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Matt Kamen on the problems of a shut-in society

This week sees us travel to The World God Only Knows – director Shigehito Takayanagi’s adaptation of Tamiki Wakaki’s comedy fantasy manga. The series centres on Keima Katsuragi, an expert player of dating sims. While his ability to ‘conquer’ any virtual girl he encounters has earned him the online nickname “God of Conquests”, his luck with women in reality is the exact opposite. When he accidentally forms a contract with the demon Elise, Keima finds himself forced to confront his own shortcomings, having to charm the pants off an assortment of girls in order to exorcise them of runaway spirits.

However, in reality, the kinds of young men like Keima addicted to dating sims have had government officials and social scientists in Japan scratching their heads. Known as ‘hikikomori’, which translates as ‘withdrawal’, this new breed of reclusive citizenry are known for living almost completely secluded lives. The term was coined by psychologist Tamaki Saito in the late 1980s, after he identified a rising number of patients – mostly male – who exhibited signs of lethargy and isolationist tendencies, but who could not otherwise be described as suffering depression or other mental health problems.

Abandoning education, training or work, most hikikomori either live alone in tiny apartments or never move out of the family home, where they typically stay in their own room. Unlike agoraphobics, who fear the outdoors, hikikomori are more addicted to the indoors. Most are supported by family members, who in turn are often shamed by social pressures into silence about the problem. Mental health disorders are notoriously difficult to identify and treat even in the more open west, let alone the ever-stoic Japan.

Saito laid the blame for the rise in hikikomori – government figures estimate there to be 700,000 people suffering from the illness by 2010, with an additional 1.55m exhibiting extreme shut-in tendencies; borderline hikikomori on the verge of being ‘lost’ – on the intense pressure placed on Japanese children, particularly first-born boys. Parents push their progeny to excel through stringent study schedules and evening cram schools, with further demands to then progress into successful business careers. Starved of non-academic social interactions and burdened to conform to everyone else’s expectations, sufferers begin to eschew real interpersonal contact in favour of virtual people, their pre-programmed responses easier to navigate than the comparative chaos of actual humans and their pesky emotions. Online communities are often the only avenue for actual communication.

As such, there’s a lot of overlap between people categorised as hikikomori and those with typical otaku interests – keep in mind, ‘otaku’ is generally a pejorative in Japan, and not something people glorify or aspire to. Locked away in their rooms or apartments, hikikomori can control every aspect of their lives without ever truly realising that they’re largely wasting them . It’s interesting to observe that, as Saito was identifying the curious behaviour, dating sims were gaining prominence; the games perhaps creating an outlet for a problem bubbling under the Japanese culture for years.

However, the shut-ins are becoming a time bomb for Japanese society – at least two identifiable generations who will be unable to care for themselves or reintegrate into the wider world when their carers pass away. While there are some support agencies to help hikikomori reintegrate (the non-profit organisation New Start being the most prominent), it’s an uphill battle and one that will only realistically be won with sweeping changes to attitudes and social demands in the country.

The World God Only Knows is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment, if you can bring yourself to go down to the shops…alternatively, thanks to the internet, you can…

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