They couldn’t go outside for years. Then Covid-19 trapped them again

Author : lumibaoarthur63
Publish Date : 2021-03-05 07:04:10


They couldn’t go outside for years. Then Covid-19 trapped them again

One day in 2009, a nervous young man rushed out of his home in Incheon, South Korea, head held down. Having not showered in weeks, his skin was oily, his hair unkempt. The loungewear he had on, one of only two sets he owned, was badly stained. He knew he smelled. But he’d run out of necessities, so he’d have to go to the shop down the street. It’d just be five minutes. All he had to do was stock up on instant ramen, Coke and cigarettes, and then he’d be back.

After picking up his supplies, the man walked home. But as he was approaching the front entrance, a panic spread over him: he didn’t know the passcode to open the door. It had been so long since he’d gone outside, he’d forgotten how to get back in.

At this time, Kim Jae-ju was 29 years old and in the most extreme phase of his social seclusion. He’d already spent, off and on but mostly on, two years in his bedroom, and he would go on to spend another eight in the same manner. In this three-by-three-metre box, with little more furniture than a bed, desk and chair, Kim kept confined for close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year – eating and smoking and staring at his computer screen.


He left only when he absolutely had to – to run to the bathroom, meet the food delivery driver, refill supplies and, very occasionally, go to work to earn a bit of money. Though Kim lived with his family, his room down the hall from his parents’ and younger sister’s, he saw them just once a month. He’d synchronize his comings and goings to avoid everyone, rushing out and back in when they were at work or asleep.

Time passed in this way for a decade. The door opened and closed. Outside, the world changed, but inside, Kim did not. No matter how many times he left his room, he always, and it seemed to him, inevitably, returned. “When I look back on that period, I feel incredibly sad,” he says, now 41. “I lost ten years of my life.”

In South Korea, people like Kim are known as hikikomori. A Japanese word that cannot be precisely translated, hikikomori essentially means “to pull back” and “shut oneself in”. South Koreans first borrowed the term when the phenomenon was newly emerging in the country in the early 2000s, and it is still more popularly used today than the Korean eundoonhyeong oiteollie.

Typically, hikikomori are young adults, mostly men, in their teens, 20s and 30s. They reside alone or, more often, stay holed up in a bedroom at their parents’ home. Because hiding from public view is their very motive, it’s hard to know exactly how many there are in South Korea, but the government estimates around 320,000. Some psychologists and former hikikomori, however, believe there may be many more that go unnoticed and unaccounted for. Some estimate the total is closer to 500,000. Others say over a million.

The term hikikomori was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychologist Saitō Tamaki, and is used to refer to both the person and their condition. In his book Social Withdrawal: Adolescence Without End, Saitō defines hikikomori as “those who withdraw entirely from society and stay within their own homes for more than six months… and for whom other psychiatric disorders do not better explain the primary causes of this condition.” In 2003, the Japanese government came out with its own, very similar definition. In extreme cases, the period of withdrawal can span a decade, as it did for Kim, or longer.

Because there are no standardised criteria for hikikomori, who qualifies is up for debate. The stereotype that has captured global attention looks much like Kim – a twenty-something East Asian male who hasn’t socialised in so long he’s completely forgotten how. But in addition to this “hardcore” type, who never leave their room or speak to anyone, some researchers have hypothesised a “soft” type, who might occasionally talk to other people. They have also proposed a distinction between so-called “secondary” hikikomori, whose social avoidance can be attributed to an underlying psychiatric disorder – say, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder – and “primary” hikikomori, who do not have another condition. Others, like Saitō, argue that only the latter can really be considered hikikomori, rendering the primary-secondary classification moot. “This alludes to directional uncertainty on whether prolonged social withdrawal is caused by, correlated with, or causes psychiatric disorders,” researchers write in a 2019 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Although Japan was the first to identify, name and study hikikomori, cases have since been reported across Asia – in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and beyond, but perhaps most prominently in South Korea, Japan’s closest neighbour both geographically and culturally. Whether the phenomenon occurs outside of Asia is a point of controversy. Many researchers say that it can and does, pointing to documented instances in the US, Europe and other countries. Some, though, contend the syndrome is “culture-bound”, meaning it arises out of, and is unique to, the cultural context of Asian countries, with their particular emphasis on notions of shame, conformity, hierarchy, family structure and individual industrialism for national success. In recent years, this idea that hikikomori is “culture-bound” has given way to the broader “culture-influenced”.

Lee Ah Dang is a counseling centre in Seoul that specializes in hikikomori. Its clinical psychologists have treated dozens of hikikomori and say that, while their patients have varied widely in their individual conditions and rehabilitation needs, most have something in common: they feel they can’t cope in South Korea’s ultra-competitive society.

Lead psychologist Park Dae-ryeong says that this atmosphere, along with a poor job market, has put overwhelming pressure on people to perform, while disincentivising collaboration, discouraging the pursuit of passions and exacerbating feelings of inadequacy, disappointment and anxiety. Many young South Koreans compare their lives to running on a hamster wheel, because in order to get the suitable partner, the good job, the nice home, it feels like they can never take a break.

It doesn’t help that South Korean society’s concept of success is so rigidly defined. Counsellors at Lee Ah Dang explain that because hikikomori live outside the mainstream, they have often been subjected to some form of ostracism or marginalisation. They may have been bullied for low academic achievement, criticised for their shy personality, or pushed to conform to convention – and then rejected for failing to do so.

In Kim Ho-seon’s case, being more interested in hair and makeup than maths and science meant he didn’t get along well in secondary school and ended up dropping out. “It didn’t feel right doing things I didn’t want to do,” the 25-year-old says. After struggling with judgment and stigmatisation, he ended up calling the police to ask for help with his psychological problems.

Similarly, Yoo Seung-gyu, 27, says his goals didn’t live up to South Korea’s standards. He dreamed of being a content creator, he says, but was belittled until he lost all confidence. Lee Seung-taek, 24, says that not having any lofty plans for the future made him a social outcast. All he wanted was to earn a decent living and lead a simple life. But that wasn’t ambitious enough for everyone else – except for his father. When Lee was 16, his dad became ill, and in 2016 he died. “I became evasive. I ran away,” he says. “I could only achieve so much without my father, so why should I even try?”

For Kim Jae-ju, his retreat from public life came after the breakdown of a relationship. Before that, he was on the traditional road toward marriage and children and saw himself as a different person: outgoing, talkative, friendly. In retrospect, he now thinks it was all a show. Trying so earnestly to be the confident extrovert was just a way of covering up that, in truth, he was not. He began his withdrawal by turning down friends' invitations to have dinner or drinks. That escalated to changing his phone number and not telling anyone but his family.

Finally, Kim says, he “crawled into his room” and entered seclusion. He gained 27 kilos and his skin became dotted with acne. His room deteriorated, too. Disposable noodle cups and empty bottles and cans collected in heaps. Ash and dust cloaked the furniture, and the once-white walls turned a dingy brown. Looking back on his confinement, Kim says he’s repulsed. “I started becoming complacent in there,” he says. “One day became two days, then three days, then a year. I started thinking, ‘Maybe this lifestyle is okay?’ And my new friends just became the computer inside my room.”

If hikikomori are the misfit underdogs of their stories, their computers are their steadfast sidekicks. While excessive tech usage doesn’t cause hikikomori, researchers say, it does help make their near-total confinement possible. What previously required some interaction with society – feeding, clothing and entertaining oneself – now calls for nothing but the internet.

It’s for this reason that some researchers suggest the phenomenon is not so much culture-bound as it is society-bound – a reaction, perhaps, to the internet-enabled changes that make for an increasingly global society. “Hikikomori could represent the clinical answer to a social evolution,” write Italian psychiatrists in a 2020 paper in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice. This echoes the suggestion by Japanese researchers in a 2018 edition of the World Psychiatric Association’s official journal: “Within decades, following further advances in internet society, more and more people may come to live a hikikomori-like existence.”

Fourteen years ago, when Kim first began retreating, “untact”, a portmanteau of “un” and “contact”, was a yet-to-be-named concept in South Korea. Now, it's a full-blown industry, making it easier than ever for hikikomori to live invisibly. “In Korea, it is so convenient to live alone,” Yoo says. “We have an amazing delivery and on-demand system. The whole environment, from restaurants to entertainment, facilitates hikikomori, and everything caters to the single lifestyle.”

When hikikomori need to eat, they can order takeout with Yogiyo or Baedal Minjok, the country’s two major food-delivery apps, paying digitally and selecting contactless service so that the driver skips the face-to-face handoff and instead alerts them with a text that their meal is waiting on their doorstep (although often their mothers cook their meals and leave them outside their rooms). When hikikomori need to buy essentials, they can shop on the e-commerce site Coupang (although again, often their mothers shop for them). When they want to entertain themselves, they can watch a movie on Netflix or play a game online. And when they want to engage in some form of social interaction, they can turn to the non-threatening environment of forums, where they can shield themselves with anonymity.

When he was secluded in his room, Kim’s companions were the characters in the dramas he streamed and the vloggers he watched on YouTube. They were the porn stars he was intimate with and the avatars in the first-person shooter games he played. Aside from one friend he texted from his former life, the only other people he talked to were fellow gamers. While playing Sudden Attack, his favourite game, he would type to them in the chat. It wasn’t anything meaningful, little more than a jumble of gaming slang, but it was routine. After five years of casual chatting, there was one gamer in particular, whose real name he never knew, with whom he thought he’d formed som



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