TOKYO -- A recent survey in Japan has uncovered an alarming number of middle-aged people without work and who rarely leave home.
Approximately 613,000 people aged 40 to 64 are believed to live as shut-ins, the government announced in March. Over 70% of recluses surveyed were men and nearly half said they have been isolated from society for at least seven years.
The results of the survey were somewhat startling as the government had thought the issue of hikikomori, as recluses are known, was confined to people between the ages of 15 and 39, and had conducted past surveys based on this assumption.
"Adult hikikomori is a new social issue," said welfare minister Takumi Nemoto. "It needs to be addressed properly by conducting studies and analyses."
The government defines hikikomori as people who have remained secluded at home for at least six months, and who do not go to school or work. People who do not interact with others outside their own family are also included in the category.
The number of middle-aged hikikomori is higher than that for the 15-39 age group, which is believed to be about 541,000. In total, there could be more than one million hikikomori in the country.
The December 2018 survey sampled 5,000 households comprised of at least one member aged between 40 and 64. Of the 3,248 households that responded, 1.45% had shut-ins, a large number who cited retirement as a trigger for their withdrawal, followed by those who had trouble with relationships or were ill.
Approximately 50% of hikikomori say they have been living that way for at least seven years, while 6% answered 30 years or more.
According to Masakazu Nakagaito, a psychiatrist and co-chief director of Kazoku Hikikomori Japan, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping shut-ins and their families, the survey implied that along with school drop outs who had been hikikomori since childhood, there are many who lapsed into seclusion as the result of not finding a job or quitting one.
Hikikomori between 40 and 44 years of age lived through the "employment ice age," when new graduates had difficulties finding jobs.
Although there are no similar surveys at the national level in other Asian countries, some experts suggest middle-aged hikikomori may not be unique to Japan. Similar problems "probably exist in neighboring countries, notably South Korea," Nakagaito said.
A 2016 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed as much, showing that South Korea ranked lowest as regards the "percentage of people who report having relatives or friends they can count on" for people above the age of 50. Only about 60% said they have, while the average among OECD countries was close to 90%.
Nakagaito said that efforts are being made in South Korea to help shut-ins.
China may also have the same problem, although shut-ins there are "not easily visible, what with the country growing so rapidly," Nakagaito said.
Those who drop out or who cannot find jobs in China's highly competitive society, which endured a one-child policy from 1979 to 2015, "may withdraw from society and remain isolated," noted Nakagaito.