The Seattle Times Sunday, June 2, 2002 A 19
August 25 2002 at 3:50 PM

Japan's wealth is leaving young men adrift

By Kathryn Tolbert
The Washington Post

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TOKYO Akiko Abe has barely seen her 25-year-old son in six years, yet they live in the same small house. He leaves his room only when he's sure his parents are out or asleep, she said. She can tell when he has used the kitchen, and she knows he goes to the living room to watch television and use the computer at night.

She has waited patiently for him to tire of his isolation, sometimes standing outside his door and talking, to herself as much as to him. But, afraid that many more years would pass like this, she finally approached an organization that works with shut-ins by making home visits.

"It will be difficult, because he won't open his door," she said quietly.

Up to 1 million Japanese 70 to 80 percent of them young men are considered shut-ins, either literally cloistered in their rooms or refusing to work and avoiding all social contact for periods from six months to more than 10 years. Forty-one percent live reclusively for one to five years, according to a government survey.

Some shut-ins have such illnesses as depression, agoraphobia or schizophrenia. But experts say most shut themselves up at home for six months or more without showing any other signs of neurological or psychiatric disorder.

The seriousness of the problem has increased dramatically over the past decade as Japan's economy has slid into recession, bringing record unemployment rates and little job security as companies restructure or go bankrupt.

Psychologists and other mental-health experts say that Japan has the biggest problem of this type in the world, and that it is growing.

They give a long list of reasons young men are dropping out of society: A declining birthrate means this patrilineal society has more families with only one son in whom they place all their hopes; boys grow up without male role models because their fathers work all the time; Japan's "culture of shame" makes people fear how they're perceived if they have a problem fitting in.

Japan's wealth makes it possible for people to cut themselves off from society. Young adults live at home much longer than they do in the United States, traditionally until marriage. Teens and adults who drop out of school or leave work are simply supported by their parents.

"When I was young, there was no question that you would have to go to work," said Abe, 61, who asked that her son not be named. "Now, families have enough money so that the children don't need to find jobs right away."

In an attempt to get their son to communicate with them, Abe and her husband have decided that from now on, they aren't going to slip an envelope under his door with his $400 monthly allowance.

Shut-ins often sleep much of the day and are up all night, watching television, using the Internet and popping out to the 24-hour convenience stores that are in most neighborhoods.

"In Japan, it's easy for anybody to live with walls around themselves," said Seiei Muto of the Tokyo Mental Health Academy. "And with the number of children declining, you play alone, eat alone, study alone."

Muto and other mental-health workers talk about the decline of communication skills and the increasing anonymity of urban Japan.

Others say the problem has deep historical and cultural roots. "Japan is a rich country, but we have no identity, no confidence, no ability to communicate with others," said Tadashi Yamazoe, a professor of clinical psychology at Kyoto Gakuen University. "Japanese have a passive personality."

But most people say it's a modern phenomenon, evidence of a great generation gap between those who built Japan's postwar economic success, and their children, who cannot expect lifetime employment in today's weak economy and say they don't want it anyway.

"In Japan there has been only one path, and today an increasing number of people are not on it," said Noki Futagami, who began the nonprofit New Start Foundation to work with shut-ins. "It's easy to say that academic background is not everything. But the parents cannot suggest another path because they don't know one."

Many adult shut-ins start as school dropouts, of which there is a surprisingly high number for a country obsessed with education. A record 134,000 elementary and junior-high students were absent from school for at least 30 straight days during the 2000-01 school year, more than twice the number 10 years ago.

Abe said her son's school years were normal, but in high school he failed the university entrance exam. That's common; most who fail study for another year and try again. Abe's son said he would study on his own instead of enrolling in a cram school, and that began his withdrawal.

The family has tried to hide the problem, not even talking about it to relatives. But Futagami said this means the family is shutting itself in as well, making the problem worse.

"There are things parents can and cannot do," he said. "They should be more open and get help from others, nurture social ties. I regard this as an illness stemming from society. Nobody helps these people, so they accumulate."

In a few recent cases, socially withdrawn young men have committed shocking crimes, including a 27-year-old who kidnapped a 9-year-old girl in 1990 and kept her in his room for nine years. His mother, who lived downstairs, was never permitted to enter his room.

"In America, the child's room belongs to the parents and is seen as being rented out to the kid," noted an actor appearing in a new play on shut-ins. "The child can be displaced for guests." This is a remarkable concept in Japan, where the norm is that teens or young adults can forbid their parents from entering their rooms.

As the problem gets more national attention, parent-support groups, counseling centers and mental-health clinics have geared up to help families. Home visits over the course of months, sometimes years, bring many people out of their rooms.

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