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The rise of the Hikikomori, modern-day hermits, is no longer uniquely Japanese. More and more young people dive into wells of extreme social isolation. Can we save them before it is too late?

From vending machines that dispense fresh bananas and Lego sets to capsule hotels and from square watermelons to cat cafes, the strange innovations that modern-day Japan gives birth to have fascinated westerners for decades. Any self-respecting Japan-watcher has also become familiar with the "Hikikomori," a growing population of modern hermits who go to great lengths to avoid social interaction.

Originally a distinctly Japanese phenomenon, Hikikomori are now showing up all over the world. A study titled Contemporary Hermits: A Developmental Psychopathology Account of Extreme Social Withdrawal (Hikikomori) in Young People and published in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review in 2023, highlights the spread of this contagion. Was COVID to blame, and what can we do to pull our children out of isolation and encourage them to experience all the wonderful things the wider world has to offer?

Who Are the Hikikomori, the Modern-Day Hermits?

The study starts with the case of Yoshi, a 30-year old Japanese man who's given up on the world. The only son of a wealthy and successful couple, Yoshi spends most of his time in his room — or, if you want to be specific, a room in his parents' home. He seems to have no plans to further his education or get a job. It's not clear what he does do, but we're guessing Yoshi spends much of his time on video games — when he isn't doing online shopping.

Yoshi neatly fits into the confines of the original Hikikomori cohort. He's Japanese, for starters, and he also has all the other Hikikomori the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare came up with — along with some that clinicians have described.


  • Does not leave his (parents') house.
  • Doesn't go to work or school.
  • Doesn't even socialize with his parents much — his mother serves him meals in his room.
  • Avoids social interaction at all costs.

Yoshi may be autistic (he doesn't have a diagnosis) and he definitely has social anxiety. Other than that, there is nothing remarkable about him. Had his life unfolded differently, he may have a rich social life or at least a professional purpose to fulfill him.

Things get strange when other names join his in the study. Aaron is, for instance, Dutch. At 22, he does practically nothing and confines himself to his room. Chris is American who finds the thought of interacting with people so daunting that he breaks into people's houses to steal food. He spent 27 years in the woods, on his own, making it clear this is not a new phenonenon even outside of Japan's borders.

"Hikikomori" means pulling inward and being confined. To be considered part of this group, mental illness can't explain the behavior. It's a "disease" of modern society. Generation Z people, born after 1996, may be more prone to extreme social isolation. They have grown up online and redefined the meaning of friendship. While they crave social interaction, they don't know how to do it in person. The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted Gen Z's future, and their present.

The new study rebrands Hikikomori as NEET (a young person not in employment, education, or training) or as ESW (extreme social withdrawal). While some may see this life as different but equally fulfilling, many see an emerging crisis that could be worse than COVID.

Recognizing the Signs of Extreme Social Withdrawal

The Japanese have already summarized most of the clear signs of extreme social withdrawal:

  • The person spends most of the time at home, often in just one room.
  • The person doesn't interact with family much, and isn't in employment or education.
  • There is no clearly identifiable trigger for this condition.

Implied in this brief description is what also isn't happening. Going outside. Spending time with friends, meeting new people, seeing the world, having novel and exciting experiences. That leaves the internet. People in this situation are often left without motivation or hope. The AARP adds other signs — deep boredom, lack of excitement, withdrawal, lack of personal hygiene, hoarding, and poor eating.

Young people in the beginning stages of what may develop into extreme social isolation withdraw — from everyone and everything. The process is gradual, but those closest will be able to recognize the signs. It's not classic depression, but something's going on in these young people's minds. They need our help to re-emerge.

How to Help Someone Who Is Becoming Socially Isolated

Chris, who was mentioned in the new study, spent decades on his own in the woods. He burglarized neighborhoods for basic necessities in the name of the cause of avoiding social contacts. He's an outlier. Yoshi, Aaron, and others like them usually have a common thread. Someone is helping these people (enabling them) to live the lives they do.

The deeper they sink, the more ingrained the patterns become. We can help them early on, and the crucial steps include simple things. It may include telling the young person to:

  • Join the family for dinner, in a communal room.
  • Meet people with similar interests — in person and not online, at least every once in a while.
  • Stay engaged via digital communication like text and video chat.
  • Adopt a pet. Dogs, which need to be taken for walks outside, are especially good.
  • Engage in regular exercise, ideally outdoors.
  • Attend a house of worship, even if you don't believe.
  • Say hi to the neighbors.
  • Get a job, no matter how part-time. Take a course. Re-engage with the wider world in a productive way.

Baby steps help people sinking into social isolation get themselves out there. On their own, these steps may seem tiny. Taken together, they can prevent a decade-long isolation like Yoshi experienced and continues to suffer. Get someone on the path to social isolation out there before the Hikikomori path cements itself, and you have a shot.

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