Hikikomori/Otaku Japans Latest Out-Group - Creating Social Outcasts to Construct a National Self-identity

Mt. Isolation NH, USA
Mt. Isolation NH, USA.


Hikikomori (Jap. 引きこもり) and otaku (Jap. おたく) are considered today's most prominent social problems. Hikikomori refers to the recent state of middle and high school students who drop out of school, and withdraw completely from society. Otaku are the deeply obsessed fans of a particular subject who commit their free time (and sometimes lives) to the complete memorization of their obsession.

In both cases these groups are extreme exaggerations of common Japanese social tendencies. The media in Japan is currently attacking these groups as harbingers of social chaos, and portrays them as a new group of outcast who will destroy society (at least kill many people). This portrayal is not only accepted by the media, but by the society as well.

History has shown the Japanese social tendency to create outcast groups, isolate them, and then blame current social problems on that group. These groups are then used as examples of "The Other", a group that is in opposition to the main Japanese society. This “Other” is used to construct a national and cultural identity by comparing it in opposition to the norm.

What defines a person as Japanese? If you asked a Japanese person today that same question, they would have an easy time answering that question with a quick "A Japanese person is a person from Japan." This answer does not consider people of foreign heritage born in Japan, such as Koreans, or children born from migrant workers. If you want to be Japanese, you must look, speak, act, and most importantly be by-blood, Japanese.

"In short, while it is possible-though not particularly easy-for a foreigner to acquire Japanese citizenship, it is not possible for an immigrant or the children of immigrants to "become Japanese" the way such people can "become American." The way you get to be Japanese is the same way you get to be Zulu or Shona in Africa: you have to be born into the tribe. For that is what the people of Japan-or at least more than 97 percent of them-really are: members of a single great tribe united not just by common citizenship or common language but by common bloodlines, common racial memory and common tribal codes, so of which stretch back into prehistory."

Christopher, Robert C., 51

Japanese society distinguishes itself from other cultures based on in-groups and out-groups. The groups that are not Japanese, not local, and different are considered the out-groups. Local groups, family groups, and traditional groups are considered Japanese. To define oneself as Japanese you must simply define yourself as a member of the in-group, and others as members of the out-group. This phenomenon has created an unconscious system of creating out-groups with each generation in order to achieve national self-identity.

The Past

Looking into the past, we find a long tradition of an outcast system that has continued right up until today's modern society. With outcast groups such as the Hinin (Jap. 非人) class starting in the Heian period, which evolved into present-day Burakumin (Jap. 部落民), or Buraku. Later, Westerners were seen as the new group of outsiders, bearing prosperity, change and new evils.

Later still we find the in surge of Koreans to fill the immediate need for industrial labor.

In the last few decades, the outsiders haven't been literally from the outside of Japan, or from outside of the caste system, but instead from inside the deeper parts of the society, the seemingly average citizen. These people are deemed socially inept, different, and therefore put to the outside.

The Buraku has existed since the 11th century, originally with such names as eta and Hinin. They first were considered members of a class outside of the traditional caste system of Feudal Japan. Today they characterize many of the same ways of life as they have in the past. Most of these people work in the so-called Buraku industries of shoe making, dyeing, slaughtering animals and handling their skins, providing laborers for crematory or graveyard work, and scrap collection of all kinds. Buraku also participate in unskilled low-level construction, garbage collection, street cleaning, as well as leather working.

Beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese seafarers in the mid-sixteenth century, westerners were easily identified as the largest group of strangers, or outsiders to the Japanese. While these people were easily identified as outsiders because of their foreign origins, they were also outsiders because of the way they were seen and accepted by society.

“At the same time however, outsiders themselves were ambiguous figures, for usually they were believed to possess both beneficent and malevolent powers. The stranger our outsider might have skills pleasing or valuable to the community and be the harbinger of good fortune in general, but he or she could equally well be the bringer of calamity, the bearer of evil.”

Dower, John., 234

Koreans have been a largely disenfranchised group of Japanese society since Korea was colonized in 1910. The situation of Koreans in Japan is that many were brought into the nation as migrant unskilled laborers for the immediate needs of the industrial revolution. The problem arises when considering the consequences of a large group of foreign people who are thought of as never being able to assimilate into a homogeneous society.

Japan today doesn't allow Japanese-born Koreans to become citizens despite the fact that their families have lived in Japan for up to three generations. The Korean population is largely located in Osaka. There is currently a movement to promote full citizenship to all resident Koreans, and equal status as a Japanese citizen.

The Present

Koreans and Buraku are still considered out-groups in Japan today, however, they aren't nearly as publicly discriminated against as the more recent groups that have been so popular in the media. Recently there has been a surge of discrimination against groups of Japanese peoples within Japanese society. These groups consist of socially divergent individuals who sometimes identify themselves as members of a specific group. Such groups are the religious cults, otaku and most recently the hikikomori.

The cult phenomenon in Japan has ties with the traditional Japanese connection with self-identification with a specific group. These values go back to the small villages that primarily grew crops, and survived as a group by trading produce and services within the small-encapsulated society. These villages would be self-sufficient and reluctant to welcome strangers into the group. The cult phenomenon is similar in many ways. In the last fifteen years, cults have grown in size as well as numbers, the most prominent being the Aum Shinrikyo (Jap. オ ウム真理教). These cults are isolated from the rest of society, its' members are not allowed to communicate with the outside world. With the acts of terrorism in 1995 by this cult, cults are now seen as outsiders by the majority of Japanese society.

Otaku (Jap. おたく) have arisen out of the early 1980s as a new group of mostly teenage and twenty-something year olds who share a common obsession. The term Otaku is derived from its ancient meaning of addressing someone from another household, and implies that you are unconcerned with the details of the other persons family and circumstances. It prevented the discovery that there were differences between 'I' and 'You'.

Smith, 80-81

Today the term is used to mean

"I am not interested in you or your inner life. I share with you only a narrow interest.”

Usually the obsession is about an obscure topic such as a dead rock star, a video game, an animated (anime) cartoon series, computers or internet. These groups are seen as strange people who try to learn everything they can about an obscure topic, and therefore are different, and should be avoided.

The Hikikomori are the most recent group of deviants whom are shown in the media as the most troubled, and enigmatic. Similar to otaku in certain ways, these people frequently have an obsession, but not always. Loosely translated as "social withdrawal", it refers to the state of anomie in which an increasing number of young Japanese seem to fall into. These people typically refuse to go to school (Jap. 不登校), lock themselves in their bedrooms, and refuse outside contact with society. This group is currently being scapegoated for a variety of social issues from school stabbings, and general violence.

The Victims

Otaku can appear to be anyone, they could be your standard citizen, however with a few peculiarities. To be an otaku means much more than to have an extreme obsession or passion. Weather his/her specific knowledge pertains to a particular field, such an anime, manga, networking computers, realistic military models, or even daytime soap opera; or a more specific field such as a long-run Japanese anime series such as "Neon Genesis Evangelion", or the character traits of every pokemon monster; all otaku strive for the same thing which is to fully immerse themselves into every minute detail of their object of obsession.

Although otaku frequently identify themselves with people with the same obsession, this is merely a superficial connection. Most otaku never actually meet each other, but instead communicate through the Internet. Otaku acknowledge the inability or futility to achieve the intimacy of 'authentic' human interaction. They draw a protective barrier around themselves, and use their obsession as the bricks in the wall. Communication between otaku of the same obsession at it peak would be chatting, face-lessly over the internet, safe behind their monitors in their own homes.

Otaku spend their time obsessively memorizing and analyzing facts. If they love computers, then they will read everything and anything about computers they can find, from how to install a strange operating system-to designing their own robots. If they obsess over the latest daytime drama, then they will memorize the characters lines, and perhaps write stories involving the characters in different situations. This act in itself is an act of perseverance and conformity to the education system that he/she was brought up in. Both of these qualities are seen as having 'virtue' in Japanese society, but when brought to extremes can have serious social implications.

“This is the purest imaginable display of the narcissism inherent in Japanese society. The otaku desires both an idealized union and an impregnable independence-the classic drives of the narcissist. He seems postmodern and marginal but is deeply traditional in his rejection of the unfamiliar. Students in the ancient schools of tea ceremony were like otaku. Every member had to be a mirror of every other member. The otaku represent rebellion as parodic conformity.”

Smith, 81

The media have recently jumped on the rash of violent activities of a few otaku and have made the group into monsters. The rate of teenage violent acts of crime has not increased dramatically in post-bubble years, however the media now has a scapegoat to points its finger at. Now whenever a violent crime occurs, the media jumps to cover the latest details, and point the finger at violent otaku as the culprits. One such incident was the seventeen-year-old boy who bludgeoned passengers at a Tokyo subway station with a baseball bat. A very well known incident was the Kobe murders of a child whose head was placed on the wall of the schoolyard. The teenage culprit was deemed an otaku. The media jumped on the case of man who had kidnapped, raped and murdered young girls, and kept them in his house, which was full of hentai manga, or erotic comics, the media then labeled this collection as "obvious signs" of an otaku.

Hikikomori are the latest addition to outcast groups in Japanese society. Some hikikomori are school dropouts whom refuse to subject themselves to Japan's educational regime. These children fail to become a part of the in-group of the school system, in both academics and more importantly with their peers. Bullying and isolation are usually the major reasons for these people to leave school. A feeling of individuality can cause them to feel different, and therefore wrong (Note: The Japanese word Chigaimasu (Jap. 違います) means both to be different and to be wrong).

Hikikomori can feel that they have failed society, or that society has failed them. By withdrawing from society and denying its existence, they can concentrate on themselves by escaping to a fantasy society such as television, or the internet, a place where nobody can put one under the eyes of scrutiny.

There are an estimated one million hikikomori in Japan today. Hikikomori for whatever reasons feel isolated and therefore different, this leads them to remove themselvse from society, and withdraw into themselves. Dropping out of school is the major step in becoming a hikikomori. Instead of going to school, most of these children spend all of their time in their bedrooms playing video games, watching television, and participating in and other forms of self-satisfaction.

Hikikomori are different from otaku in the way they consume these forms of media. Otaku devour the media as a form of knowledge and as a way to make themselves part of a group. Hikikomori on the other hand use this media as a form of escapism. Television allows them to see the outside world without them being observed or tested. Video games are a way to interact without personal attachment, or true human interaction. Many hikikomori will use the Internet to communicate, a form of communication that involves no direct human contact whatsoever.

Japanese media and society has recently begun to concern itself with these children. It is caught in a paradox where it cares about these children, but at the same time praises devices like the Sony Playstation 2, which contains an Internet terminal, and a DVD player, both which can be used by a hikikomori to isolate themselves. These devices allow for entertainment, but at the same time the ability to conduct commercial transactions online, without stepping out of the house. It fixes people into their individual space.

The Causes

What causes these people to become they way they do? The Japanese education system is ideal for a state that means to create people who will work well in industrialized society, and contribute to the state by being a productive individual who works towards the common goal of prosperity for the nation.

“Pupils are taught not to think but to accumulate immense piles of disparate facts that can be repeated on command but cannot be connected. This is not an accident or a lapse. Rote learning is the child's next lesson is dependence. To think is an act of autonomy; to memorize the given is to rely upon authority.”

Smith, 78

This type of education system, rote learning, is measured by intense examinations that will judge if you have conformed, as well as if you have memorized the facts presented to you. The subject will either pass or fail; this does not judge individual achievement, or critical thinking, but instead to rewards the most conformist individual with entrance to industrial society.

“Savage competition and force-fed information without the cultivation of critical thought go far to explain the character of Japanese graduates. The system's demands-years in exam hell, every other student an adversary-produce not exploring intellects but the narrow, machinelike people we assume the Japanese to be by nature. Wholly focused on achieving the highest possible place in the hierarchy, they are unable to form healthy ties with equals-horizontal relationships. They are indifferent to most public issues because they are unnaturally inward-looking and (by official design) ignorant of large patches of their own history. Outside of a few conventional settings-karaoke bars are one-they display little sense of autonomy.”

Smith, 79

Otaku are the direct result of this type of education system. They are an extreme example of an authoritarian and militaristic rote learning system gone horribly wrong, an overextention of the education system. While these people consciously rebel against the society that has created them, they simultaneously conform to and exhibit the same tendencies and characteristics that the system has instilled in them. This paradox has created a people who are extreme examples of "The perfect Citizen". One who unquestionably lives, works, and only thinks about the topic given to him/her. This phenomenon is concrete, as you would find it increasingly difficult to find an example of otaku outside the realm of the academic system.

“There is no doubt that Japan's educational system produces a dedicated workforce, and that these "corporate warriors" are the engine behind Japan's tremendous industrial strength. Obedience to authority, instilled in people from the time they are small children, makes Japanese society work very smoothly, with far less of the social turmoil and violent crime that have plagued other countries. All this is on the plus side of the balance. But there is a minus side, which, like so many other modern Japanese problems, has to do with once-good ideas carried too far.”

Kerr, 285

Hikikomori, on the other hand, also exhibit symptoms rooting from problems within the education system. These problems are from a different issue entirely. The Japanese education system is built upon the concept of the individual as a contributor to the society.

“Standardized textbooks, uniforms, school rules, marching in lockstep around the school grounds, bowing in unison-these regimens were able to achieve what 350 years of isolation could not: a triumph over regionalism and individuality. It was probably Japan's single most serious modern maladaptation.”

Kerr, 282

When children start schooling in kindergarten, the teacher assigns the students into "kumi" or groups. These groups will stay together until graduation; they play together, eat lunch together and study together. The kumi system builds a strong basis for an "us" and a "them".

A popular phrase develops from this group orientation called "nakama hazure" or to be cut off from the group. The children forge a special bond from their group, and don't want to be cut off from the group, or they will feel rejected.

Hikikomori have often been rejected from their kumi, and have chosen either because of a feeling of failure, or a feeling of rejection, to withdraw. This kumi system is a major catalyst for the budding hikikomori, and most current information shows that these children had problems with being accepted into such groups.

School bullying, or ijime is a major issue contributing to the problem of hikikomori facing the Japanese education system. Ijime arises from the fact that accepting your role in a conformist society is one of the major issues growing up in Japan. Accepting your role as a member of a cohesive group is troubling for youngsters in the system. Due to the intense pressure to conform from kindergarten onward, many students resort to ijime. Any sort of difference is a target for ijime, from a difference in speech, or appearance, even excelling in a specific course is reason enough. Many times students who excel at a particular class will perform poorly so as not to stand out. There isn't much a student can do against this style of bullying as the one who is bullied is considered the one to be at fault. Teachers indirectly encourage it, to emphasize obedience within the group.

Students who have studied abroad are obvious targets of ijime. So different is their upbringing that their classmates have coined a new word for them; kikokushijo or "Returnees". Often times these students have to attend special schools to be indoctrinated back into Japanese society.

An interesting phenomenon in Japan is the way the class teaches itself, from after-school study groups, in class help, and self-assigned roles of class-representative, etc. This also involves some children trying to unconsciously involve the others into the group. If a child is expressing his or her own opinion, has her own aspirations, or doesn't exactly fit into the group, she or he will be ostracized. With all of these separate issues combined, the issue of continuing to be an individual becomes increasingly difficult.

Hikikomori are the result of the unconscious rebellion against a system that creates robots. These children do not want to be part of a society that has no individual thought. Since they have no contact with school, they also loose sight of education, and complete social maturation. Here they fall in between the social requirements needed to live in Japan, but also lack the individuality to become an autonomous person.


Now that the Japanese have a new out-group, the finger of blame can be directed as the source of an assortment of social problems. Japan is now looking at these "fringe-groups" as the source of the problems, instead of examining the make up of society and the educational system as the root of the issue. The media continues to pounce on every opportunity it gets to portray just how sinister and deplorable members assigned to this group are.

Until Japanese society begins to examine its own social psychological processes, it will continue to persist an environment that continually defines its own identity by reference to out-groups that it creates and reinforces.


De Vos, George A. Social Cohesions and Alienation: Minorities in the United States and Japan. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc. Print. 1992. Christopher, Robert C. The Japanese Mind. New York: Fawcett Columbine. Print. 1983. Dower, John. War without mercy: Race and power in the pacific War. "The Demonic Other" New York: Pantheon Books. Print. 1986. Smith, Patrick L. Japan: A Reinterpretation. New York: Vintage Books. Print. 1998. Murakami, Ryu. Japan's Lost Generation mirror New York: Time, Inc. Web. 2000. Kerr, Alex. Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. New York: Hill and Wang. Print. 2001.
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