‘The Missing Million’

Opinions - November 1st, 2002
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes

I am haunted, shattered by what I read. There are, it is reli­ably reported, no less than one million mostly teenage boys in Japan suffering from a psycho­logical state that makes it hard or impossible for them to associ­ate with others. They behave in extreme ways—such as shutting themselves up in the kitchen at home, declining to go to school and turning to violence against their parents.

One had heard painful sto­ries along these lines over the years. Sometimes the families were Japanese, sometimes not. What is new to me is the scale of the problem.

I read about this on the BBC Website the other day— they ran a program titled “The Missing Million” on BBC2, one of our main channels in the UK. Young Japanese males get drawn into an overpowering dependen­cy on their mothers and may, in extreme cases, stage a complete withdrawal from society.

“In Japan everybody says give it time,” says Dr. Henry Grubb of the University of Maryland, who is doing a study on the subject. “It’s a phase, he’ll grow out of it.”

But time does not necessari­ly bring relief. The “phase” does not end there. The slow passing of time is one of the toughest things for these young people to bear.

“It’s really hard to get a han­dle on this,” says Dr. Grubb, as interviewed by the BBC’s Phil Rees. “There’s nothing like this in the West.”

The condition strikes out of a clear, blue sky. You have a son who is outgoing, smiling, cheer­ful then one day some bullying at school or a failed exam or a broken romance impinges on that boy and—Bingo! — he’s gone. Rees reported on a boy who shut himself up in the kitchen at home for years—not days—and wouldn’t come out.

I find this terrifying, but I am not one bit taken aback. About half a dozen years ago, when our son was 10, I decided that the time had come for him to go to England. My underlying concern was that there was something deeply wrong with the education here, that is to say with the society.

I did not want to entrust my son to any school in Japan. I found the atmosphere here off-putting. I can now put my finger on exactly what is lacking in Japan—one million lost boys.

You see, there is an empti­ness here, a black hole of the spirit. The parents—mainly the anxious mothers—bear the brunt of problems that get worse, as time passes, and exams are missed.

The girls have no such prob­lems. Look at them on the streets. They are in terrific shape. It is the males who pine away. “Mothers will often care for their sons until they become 30 or 40 years old,” says Dr. Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist. “Mothers and sons often have a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship.” They are too close for comfort.

As a result, the young son feels hemmed in and lets fly in outbursts of violence against parents or teachers or anyone else out there.

You probably think that Dr. Saito, a specialist in the field of hikikomori, as the condition is known, is exaggerating when he tells the BBC, “Until they become 30 or 40 years old,” but oh no, he is understating the point. Such a relationship may continue until the mother dies, finally releasing the son at what­ever age, maybe in his 60s—too late for him to pick up on a life of his own.

The great question, then, is why do Japanese suppress their concern over this issue, for the most part? It has to do with the way society works in Japan.

“Japanese society is not capable of accepting people with different attitudes,” says Yasuo Okawara, a counsellor in the field. It is the old story of the nail that sticks out…

Hammered down to the ground, a boy creeps back home to be close to his mum and the two of them subside into a heap, picking themselves up again only with the greatest difficulty.

It is no wonder that young people hesitate to get married, and certainly don’t want to hurry up and have children in this society. The birth rate has fallen to 1.0 in Tokyo of late—a record low. This means that the average number of children per woman is one—and is falling, year by year by the way. You don’t want to hasten to bring children into this world under present conditions. It’s actually the last thing you want to do. Supposing you had a boy!

How then can I maintain my habitual blithe optimism over Japan in general and Tokyo in particular? Well, I think it is a matter of society here changing for the better. The Japanese have a way of shutting themselves off from the rest of the world—take the case of that youth who shut himself in the family kitchen for five years—when they are unsure of themselves. Witness the chapter in their history when they called a halt to relations of any kind with foreign coun­tries—from the 17th to the 19th centuries. No other country has acted like that.

My sense is that the e-world, which we are entering now, makes it almost irrelevant where one is at any time. Instant access to all parts of the globe is sud­denly the way.

How Japanese schools and how Japanese society will adapt to the e-realities remains to be seen. But, as a matter of survival, they are going to have to open up here and let some fresh air into the place, or the Chinese and Koreans will walk all over them, taking advantage of the situation.

In fact, the very abysmal state of Japan at this time can be a reason for optimism. The missing one million can serve as pointers for a better future, the poor souls. Not that the price they are paying is small. This society is sick underneath, and the sooner its people face up to this the greater the hope of speedy recovery.

henryss@gol.com