FEATURE: Leaving workforce a prelude to Japanese adults going into self-imposed seclusion

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - The issue of hikikomori, or withdrawal from society, has long been considered a problem affecting younger generations. However, a growing number of middle-aged people are also secluded, and remaining so as they grow older, for reasons related to earlier absence from school or work-related problems.

 The central government will conduct its first-ever survey on the actual circumstances of such people, as they and their parents require support to address the challenges they face.
Bleak job prospects
 “I was so upset that I wanted to disappear. Since I didn’t want to think about it, I became absorbed in games,” said a 44-year-old man who became a recluse and has lived at his parent’s home in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture, since he was 31.
 The man has struggled to communicate with others since he was a child. After graduating from high school, he worked at a pharmaceutical company for a number of years. In his late 20s, he was transferred to a department where he was assigned work with which he was not familiar.
 “I was often depressed as I couldn’t contribute to the company,” he said.
 He had no one to ask for advice. “I came to believe that I was socially inadequate, and lost self-confidence,” he said.
 The man quit his job shortly thereafter and returned to his parents’ home.
 Since around spring of last year, he has gradually begun to venture outside. His relationship with his parents has worsened, and he believes he needs to change his life. However, he is still mentally unwell and cannot find a job.
Long periods of isolation
 There are various causes of social withdrawal. In recent years, many people have resorted to long-term seclusion due to setbacks at work, like the man from Hyogo Prefecture. The bleak economic prospects facing many after the collapse of the bubble economy also fueled the phenomenon.
 As many companies lack sufficient staff, some employees are forced to assume heavy workloads and subsequently quit their jobs. These people often have no choice but to rely on their parents.
 According to a 2015 survey on social recluses conducted by the Yamanashi prefectural government, about 60 percent of such people are 40 years or older. Quitting work was the primary cause of social withdrawal for people in their 40s.
 Their period of isolation has also lengthened. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, a plurality of more than 30 percent of respondents said they have been secluded for more than seven years, more than double the proportion of the previous survey.
 Recluses face greater difficulty returning to society as they age and spend more time away from society. As they tend to sleep during the day and stay up all night, they have fewer opportunities to communicate with others. Some have mental disorders or other impairments.
 However, there is a lack of public support for middle-aged recluses and their families.
 For example, nonprofits and other organizations provide job-hunting support through 170 so-called local youth support stations. The organizations operate with the backing of the central government. However, as implied by the word “youth,” these facilities in principle only help those younger than 40.
 Last year, the man from Hyogo Prefecture learned that the youth support station in his city only accepted counseling requests from people below that age. “I was completely at a loss,” he said.
 Regional support centers for social recluses are run by prefectural governments and other entities. Such centers provide counseling and support for recluses and in principle do not enforce age limits. However, they only operate in 75 locations such as prefectural capitals. Shortcomings also plague systems through which psychiatric care workers and other personnel make home visits.
 “The delayed support for social recluses results in longer withdrawal from society as these people grow older,” said Minoru Kawakita, an associate professor of sociology at Aichi University of Education.
Worrying aging parents
 As recluses age, so do their parents. Recluses may struggle to make a living after their parents pass away.
 A 78-year-old man in Tokyo lives with his wife in her 70s and his eldest son in his 40s, who has withdrawn from society. The eldest son stopped attending school when he was a junior high school student, and has secluded himself at home for about 30 years. The man continued to work after reaching retirement age, but quit his job last summer due to physical limitations.
 The family currently gets by on his pension benefits.
 However, the man has concerns about the future. “I will turn 80 soon. I wonder if my son can make a living if my wife or I fall ill,” he said with a somber face.
 There have also been tragic incidents in which elderly parents kill their children after growing pessimistic about the future.
 “Many families are isolated as they cannot ask anyone for advice. Careful and adequate support measures are needed, such as creating places where recluses and their families can gather and sending experts to help such families,” said Masatoshi Ito, corepresentative of the Tokyo-based national federation of associations of families with hikikomori.

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