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Interview with Carla Ricci, anthropologist and researcher at the University of Tokyo


I had the opportunity and the pleasure of interviewing anthropologist Carla Ricci (currently researcher at the University of Tokyo) and one of the world's leading experts in the field of hikikomori. In 2008 she published a book “Hikikomori, adolescenti in volontaria reclusione” (Hikikomori. Adolescents in Voluntary Reclusion) that even now is considered a touchstone for those who want to delve into this issue. In the following years she has published three other books on the subject, the most recent of which ten months ago: “La volontaria reclusione. Italia e Giappone: un legame inquietante” (Voluntary Reclusion. Italy and Japan: A worrying link).

Her full answers are presented below.

Thank you for deciding to take part in this short interview. My first question is why you chose to dedicate yourself studying hikikomori?

I think the main reason I chose to dedicate myself to studying hikikomori is because this phenomenon was a specific characteristic of Japan – I had already talked about studying the issue of suicide and the subject of Shinjū (“double suicide”) – a country whose refined perspective of the world, shaped back in ancient times. It has always been source of ideas for me. Moreover, hikikomori is (or maybe should I use the past tense) a phenomenon that affects young people who, all over the world aren't totally inured to the system in which they live, and have who live life more instinctively than adults. Self-reclusion it's absolutely important in this regard, especially for those like me who are interested in the subject.

What is the current perception of hikikomori in Japan?

Most scholars who study hikikomori regard it in different ways, with different theories and considerations. I think that, as in the past, it remains a subject which is not often considered, given how Japan wants to appear as a nation, how it wants to see itself: aggressive, capable of actively dealing with difficulties, believing strongly in common effort. Hikikomori are instead the opposite; considered losers, people who can't fight and who are dependent on their families, and, consequently, on society. While people think about it, it’s something unmentionable.

Moreover, it is worth highlighting the ongoing change in Japan, which affects a new and different perspective of the problem. That is to say the fact that currently a large number of hikikomori are no longer adolescents, but adults. This comes from reliable data which shows that this phenomenon of so-called “new hikikomori” has come about since the economic downturn in Japan, which makes it difficult to both find and maintain a job.

The reasons that push these people in reclusion requires thoughtful investigation: it could be the unmanageable shame of losing a job at 30 years old, while still being energetic and lively, that leads them to disappear into their bedroom; then there are more obvious factors, like the large part of teenagers who started their isolation many years ago and remain segregated, becoming adults in the meantime, thus bringing about a change in the data.

What is the approach of the Japanese government to the issue of hikikomori? Have measures been put in place to combat it?

I think that measures to combat it don't really exist since the phenomenon is linked to a social system that can't be changed. Japan is trying to combat it by increasing awareness about bullying, believed to be one of the main causes that makes young people become hikikomori, and of the issue of teenage suicide, which is quite common in Japan. Moreover, since hikikomori are not considered sick people (and in fact they aren't sick), they don't fit into the public healthcare system, which is clearly bad and negative. So they are pushed to locking themselves in their bedroom for a long time and their family very often does nothing about that because they are ashamed of it and they ask for help only if the situation becomes unbearable.

Of course there are a lot of non-profit organizations who help, doing their best; they arrange meetings with families, deal with methods to provide psycho-therapeutic care at home (unlikely and complicated since hikikomori refuse it), group therapies for less serious cases, helping them with social reintegration when they feel ready to go outside. Then there are psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychiatrists, but counseling hikikomori it's not the biggest ambition for these professionals since home-based therapy has a lot of problems, both because hikikomori don't want anyone in their bedroom, and because of their potential aggressive outburnsts.

Moreover, (and this is what I found out, even though no one has ever acknowledged it) it is hard for the therapist to get to the root of the problem because this would require examining family relationships, especially the mother-son relationship, very important factors leading to self-reclusion, but virtually taboo and so rooted in the culture that even a therapist sometimes can't discover this. The different methods that I've just talked about concern however teenagers and young people, but don't really concern “new hikikomori”, who are clearly another issue.

From your point of view this phenomenon of hikikomori is expected to grow or to decrease in the coming years?

The phenomenon of hikikomori is one of the many unexpected outcomes of a richer modern society (find out more). Society is more and more complex, more competitive, more presumptuous and even more technological, even though its citizens are not psychologically prepared to deal with it. Young people are excessively protected by their families, becoming more narcissist, unwilling to sacrifice and to become independent - all factors leading to the phenomenon of hikikomori. There is another way of looking at this, another interpretation, that is to say those young people, even without quite knowing why, unconsciously become aware of the darkness of the clouds “outside”, which is the reason why they stay inside the home.

Of course they're always connected to the Internet, but they want to stay away from reality, and not only figuratively speaking. I have no doubt that this phenomenon will increase and it seems to me not so hard to understand why. Besides the fact that the period of self-reclusion is becoming longer and longer and therefore this affects the number of future hikikomori, we can consider a broad range of factors, like values, expectations, choices of society, that, combined, bring about a range of outcomes, including the phenomenon of hikikomori; one of the most important elements is the development of technology and the types of impact on the human brain that this advance could cause overtime.

Do you think that this phenomenon may be interpreted as a form of juvenile depression or it has some characteristics that make this a stand-alone occurrence?

When a young man starts thinking about self-reclusion, one of the main reasons is certainly a state of low mood and aversion to activity, therefore there's a form of depression even though it is not, in my opinion, a decisive element and frequently isn’t maintained during the self-reclusion and exhibiting the characteristics of depression, and therefore it should be considered a stand-alone phenomenon. Hikikomori are basically only quite weary and wants to take a break. Sometimes the reclusive adolescent or adult is physically tired, but basically because he or she feels unfit for society and does not have the same motivations as other people and, in fact, may not even be sure that they want to embrace them.

The problem is that, as time goes by, hikikomori does become rested, restored and ready to go outside, and the idea of the outer world begins to create panic and no reason to motivate these people to venture outside their home after years of self-reclusion. However, in my experience, when self-reclusion is not kept up for many years, it can, in many respects, be positive and constructive.

Hikikomori in Japan vs Italy

How about the fact that the number of hikikomori in Italy is increasing? Do you think that Italy is a country culturally prone to the phenomenon of hikikomori?

Fundamentally it does not seem to be a country culturally prone to hikikomori, since the typical Italian man, compared to the Japanese man, is more gregarious, carefree, outgoing, feeling less of a sense of duty and usually unembarrassed if he doesn't do what he is expected to do or what is done by other people. However, in Italy the phenomenon of hikikomori exists and is increasing over the years both because of some circumstances that make our country similar to Japan (including for example the invasive presence of family raising children, narcissism, the strict mother-son relationship) and because there are less and less reasons to be talkative and carefree, and because of other circumstances that I have already mentioned, making the phenomenon of hikikomori a reality in every “economically emancipated” country. There are conditions that promote a psychological state of uncertainty, insecurity and bewilderment that, to people who are more emotionally vulnerable, could, combined, bring about self-reclusion and the retirement from society of hikikomori.

From your experience and your studies, what are the differences between European and Japanese hikikomori?

My researchers aimed to discover differences and similarities between hikikomori by a comparison between Italian and Japanese hikikomori. I will try to summarize the differences, leaving aside important in-depth analyses because they require a lot of time. Let's say that Italian people are, on average, younger than Japanese people, everyone uses Internet and usually they are defined to be addicted to the Internet (in Japan it is claimed that 30% of citizens do not use the Internet at all). Italian people don't usually refuse help a priori. Moreover, there are very few cases of reclusive girls.

Furthermore, Italian people usually don't have feelings of guilt of shame, leading them to locking themselves in their bedroom. Moreover, during their self-reclusion, they often engage in self-examination and self-analysis (not necessarily with the therapist), which is very uncommon in Japan. It should be recalled that this phenomenon in Italy is very new, and therefore it is necessary to wait a few more years to obtain a more accurate picture. As a final remark: many Italian hikikomori know and love Japanese culture, both its contemporary expressions and those of the past.

Hikikomori and Internet addiction disorder

Based on your experience, what type of connection exists between hikikomori and the Internet?

There's a relationship because a large part of young hikikomori (but not all of them) use too much Internet, that is to say that who is locked in his bedroom will more commonly spend more time on the Internet rather than reading, writing or doing nothing.

Do you agree with the statement “hikikomori is a young man addicted to the Internet”?

In my opinion, the statement “addicted to the Internet” is a bit ambiguous in this situation. I think that the addiction (which by the way should be viewed especially with the relationship with video games) occurs more easily at a later time, that is to say once the self-reclusion has started, the reasons are both convenient and psychological. In those situations where there's an excessive use of the Internet before the reclusion, this could be seen as a likely cause but not the only one, and I would say that, if it is established that there's this factor, there are reasons that, if they were analyzed carefully and quickly, I'm not saying that they could prevent the self-reclusion, but maybe make the situation different in some respects, more moderate.

In Italy, most of the media that talk about hikikomori relates this phenomenon of addiction to the Internet. What do you think about that?

I can refer to what I've already written here. As is often the case, it is easier to ascribe the causes of a complex phenomenon to something that is blatant and even a reasonable cause rather than get to the root of the problem, that is, examining in depth what are the risks and other things that lead to the inability to do deal with life and with things that nobody likes to do.

I think that the addiction to the Internet, per se, brings about the unconscious need of something that we ourselves don't really know but that lacks in our life, and if you are an hikikomori, besides the fact that you can't fulfill life’s expectations, which mainly shock you and push you away from a world which has no appeal or motivation which you are looking for. Indeed, a hikikomori resorts to reclusion because there's nothing that is really interesting “outside” and because he/she feels unfit the external world and its demands. And locking up yourself into the Internet seems to be the easier way, because staying in front of a video is not as bad as everything else and r it helps deal with the loneliness associated with an empty room.

I know I keep saying this, but it is a very important point: I think that there's a relationship between the Internet and hikikomori, a strong connection, but only if we think of the Internet as a consequence of reclusion; so you could say that if the Internet didn't exist, the reclusion may not last long or be less total? Maybe, even though I'm not sure about that. The other thing is that the Internet is not the cause of the isolation, but a concomitant cause of the decision to reclusion, and I'm sure that the role of the family could create an impact on the way things develop. And to this concomitant cause something else needs to be considered, like maybe introversion, narcissism, bullying (if at an early age), family relationships apparently ordinary and calm, but instead deeply confused and many other things that happen deep inside or around him/her, things that make the self-reclusion the last resort and the only choice to make.

Current and future projects

What kind of research into this phenomenon of hikikomori are you currently doing?

My current research is to analyze hikikomori focusing on everything that has happened deep inside or around a hikikomori.

What is the most important thing that, in your opinion, still remains to be understood about this phenomenon?

Most of the actual reasons that cause people to consider retirement from society could be found deep inside everyone, even inside “normal” people, that's why it's important to build a more acute awareness in this regard.

In Italy, your books are a touchstone for everyone interested in the phenomenon of hikikomori. Are you planning on writing another book on this subject?

Ten months ago I published “La volontaria reclusione. Italia e Giappone, un legame inquietante” (Voluntary Reclusion. Italy and Japan: A worrying link); my current writing project doesn't concern hikikomori anymore. I will deal with it later, but from different perspectives and with a different approach.

I have asked all my questions, thank you again for your kindness. Do you want to say a few words in conclusion?

Thank you and your readers for this interview. I would like to conclude saying again that I think there are no social initiatives for this phenomenon of self-imprisonment that could solve the problem; to make things right with the external world, there's no possibility of something like an extraordinary treatment, but what needs to be done is to find a reason for this in order to find out a possible replacement. The only thing that could achieve this is the hikikomori's family, the closest thing to him, figuratively and literally. I'm thinking about those families that, showing goodwill, are really willing to put themselves at stake, without feeling sorry for themselves all day long and wondering why them, since they did everything they could bringing up their child. Those parents who can make this happen, to help their child to get out of the house, are those willing to challenge their roles that they have at home, looking inside themselves with consistency and honesty, leaving aside all those distortions of the truth that they have been living with, things that they often aren't even aware of. That would be enough to begin a different “emotional environment” that would affect everyone, including the reclusive child.

Of course, that would be just the first step, even though it would unfold the path of cooperation and support for the child on brand new bases, and, if on that path, there was also a therapist, he would be able to move towards the goals by coordinating the project. My proposal, that I covered in detail in the last chapter of the aforementioned book, is not a rhetorical statement, but an analysis that I conducted delving thoroughly into these issues, including experiences with families, hikikomori and therapists. This dire burden, which for the family is the reality of the reclusive child, and the choice that he didn't chose to be a young hikikomori, could bring about an opportunity of fruitful, artistic and transformative individual (or even collective) experience, maybe capable of finding out the reasons and signs that we are not really aware of.

Carla Ricci
Tokyo, 29 May 2015


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