On Saito Tamaki, Social Withdrawal—Adolescence Without End, reviewed by Max Fox in The New Inquiry, July 11, 2013
A blog by Pam Thurschwell
This is the most gripping article I’ve read in a long time:
“In Japan in the early 1990s, a young psychiatrist named Saitō Tamaki began seeing patients with a cluster of strange symptoms. Actually, he barely saw them at all; more often than not, other family members would approach him about a brother or a son who was afflicted with an unfamiliar state. Mostly men on the threshold of adulthood, they were retreating to their rooms, shrinking from all social contact or communication, and closing off into themselves, often for periods of a year or more. Not wanting to kill themselves but unable to live in society, these youths folded inward in an attempt to fit themselves away. Saitō began calling them hikikomori sainen, “withdrawn young men,” and in 1998 published a book with his findings called Shakaiteki hikikomori—Owaranai Shishunki, or Social Withdrawal—Adolescence Without End.”
I’m currently writing a book about adolescence in the 20th century, called Out of Time, about the alternatively creative and desperate desire of adolescents to exit their own time, violently or imaginatively, via for instance, death, time travel, or dressing up like someone from the 1950s. I’m sure that the reactions I just listed should not be collapsed together, but reading this article about this relatively recent phenomenon of hikikomori in Japan, I felt myself recognising something that seems to connect a number of ideas I’m interested in—adolescence as a category that is becoming more vexed, extended indefinitely, or indeed, “folded inward.” I’m trained in literature and a little afraid of making links that may seem tenuous and unfounded to my colleagues in psychology and the social sciences, but this article provokes huge questions for me. How do we talk about social phenomena such as hikikomori or other cultural equivalents—the growing discourse of “waiting” or “a lost generation” around youth unemployment, a generation for whom, current economic conditions provide no path to growing up? Can we pathologize individuals (who lock themselves up in their parents’ kitchen) if the problem is a social or economic structure that is collapsing? And not just a social structure, but perhaps the whole way we conceive of age, aging, progressing from one stage of life to another? What discourses can we use to make sense of data like this? It used to be, as the article recounts, adolescence was a threshold to something we could identify as adulthood; what happens when the (class-distinctive, certainly) markers of adulthood (a permanent job, a more or less steady relationship or series of them, the ability to own or rent property) become less and less viable? Is the hikikomori that Tamaki identifies a contemporary disease, or is the “disease” capitalism? How might Tamaki’s observations in Japan relate to the rapid growth of the diagnosis of autism spectrum in the West?
“Saitō ventured a count: There were 1 million people in a state of withdrawal or hikikomori, about one percent of the Japanese population. Eighty percent of them were men; 90 percent were over 18. “Social withdrawal is not some sort of ‘fad’ that will just fade away,” Saitō wrote. It is “a symptom, not the name of an illness,” and “there has been no sign that the number of cases will decrease.””
Is it that adolescence is disappearing (there is something intensely infantile, even womblike, in that image of the retreat to the parental kitchen)? Or is it that what is disappearing is what we used to call adulthood?.
I’d love to hear what other people (with more relevant expertise) think about this.