I achieved what all artists dread: I had outlived most of my money and all of my talent

September 11, 2013 § Leave a comment


In Japan in the early 1990s, a young psychiatrist named Saitō Tamaki began seeing patients with a cluster of strange symptoms. Actually, he barely saw them at all; more often than not, other family members would approach him about a brother or a son who was afflicted with an unfamiliar state. Mostly men on the threshold of adulthood, they were retreating to their rooms, shrinking from all social contact or communication, and closing off into themselves, often for periods of a year or more. Not wanting to kill themselves but unable to live in society, these youths folded inward in an attempt to fit themselves away. Saitō began calling them hikikomori sainen, “withdrawn young men,” and in 1998 published a book with his findings called Shakaiteki hikikomori—Owaranai Shishunki, or Social Withdrawal—Adolescence Without End.

Saitō ventured a count: There were 1 million people in a state of withdrawal or hikikomori, about one percent of the Japanese population. Eighty percent of them were men; 90 percent were over 18. “Social withdrawal is not some sort of ‘fad’ that will just fade away,” Saitō wrote. It is “a symptom, not the name of an illness,” and “there has been no sign that the number of cases will decrease.” His book became a best seller in weeks. Hikikomori joined otaku (a person with obsessive interests) and karoshi (death from overwork) as a loan word in English to describe a new social phenomenon that at first appeared uniquely Japanese. A few American authors have picked up on it as an enigmatic or convenient trope (in books like Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger and Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus, most recently). But only now has Saitō’s original work been translated, by Jeffrey Angles, published by University of Minnesota Press in March.

Culturally bound psychological phenomena always fascinate the press because they excite the categories of racism through a veneer of scientificity. But Saitō was explicit on this point: Though his patients’ ­symptoms all emerged in some way through the Japanese social order, there was nothing intrinsically Japanese about the phenomenon. In fact, he had coined the term hikikomori to translate work that an American psychologist had done on similar cases of acute social withdrawal and later joined it up with the sociological category of NEETs (not in education, employment, or training) in Britain. His internationalism slyly made room for an astonishing claim: The structure of age itself was beginning to break down.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Clifford R Adams

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