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What Japan’s hikikomori can teach us about self-isolation

A month at home in isolation may seem like an eternity for those unaccustomed to a lack of person-to-person contact, but the experiences of Japan’s large numbers of “hikikomori,” or social recluses, may offer some hints on how to stay sane during the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan’s health ministry defines hikikomori as people who have remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months, not going to school or work and not interacting with people outside their family. According to government studies, there are an estimated 1 million or more hikikomori in Japan.

Although people have started to use the term more loosely to describe themselves hunkering down at home to aid in stemming the spread of COVID-19, most social recluses spend years, sometimes decades, in isolation.

Nito Souji, who has been a hikikomori for more than 10 years, stresses the importance of keeping focused on the big picture and taking each day as it comes.
“I became a hikikomori with the objective of living everyday doing only things that are worthwhile, so for me the past 10 years have been far more pleasant than working outside,” he said.

Unable to land a good job after graduating from university in Tokyo or realize his dream of becoming a novelist, Nito returned to his hometown to practice drawing in the hopes of becoming a creator of “dojinshi,” or self-published comics and other works. He had initially only planned to remain a hikikomori for three years, or until he could support himself.

“I had no friends in my hometown and felt rushed to become financially independent as soon as possible, feeling ashamed to go outside. So I became a hikikomori,” he said, now living alone in his aunt’s apartment in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture.

Nito’s dream of becoming self-sufficient through his own creations eventually spurred him to learn English and game development from 2015, where he has devoted his efforts for the past five years. Now with fluent English skills and his first original game set to launch on Steam, a video game digital distribution service for independent developers, his hard work appears to have paid off.

“In the last 10 years, I was able to create whatever I wanted to create, so even if there were struggles, I enjoyed it,” he said.
Pull Stay, which is a literal English translation of “hikikomori,” is a game inspired by Nito’s experiences as a shut-in and features a protagonist modeled after himself.

Nito said he hopes sales of the game will generate enough revenue to enable him to finally emerge from his seclusion and try life as a nomad worker once COVID-19 blows over.

“Having hope and making a little progress every day. That worked for me,” he said.

Meanwhile “CLiONE,” a self-professed hikikomori DJ based in Tokyo who also began the reclusive lifestyle to focus on his passion, suggested connecting with people online as a way to overcome loneliness during self-isolation.

“No matter what sort of person you are, communicating with other people leads to a reduction in stress. If you mull on things alone, your thoughts tend to take a bad direction, so even talking with friends over the phone can change your mood,” he said.

For the past two or three years, CLiONE has spent most of his time alone at home, producing original music and remixes and occasionally taking on jobs from crowdsourcing platforms. And because he only holds performances through live streaming on YouTube, where he has over 13,000 subscribers, his activities already follow social distancing rules.
Inspired by Marshmello, an American electronic music producer and DJ who wears a marshmallow mascot head, he dons a custom cartoon head during live streams to keep his appearance a mystery.

But he said interacting with fans through live streaming provides him some relief from the depressing coronavirus-related news bombarding the world daily.
“Even for people like me, with few friends, you can talk to strangers you’ve never met before through online games and live streaming. So I recommend connecting with others online,” he said.

“Shin,” a 35-year-old who spent four to five years as a hikikomori in southwestern Japan from around the time he was 21, felt little stress from being alone but said doing things he liked helped.
“If I did feel stress at the time, I would watch action movies. Also, even just moving my body while indoors helped me alleviate stress to a certain degree,” he said.

Unsuited to Japanese work culture, Shin cites sleep deprivation and overwork at a game company he entered following graduation as the trigger for his shut-in behavior. Isolating at home helped him to recalibrate his life.
“At first, I spent every day just sitting and staring out the window. Besides going for treatment and taking walks with my mother, I was always in the house. I used the computer often, so I wasn’t lacking in study or entertainment,” he said.

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