The Poison System in Japan

Article excerpt

In contemporary Japan, a horde of housebound hermits has emerged, postmodern pariahs who habituate the margins of society, "shutting] themselves away from the sun, closing their blinds, taping shut their windows, and refusing to leave the bedroom in their homes for months or years at a time."1 This reclusiveness is known as hikikomori, a flight from others which is often precipitated by bullying, ijime, and is so widespread that Kosuke Yamazaki, a psychiatrist at Tokai University, has described it as "a social disease."2 Epidemiologists have demonstrated that communicable diseases are transmitted in specific ways, such as drinking from an infected well, or sleeping in an infected bed.3 Similarly, hikikomori, the product of social dis-ease, emerges from unique and identifiable institutions, from home and school, and it is our task to comprehend the interrelatedness of those experiences.

The contention here will be that the child typically grows up in Japan in a father-absent family and establishes a codependent relationship with mother. This amae relationship is characterized by intense ambivalence generated by maternal frustration and immaturity. Unable to cope with the pressures of rearing a child alone, the mother inflicts her frustrations and needs on the child, that is, she injects her poisonous emotions into the child, and this maternal legacy, malignant and unacknowledged, lies dormant, preventing autonomy and functioning as the template for group relationships. The father's absence from the home was the unfolding of the older generation's flawed template intertwining with that of the child, as was the mother's faulty parenting. The growing child thus remains a partial person, tied to group functioning premised on, and permeated with, unresolved conflicts from the mother-child dyad.

Codependency on the group becomes especially problematic in adolescence, when bullying, as the traditional means of maintaining group homogeneity, emerges in school and becomes a significant source of stress for those who differ from others in any way. A student's encounter with bullies at school often catalyzes futoko, "school refusal syndrome," the first step to becoming a social recluse.4 Subsequently, the hikikomori barricades himself, or occasionally, herself, in the home to cope with "poison overload," the state in which the internalized residue, the poison buildup, of group life has reached a critical point. Bullying at school has pushed beyond the person's capacity to tolerate toxicity. The person defends against further pain by massive avoidance. Fearing human interaction and unable to exist autonomously, the hikikomori is flooded by poison overload - too overwhelmed to function within the group, too immature to move forward away from the group. Faced with this no-win situation, the hermit lacks the capacity5 to engage the social milieu and surmount obstacles. Instead, the hikikomori is paralyzed by growth panic6 - dread of movement beyond the stalemated status quo, and inadequate ego strength insures the continuation of codependency within the amae prison.


Kobayashi Hirokatsu, a recluse for seven years, frightens his mother so much that "the only place she feels safe to sleep is in the car with the doors locked." Kobayashi's dreams of being "independent," yet, he wears "a face mask and rubber gloves" when he leaves his room, and says that venturing outside "feels as frightening as trying to step on a cloud."7 Kenji, another hikikomori, has "seldom left his bedroom in five years." When things are going well and he forces himself, "he can almost get to the front door of his mother's small Tokyo apartment before the fear overtakes him."8 Living with his 83-year-old mother, another middleaged recluse has "scarcely left the house in 30 years."9 Approximately 80 percent of hikikomori are males, but a female voiced a sentiment that expresses the honne, true feeling, of most recluses. "I don't want to be an adult. …