Shutting out the sun

Since 1999, Yuichi Hattori, a baby-cheeked counselor who studied at California State University, Northridge, has treated more than thirty hikikomori patients in the modest office attached to his house in the Tokyo suburb of Sayama, just a few minutes’ walk from a sprawling Honda auto factory. While Satoru Saito believes that involving the whole family in therapy is critical in treating hikikomori, and while Tamaki Saito often relies on drugs, Hattori believes his patients need to burst through the internal barriers that suppress their /honne/, or true feelings. Usually that means separating the patient completely from the family.

“The main cause of this problem comes from the suppression of individuality,” Hattori told me the first time we met at his clinic. “This culture does not permit you to express your individual feelings or thoughts, so you must hide them.”

All of Hattori’s patients come from middle- and upper-class households, and more than two-thirds are men. He describes his patients as emotionally starved. “They often don’t understand their own situation. Hikikomori are often like three-year-olds who wander lost in the woods,” he said. By his estimate, 60 percents of his clients have attacked one or both of their parents.

Hattori’s patients have all struggled to become model “good boys and girls” in hopes of gaining the affection of parents who not only have difficulty communicating or expressing love to each other, but who live in a society where open expressions of affection are almost never encouraged. (The psychiatrist Kawai once confided that if he ever told his wife he loved her, she would look at him as if he was crazy.)

Hattori believes hikikomori are at war with their insides, their authentic personality constantly struggling against the personality they think they must create in order to gain love. Having abandoned their own will and innate emotions, his patients suppress their natural identities. Hattori calls this adopted persona the “front personality”, and said young Japanese create this “false front” at an early age ouf of fear of abandonment should their true selves become visible. “The front personality can’t have intimate relations with others’, he explained. This front personality avoids confrontation and suppresses the patient’s authentic, individual personality, hindering a patient’s healthy emotional development. Because these children fear rejection if they let their real or “back” personalities emerge, they create false personalities in an attempt to capture parent’s attention.

Yet the patient’s core, or original, personality doesn’t completely disappear. It is actively suppressed by the front personality, which denies the conscience, critical judgement, and decision-making skills of the core self. With one personality suspended but not eliminated, the two personalities continue in constant struggle. Eventually, Hattori says, most of his patients “burn out”, emotionally exhausted from the struggle taking place whithin them. Ultimately, they become defeated, emontionless zombies.

In Hattori’s analysis, I recognized Kenji, the whispy thirty-four-year-old baseball fan whose inability to master the skill of /tatemae/ had, as he told me, kept im from engaging with others. As a teenager he remembered attending parties and laughing at jokes he didn’t think were funny, just to become an accepted part of the group. “It was another kind of bullying,” he said, “being forced to fit in… It was so tiring to keep up the pretense and to pretend to be like the others that eventually…. I just burned out.”

Hattory argues that it is natural for the conflict between “front” and “back” personalities to emerge among adolescents—especially in the stressful social environment of the school setting. Successfully developing a “false front,” or front personality, is essential for young children if they hope to survive within the rigid Japanese education system. After all, he says, look at Japanese school were children each day study from the same page of the same book as their peer in other, nearly identical classrooms, where children are usually required to wear identical, military-style uniforms; and where teachers follow a detailed set of exacting, intrusive regulations prepared by the Education Ministry and are asked to emphasize rote learning over the development of critical thinking skills. In such a system, there is little room for the deviant, someone who might “cause trouble” by expressing his own creative flair. (This thought often came to me in the grocery store, where the only cucumbers for sale in the vegetable bin were stick-straight. Where did they ship the curvy ones?) Those who can’t navigate the contradictions, who can’t develop the proper “good boy” front personality in order to fit in, who can’t keep their /honne/ under wraps, often find themselves bullied.

Hattori uses a curious procedure to draw out the “inner” self, or /honne/. Often, he takes off his oversized, rectangular glasses and rolls his office chair to within inches of the young man, staring directly into his eyes, talking to him softly, calmly, as if cooing to a pet bird. It’s Hattori’s belief that this direct gaze—a look Japanese seldom experience in daily life— can so unsettle his patient as to eventually force his hidden personality to emerge. Invariably, on the half-dozen occasions when I watched Hattori use this technique—sometimes in person, sometimes on videotape—a dramatic change in the patient’s bearing was clearly visible.

Hattory belives few Japanese therapists undestand the sort of therapy he uses, or even the nature of the syndrome, because they do not appreciate how deeply hikikomori is associated with post-traumatic stress. Hattori also believes that his patients are likely to open up and become more communicative with a Westener than with a fellow Japanese, so he invited me to attend some of his counseling sessions, after securing the patient’s approval.

During one three-hour visit to his clinic, I watched quietly from the side while Hattori worked with Mariko, a twenty-two-year-old woman who suffered from a mild form of Hikikomori. A graduate of a junior college, she could hold down the occasional odd job and had attended about one-third of her university classes. Nonetheless, she was frequently immobilized, could not form normal emotional relationships, and said any form of social conversation made her utterly exhausted. She usually stayed closeted in her bedroom.

Now, sprawled on the red cloth couch in Hattori’s office, this intelligent adult transformed herself into what seemed to me to be a whimpering five-year-old, peevishly kicking her legs out in an obvious bid for attention. Sometimes, she seemed torpid and tranquil, a needy child in search of love. At other moments, she lashed out, saying she wanted to kill her father.

“He’s a coward, he’s not respectable,” Mariko said, spitting out her anger. “I can never undestand what he’s thinking.” Later, in a distant, trancelike state, she described his emotional absence. “He never played with me. I don’t want to become like him.” Prompted by Hattori, she vividly recalled the time when she was a small child, and her father put ugly cicada bugs on her arms, frightening her as she watched television. During those three hours, Mariko often wriggled her shoulderes, hunched up her back, narrowed her gaze, and turned into a grade-school student, her face flushed, describing how she tried to fit into a group without being bullied. “I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes,” she whined.

“I wanted to express myself, but I couldn’t. I played a role so I wouldn’t be bullied by others, but I got very tired trying to keep up appearances.

“When kids get bullied the parents should understand, but they don’t,” she whimpered. “They yell at their kids and tell them to fit in. I only wanted to be regarded as a normal person.”

During this therapy session, Mariko told Hattori that she worried about what others thought of her. “I don’t want to be an adult, I want to be a spoiled child, I want to be indulged,” she said to the therapist dreamily, as if under hypnosis. “I wanted to commit suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.”

— Michael Zielenziger, Shutting out the sun, how Japan created its own lost generation

 

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