Many books and blog posts that explore the subject of ikigai make the claim that all Japanese have and can easily identify their own ikigai. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There are millions of Japanese who don't feel ikigai. Many of these people suffer greatly from unwanted loneliness, experience a feeling of not being needed, and lack a sense of purpose in their lives. Their suffering can manifest in a variety of societal problems, some of which are unique to Japan. One of these problems is hikikomori.
Hikikomori is a form of severe social withdrawal where mostly adolescent and young adult men, who live with their parents, shut themselves in their bedrooms for years. As with ‘ikigai’, an exploration of the etymology helps explain the concept. Hikikomori is a noun formed from the compound of two verbs: hiku, meaning ‘to pull’, and komoru, meaning ‘to shut oneself in one's room’, ‘to hide away’, or ‘to stay inside’. Hikikomori is used to mean both the person who shuts themselves away from society, and the condition experienced by that individual.
Dr Tamaki Saito, a psychologist and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Tsukuba, is Japan’s leading hikikomori researcher. He defines hikikomori as someone having spent six months or more not participating in society, without mental illness being the main cause. In a 2019 press briefing on hikikomori, Dr Saito estimated that the Japanese hikikomori population could be as high as 2 million, with the average duration that a hikikomori shuts themselves in being an astonishing 13 years. Saito has grave concerns that the hikikomori population could eventually reach a staggering 10 million.
To paint a picture, shut-ins live for years or even for decades in their bedroom, taking no part in society, refusing to leave the home to attend school or work. Like a misfit troubled teenager who never grows up, they'll spend all their time surfing the internet and playing computer games, having no desire to venture outside. In extreme cases, parents of the shut-in living in the same house won’t speak to or even see their child for months or even years. The hikikomori have no relationship with anyone. Often driven by shame and not knowing what to do, the parents of shut-ins will exacerbate the problem and allow their adult child to stay in their bedroom, leaving meals at the door like room service at a hotel.
Nicolas Tajan, a psychoanalyst and program-specific associate professor in the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies at Kyoto University, discusses hikikomori in his book Mental Health and Social Withdrawal in Contemporary Japan. He says that the hikikomori condition should not be understood as a mental condition, but as an expression of distress; shutting oneself away is a non-aggressive and practical strategy to avoiding the intense pressures of school and society.
In other words, participating in society has become so painful and undesirable that millions of Japanese people would rather lock themselves away than face the hardship and struggle of Japanese daily life. Why do hikikomori feel this way? Because Japan can be a very difficult society to live in. Strict social rules and conformity can take their toll; there is extreme pressure to behave appropriately and achieve both at school and in the workplace. Unfortunately, in locking themselves away, hikikomori limit their opportunities to pursue and feel ikigai and lead a life worth living. This deprives them of both a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, two social elements crucial for one to feel ikigai.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. Japan also has a high suicide rate, with suicide pacts between total strangers not uncommon. According to one estimate, ‘In 2020, approximately 21.1 thousand people committed suicide in Japan. While the overall number of suicides declined steadily in recent years, 2020 marked the first time within the past decade that suicide numbers were rising again. The sudden upwards trend is likely to be connected to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.’17
Clearly, a lack of ikigai is prevalent in Japan – and its absence poses a significant societal challenge. To face that challenge, we need to move beyond the romantic, misleading Western views of ikigai shared at the beginning of this chapter. Ikigai can help us explore deep and difficult questions around the value of life, what makes it worth living, and what our sense of purpose is. But, if we can’t use the explanations and diagrams provided earlier in this chapter, how can we understand it well enough to apply it in our own lives?
This is the question I answer over in the my book, Ikigai-kan; Feel a Life Worth Living, starting with some answers from Mieko Kamyia, the Mother of Ikigai.