Article Highlight: Vol 40 Issue 4, Social Withdrawal in Japan

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The December 2016 issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry is now available here. In this series of article highlights, we will explore publications included in the latest issue. This week, we present a highlight on Ellen Rubinstein’s article “Emplotting Hikikomori: Japanese Parents’ Narratives of Social Withdrawal” (which you can access here.) Rubinstein observes that there has been a flurry of public attention to hikikomori, a socio-medical condition typically experienced by young people that is characterized by increasing, marked social withdrawal.

Rubinstein notes that though there is a perception of hikikomori as a condition of isolation, parents of “hikikomori children” often crafted narratives about their children’s illness that suggested it had discernible stages, signs of progress, and possibility of recovery. These narratives engaged parents in the present, facilitating connectedness between hikikomori children and their families, and thus challenging the assumption that hikikomori is a condition of perpetual or crippling isolation. For instance, some parents at a support group for hikikomori children and their families stated that their children were more mature than others, as their time away from other people encouraged them to be meditative and thoughtful.

One mother, named Kawano-san, first described her son’s hikimori as a process of productive, but not permanent, isolation in an interview with Rubinstein. Kawano-san said that her son’s withdrawal might lend him an opportunity to step away from the social world, assess his future, and prepare for college after initially failing to pass university entrance exams. She felt certain that this period would be one of reflection and reassessment, before the son eventually entered university. Kawano-san also criticized the expectation amongst many Japanese families that children should be extroverted and talkative, instead saying that her son was not pathologically isolated but simply different. Eight months after this initial interview, Kawano-san was interviewed for the second time about her son’s condition. The son had not entered college as Kawano-san expected, but the mother had readjusted her narrative such that she began to acknowledge that path might not be viable for her son. She instead noted that her son could have a disability, or that he simply needed more time to process his feelings. Kawano-san ultimately accepted that her initial expectations did not match her son’s experience, and began to try new approaches to her son’s condition: like encouraging her husband and daughter to write birthday messages to him that might make him feel more welcomed and included in their family unit.

Rubinstein examines similar cases to Kawano-san and her son, finding that many families engaged in a process of narrative emplotment and un-emplotment of their children’s hikikomori. Their narratives thereby gave order or meaning to what otherwise seemed like an ongoing and static psychological condition. Alternatively, they situated their children’s experiences in other contexts: such as expected developmental and social growth, and the efficacy of biomedical interventions or support groups for the condition. Parents of hikikomori children were not inactive bystanders, but rather active interpreters of their children’s experiences and advocates of their unique individual needs. The parents learned to read their children’s condition and support them accordingly, complicating the notion that hikikomori is solely about individual isolation or inaction.

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