.

He still fears meeting strangers and is petrified that neighbours will find out that he once suffered from the disorder.

But what bothers him most is not understanding why he lost four years of his life.

“I want to know the reasons,” he told me. “You could say it’s related to Japanese traditions.

“I just don’t know. I suppose people are still trying to find out what hikikomori is all about.”

Phil Rees talks to Masayuki Okuyama about his violent hikikomori son

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