Olivia Tsang:Hikikomori: Silent Suffering

RELG 274

5/20/18

Social isolation is a growing epidemic with 40% of American adults saying they are lonely, double from 1980.[1]Linked with increased mortality, the lack of strong social ties, or lack of relationship with anyone for that matter, social isolation is a phenomenon seen around the world. Hikikomori is a culture bound syndrome of social isolation specific to Japan. Hikikomori, literally meaning to withdrawal, is the Japanese term for social recluses (though hikikomori can also be used as a descriptor, similar to how alcoholic is used). There are estimated to be anywhere from 700,000 to one million hikikomori in Japan, though the number is controversial because of the shame associated with hikikomori, as well as the difficulty in measuring a phenomenon centered on fear of others. Rising in prevalence since the 90s and coined in the early 2000s, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare defines hikikomori as people who avoid social contact, living in isolation for a period longer than six months. The isolation is self-imposed with the average age being 32.6 years old and largely male.[2]As a relatively new phenomenon, hikikomori is still being studied in an attempt to better understand its causes and work towards a solution; however, some psychologists believe the problem revolves around prolonged adolescence. In other words, the failure to mature on the path of character development. In the Aristotelian theory of friendship, the path to virtue, the path to development requires friendship. Regardless of the causes of hikikomori, lack of friends and social isolation stunt their growth because “the young need friends to keep them from error.”[3]Coinciding with the rise of social isolation are social media and the internet. 2018 is a fully transparent world for those who participate in social media of any kind. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn are all websites where the user has a profile, a picture, and information about themselves published for the whole world to see. In a world of hyper-connectivity, where you can connect with anyone around the world by sharing location, pictures, or any random thoughts (aka Twitter) with just a few taps on a smartphone, one must wonder about how this drastic change in the way we live our lives, of always being plugged in, changes our behavior, psychology or relationships in the offline world.

I will argue that online friendship has the potential to help with the problem of social withdrawal by creating friends in a low-stress environment on their terms, as well as nurture international relationships because on the internet, distance does not matter. First, I will establish the Aristotelian concept of friendship that I will reference through the paper, and then I will move into exploring what an online friendship would even look like. Finally, I will return to the matter of hikikomori, and argue that online friendship could ease hikikomori out of their social withdrawal.

In his theory of the good life, Aristotle’s analysis of friendship is an influential theory of human connections that has pervaded most of the texts we have read for class. Aristotle’s theories on friendship continue to be relevant, as friends and human connectivity transcend time and space. Aristotle identifies three types of friendship. The first is a friendship of utility, based on advantages that one can attain from a friend; for example, being a friend with someone just because they have a car. Friendships of pleasure, the second type he identifies, is a friendship of pleasure; for example, two friends who share a love of manga or playing video games together. Virtue friendship is the third kind of friendship which Aristotle sees as the highest form of friendship, that is based on a mutual admiration of character and sharing of values. While the first two kinds of friendship are based on self-interest and easily dissolved, friendship of virtue is based on wishing “goods to each other for each other’s own sake”[4]and the most durable of all the types of friendship.

Now what type of friendship can an online friend fill? Deep and meaningful relationships can indeed exist in the online realm. I will not simply subtract the negatives from the positives of social media because that would paint a picture of black and white when indeed, a greyscale would be more appropriate. With the rapid advancement of technology comes both positive and negative aspects. At the touch of our fingertips, we can use the Internet to access information about any topic we are curious about, as well at the ability to talk with anybody easily no matter the distance. However, we have become slaves to our phones, addicted to social media because social media acts as a substitute to the human need for socializing. The quality of that substitute is in question with Andrew Keen claiming that “the truth, the reality of social media, is an architecture of human isolation rather than community,” suggesting that even with social media, we are just as lonely, if not lonelier than if social networking sites did not exist.[5]One reason for this could be the satisfaction that young people seem to have with using social media. Due to the ability to portray an idealized online self, young people are especially drawn to social media at a time in their lives where they are figuring out who that self is. By spending time on social media and getting a social “fix” that way, they are satisfied with a shortened, fast-paced way of communication characteristic of social media sites, with “such a development is thought to lead young people away from developing friendship that correspond with the Aristotelian ideal.”[6]To put it another way, young people are getting to used to a shortened form of communication that they are losing the skills (ability to hold a conversation, for example) necessary to make authentic friends. Some philosophers argue that being physically together is a necessary condition for virtue friendship because Aristotle says that friends have a shared life, the main characteristic of which is discussion and sharing of thoughts. When we are online, however, those thoughts are “multi-filtered communication,” meaning that person A relays information to person B after having filtered the events through their own interpretations first.[7]Multi-filtered communication could be hindering to the development of friendship because the whole truth is not present, whether intentional or not. In other words, while a person might think they are revealing their true self, the several layers of filter, the editing and the perfecting of a message to broadcast or send, is edited and therefore not authentic. Before social networking, we could only rely on the things our friends told us exclusively, which is very important in developing trust! Telling is an invitation to trust, but it can be difficult to trust the entirety of the account if it is said in only 140 words or less.[8]On the other hand, just because the very nature of social networking is filtered communication, online friends are very often offline friends as well so it is not as if I could tell an outright lie on Facebook without inquiry from friends, offline. For example, if I claim that I am a Deadhead (love of the Grateful Dead, a psychedelic rock band), my friends might inquire and I would have to own up to the fact that I have only listened to them a handful of times and might have exaggerated online to boost my perceived social networking image.

There are many other problems with social media I could site, but it is not within the scope of this paper to include them. I will move on to the more positive aspects of online friendship. On the internet, everyone is equal and regardless of the position in society that people come from, they can all participate equally in an online world by creating connections based on their personality or character rather than their status or other factors that they have no control over such as disabilities, appearance, or social anxiety. In fact, “individuals who suffer from social anxiety, shyness or a lack of social skills, reported that they felt they could express their ‘true’ selves better online” and thus able to create deep and meaningful relationships with people they had met online.[9]Regardless of whether or not it is possible to form Aristotle’s conception of a virtuous friend on the internet, individuals still felt as if they made a strong connection which is meaningful because the individual sees the relationship as meaningful. Meaningful friendships must involve the true selves of both parties involved and so if a social anxious person feels they are more comfortable making friends online, they should be encouraged to do so; however, I am not advocating for a complete reliance on online friendships to develop one’s true self. Relationships are built on mutual trust and sharing, yet a common practice in Japan is that of tatamae,meaning façade or the behavior displayed in public, which is the opposite of honne (literally “true sound,” but more accurately one’s true feelings). In a culture that heavily values group cohesion, manners are especially important, with conversation steeped in complex social conventions. Tatamae are essentially white lies that are part of the formality of conversation in order to maintain modesty, flatter a client, or defuse awkward situations.[10]A Japanese proverb comes to mind: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This proverb is reductive on its own and Japan is certainly not homogenous, but the proverb is telling of the importance placed on conformity in Japan. Bullying, as it is anywhere, is a big issue in Japan and sticking out is certainly one of the reasons for it. The pressure of fitting in, of contributing to society is so high in Japan that that is one of the reasons cited for the emergence of hikikomori. Certainly, the pressure of tatamae can be stifling and pressure-inducing, and it is thought to be the presence of extreme societal pressures that is one reason for the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan. Regardless of the causes, which are still being studied, hikikomori isolates themselves from the world, their family, any form of social interaction from six months up to ten or fifteen years which is why the phenomenon has been named “the missing million,” “the lost generation” or “ultimate social parasitism.”[11]To fill the growing demand of families asking for help with their hikikomori child, an industry has sprung up to combat the silent epidemic of suffering, including support groups, psychologists, and programs such as New Start which offer dorms and job training. Members of this newly formed industry struggle, as many hikikomori resist help, but strategies are created as a work around. For example, psychologists will often offer counseling over the internet for hikikomori who do not want to leave their homes. New Start has “rental sisters” and “rental brothers” who go to the houses of the hikikomori and talk with them, with the eventual goal of getting the hikikomori out of the house and transition back into society.

While research is still being conducted, the only cure for social isolation is socializing the recluse. How? I believe that both New Start and online psychologists are on to something, and I propose a mixture of the two be tried: online friends for hikikomori. Psychologists serve the purpose of attacking the problem from a medical standpoint, rental siblings provide love, advice and patience, and an online friend would be someone on equal footing with the hikikomori individual. Perhaps an online web forum where hikikomori can chat with each other would provide the comfort of talking in their own home, talking to someone with similar experiences, and forming friendship through chat rooms. On this website there would be video games that hikikomori could play while talking to someone else on chat, but more effectively on a webcam or phone call. For Aristotle, sharing the same experiences is essential for friends of virtue to develop morally. Shared activity is entirely possibly on the internet with immersive virtual worlds available, as well as the ability to talk to someone while playing a game of chess online, perhaps. The internet can provide the conditions of “equality and similarity, and above all the similarity of those who are similar in being virtuous” to develop online friendships.[12]The Internet provides both conditions, or rather the potential for them. Even simple online game activities would be profoundly changing to an individual trapped in social isolation. Another interesting aspect to online friendship for hikikomori would be international friendship. Research on online cross-cultural friendship has shown that “typical cultural differences and misunderstandings present in offline settings are actually less pronounced online, making online cross-cultural friendships easier to develop.”[13]By participating on an international forum, social recluses might not be so in their head and so focused on their situation because the problem would be situated within a larger context, spurring self-reflection.

For individuals suffering from social isolation, any form of human interaction is meaningful when the baseline is zero. Even if online friendship cannot be fully virtuous, even if an online friendship starts out as a friendship of utility or pleasure, that friendship has the potential to save someone from their own self-inflicted despair. While friendship of virtue is the highest form of friendship according to Aristotle, the other forms of friendship have value in their own right. Hikikomori is a growing problem in Japan and with hikikomori as old as 45 years of age, once their parents/financial support disappear, they will truly have to fend for themselves, which is why addressing the problem now is so pressing. Reaching out online and typing with intention is the first step towards exiting their silent suffering.

 

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code on this assignment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing AAAAACompany, 1999.

Barton, David. “Honne vs. Tatemae.” Japanology. Jan.17, 2017. AAAAAhttp://japanology.org/2017/01/honne-vs-tatemae/

Jones, Maggie. “Shutting Themselves In.” The New York Times Magazine. Jan. 15, 2006. AAAAAhttps://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/shutting-themselves-in.html

Keen, Andrew. Digital Vertigo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Tamaki, Saito. Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End. Translated by Jeffrey Angles. AAAAAMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

 

 

[1]https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/upshot/how-social-isolation-is-killing-us.html

[2]Saito Tamaki, Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, trans. Jeffrey Angles (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 7.

[3]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 1155a-12.

[4]Aristotle, 1156b-10.

[5]Andrew Keen, Digital Vertigo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 14.

[6]Sofia Kaliarnta, “Using Aristotle’s Theory of Friendship to Classify Online Friendships: A Critical Counterview,” Ethics and Information Technology 18, no. 2 (2016): 67,

[7]Ibid.

[8]Class notes 4/5/18.

[9]Sofia, 71.

[10]http://japanology.org/2017/01/honne-vs-tatemae/

[11]Saito Tamaki.

Social parasitism is often used to describe hikikomori because most hikikomori live with their parents or depend on their parents to support their lifestyle.

[12]Aristotle, 1159b-3.

[13]Sofia, 70.