85 – Exploring Hikikomori: Social Withdrawal and the Need for Connection in Japan with Naomi Berman

How do individuals suffering from social isolation cope?

In Japan, there is a sociological phenomenon known as hikikomori, where individuals shut themselves in their rooms, avoiding any form of social interaction. Despite its prevalence, this issue has not received much attention.

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick talks with Naomi Berman about the causes and effects of hikikomori in Japanese society.

Podcast Highlights

Naomi Berman

Naomi Berman

Naomi Berman is an assistant professor at the Center for Global Education at the University of Tokyo, Japan. She is also a youth sociologist researching various contexts, including hikikomori and belonging, campus design and student well-being, and qualitative methodologies in youth research.

She has been involved in government and private industry-funded research and program evaluation projects investigating topics such as cyber-bullying in schools, student leadership, media literacy, and the mental health benefits of community arts. Naomi has been living in Japan for the past nine years and teaches academic writing at the University of Tokyo.

Relocating to Japan

Naomi felt that she needed a change in her life. So, when she received an offer to teach academic writing in Japan, she instantly took the opportunity. It was there that she developed an interest in young people with hikikomori, and campus design, comparing the design of Australian universities with that of Japanese universities.

Understanding hikikomori

Hikikomori, derived from hiku (pull or draw back) and komoru (to shut oneself in), is a term used to describe both the sociological phenomenon and the individuals belonging to this group. It refers to people who undergo social isolation, withdrawing from society and confining themselves to their rooms. According to the Japanese government, someone who has been self-isolating for six months is considered hikikomori.

“Hikikomori is a problem that started in the late '70s and early '80s, particularly affecting boys, teenagers, and men who find school and work too stressful. They often lock themselves in their rooms for weeks, months, years, or even decades.” - Nicholas Kemp


Research on hikikomori

Naomi attended a monthly research forum where faculty members presented their work, and one of her colleagues gave a talk on hikikomori. Intrigued, Naomi expressed her interest in exploring the topic further, leading to their collaboration on two co-authored papers. The onset of the pandemic further heightened Naomi's interest and commitment to the issue, emphasising the need for broader public dialogue and debate beyond academic circles.

Causes of hikikomori

Various factors contribute to the condition of Hikikomori, including pre-existing conditions like ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions. Mental health issues, often exacerbated by environmental factors such as bullying, play a significant role. Specific events, such as job loss, can also trigger Hikikomori. While it predominantly affects younger individuals, older adults, especially men, can also experience it.

The demographic of hikikomori

While the stereotype of Hikikomori involves younger individuals, the majority are older, with around 30% being men in their 30s. Older men are more commonly affected, followed by younger men. Women are minimally represented in official data, not because they are unaffected, but because they often slip through government measurement mechanisms.

The stigma surrounding hikikomori

“It is widely known in Japan that parents are unwilling to reveal to friends or relatives that they have a hikikomori son or daughter, let alone report to a formal institution or agency. Traditionally, such families are reluctant to engage any agencies that might discover the situation at home.” - Naomi Berman

Hikikomori Stigma

The stigma and shame surrounding hikikomori are deeply rooted in negative stereotypes and societal perceptions. Naomi shared a notable incident that took place in the 80s—a stabbing on a bus by a person identified as hikikomori—which amplified these perceptions internationally, leading to labelling of deviance and a potential threat to society.

This media-driven narrative has shifted public perception from viewing hikikomori as a quirky behaviour to associating it with danger. Consequently, parents may hesitate to seek help for their children experiencing hikikomori, fearing both social exclusion and safety concerns.

The impact of the pandemic on hikikomori

The shift to online education in Japan due to the pandemic has significantly improved access to education for hikikomori, who previously faced barriers due to the lack of online learning options. This transition also opened up remote work opportunities, leading to the establishment of job agencies to help hikikomori find employment.

The pandemic, despite Japan not having strict lockdowns, reduced public activity, which made some hikikomori feel safer to venture outside at night. Additionally, the collective experience of isolation during the pandemic might have fostered greater empathy towards hikikomori, as more people could relate to their situation.


How the pandemic affected the sense of belonging in Japan

Research shows the pandemic created opportunities for a greater sense of belonging through empathy. Participation in education and work can enhance this feeling. However, a student with chronic social anxiety who submits assessments online instead of attending class illustrates a complex situation. While the student is part of the academic community, he still lacks connection to the campus and fellow students.

Cultural belonging and language barriers in Japan

Despite being in Japan for 10 years and having some friendships, Naomi still felt a lack of true belonging. This sense of not belonging contrasted with a stronger sense of support felt in Australia, influenced her decision to return home. She felt that deeper connections were hard to establish in Japan, possibly because of cultural differences or being a foreigner.

Naomi’s ikigai

“A sense of community and belonging is definitely my ikigai.” - Naomi Berman

Sense of Community

For Naomi, a sense of community and belonging are what give her the feeling of ikigai. She also feels ikigai through music, as it brings people together and gives a shared experience, fostering a sense of community.


Hikikomori is an issue that deserves our attention. Many people are afraid to speak up due to the stigma surrounding it. However, with proper knowledge and education, we can better understand this sociological phenomenon and provide the right support for those who suffer from it.