This is the first in a projected series of essays dealing with the phenomenon of “loneliness,” beginning with a discussion of the loneliness described to Pope Francis in the “youth encounter” in Tokyo, and moving from there into a broader view. 

In Japanese-American author Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being,[1] teenage protagonist Nao Yasutani leads an unenviable life. Her techie father Haruki was fired from his job in Silicon Valley and failed to make the transition to the Japanese labor market after the family returned to Tokyo, her long-suffering mother has taken a menial job as an “office lady,” and Nao herself has dropped out of school after relentless bullying. To add insult to injury, Nao has been sexually harassed both in person and online and is being groomed for compensated dating by a restaurant hostess who is secretly a pimp. Both she and her father are suicidally depressed; Nao whiles away her daytime hours at a fetish café run by the aforementioned hostess, and Haruki is a hikikomori, a stay-at-home who almost never ventures out of their two-room apartment and spends all his time folding origami and watching morbid videos about 9/11 on the internet.

The hikikomori phenomenon has been well-known to students of Japanese mass culture for years and mainstream Western news outlets are starting to report on it as well. I myself have been aware of the phenomenon since shortly after I began studying Japanese in college nine years ago. My favorite fictional representation of hikikomori other than A Tale for the Time Being is Welcome to the NHK,[2] a novel by a hikikomori author that was adapted into a mid-2000s anime. This novel tells the story of a man who thinks that he is the target of a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Japan’s public broadcasting service. (Since truth is stranger than fiction and we live in interesting times, an actual anti-NHK conspiracy theory party now holds a seat in the upper house of Japan’s parliament.)

There are 541,000 hikikomori in Japan below the age of 39,[3] plus goodness knows how many over that age.[4] The figure of 541,000 impressed me because it is almost exactly the same figure as the Vatican’s official estimate of 536,000 Catholics currently living in Japan. For everybody, of any age, participating (even nominally) in the life of the Japanese Church, there is at least one young Japanese person who has withdrawn from social participation and retreated into what the eighties science fiction novel Neuromancer calls a “seamless universe of self.”[5]

I don’t want to be too hard on the hikikomori, who are merely an extreme example of the severe generalized atomization of life in today’s Japan. The three young residents of Japan who met with Pope Francis at the youth encounter in Tokyo spoke powerfully to this loneliness and to its underlying causes—overwork, urbanization, conformism, collapsing family sizes, a cultural overemphasis on formal education, and more. Masako Kudo, the youth encounter’s representative of young adult Buddhism, is a middle school physical education teacher and spoke directly to the influence of new technologies on unmooring young Japanese from traditional social engagement. “In addition,” she said, “with the spread of mobile phones, computers, game devices and such, many children find communicating or competing with others bothersome and so withdraw into themselves.” Note the telling phrase “communicating or competing.” Where else but in a highly developed—perhaps too developed—market society would those two concepts be juxtaposed so directly?

I am acquainted with a Catholic from a Pacific Rim country that is not Japan. This person has told me that the general impression of Japan among Catholics from other Asian countries is that of a society that is strong in many of the human virtues—responsibility, prudence, modesty—but lacks the virtues of faith. I don’t have a full enough understanding of the virtues myself to fully subscribe to diagnosing an entire culture in this way, but it’s an observation that is consistent with others that I have read. Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American visual artist who worked as an advisor on the Martin Scorsese film adaptation of the book Silence, discusses faith in Japan at length in his book Silence and Beauty. Discussing the cultural differences between Japan and South Korea, Fujimura cites the American Jewish journalist Michael Zielenziger’s positive portrayal of Korean Christianity in Zielenziger’s (polarizing) book Shutting Out the Sun.[6] (“The churches have coaxed the Korean people in forming social networks, building trust among strangers, and accepting universal ethics and individualism….”[7]) Fujimura, however, disputes the idea that simply introducing Christianity more fully into Japanese society (inculturating it more, if you will) would solve Japan’s social and spiritual problems. Speaking for myself, I would also dispute the idea that more individualism is what Japan needs at this point. “Japan’s wounds are unique,” says Fujimura, “and its potential and beauty are unique on the world’s stage. So, what will liberate Japan from its ‘bondage to decay’?”[8]

This is an open question, and I’m not sure if it’s a question that even Pope Francis has the answer to. However, while Fujimura stresses Japan’s uniqueness, I prefer to see this as a question of broader human concern. The feeling of loneliness and constraint might well be unique to Japan in its particulars. By “particulars” I mean the specific features described by the three young people at the youth encounter, by Fujimura in his nonfiction book, and in novels like A Tale for the Time Being and Welcome to the NHK. Specifics like the hikikomori, the form bullying takes in Japanese schools, and so forth, don’t exist in exactly the same form elsewhere. However, the broader strokes—loneliness in itself; atomization in itself; social dislocation in itself; the feeling, in itself, that surely one was made for something more than this (Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited depicts this last part very movingly)—can be found all over the world.

“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days,” Pope Francis is supposed to have said in his first interview with the now-infamous Eugenio Scalfari, “are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” Setting aside the fact that Scalfari’s “interviews” are constructed from his own memory after the fact and that thus Pope Francis might not actually have said this, whoever did say this is, I think, on to something. Not least of all, it’s a perceptive comment in that it draws a through-line between the problems facing the young and the problems facing the old. (I’m reminded also of a classic clip from The Simpsons. Lisa Simpson, the eight-year-old daughter, and Abe Simpson, the grandfather, are sitting at the kitchen table together. “It’s awful being a kid,” Lisa says. “No one listens to you.” “It’s rotten being old,” Abe replies. “No one listens to you.”)  I’ll discuss loneliness among the young and loneliness among the old in my next essays in this series.


[1] Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (New York: Viking, 2013).

[2] Tatsuhiko Takimoto, translated by Lindsey Akashi and Laura Wylick, Welcome to the NHK (Los Angeles: Tokyopop, 2007).

[3] Emiko Jozuka, “Why won’t 541,000 young Japanese leave the house?” CNN.com, September 12, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/11/asia/japanese-millennials-hikikomori-social-recluse/index.html?fbclid=IwAR0hNaF-yrquaQxhlDZU_hYV9YGOgVobf_lxjIRbTARV8WCGV3J-kY5m-9s.

[4] The Japanese welfare ministry’s first full survey of the hikikomori phenomenon earlier this year yielded a figure of 613,000 hikikomori between the ages of 40 and 64, for a total of well over a million. Kyodo Newswire, “613,000 in Japan aged 40 to 64 are recluses, says first government survey of hikikomori,” Japan Times, March 29, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/29/national/613000-japan-aged-40-64-recluses-says-first-government-survey-hikikomori/#.Xe1dCdVOnIV.

[5] William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Penguin, 2000 (new edition of 1984 original)), 167.

[6] “[T]he same kids [in the US] are largely either in institutional hellholes, homeless, and/or dead,” a one-star Amazon review of Zielenziger’s book observes about the hikikomori. “So which society is really the one that is sweeping the problem under the rug? It’s not the Japanese.”

[7] Michael Zielenziger, Shutting Out the Sun (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 261. Quoted in Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 175.

[8] Fujimura, ibid.

Image: Night view of Hakodate, Japan in August 2013. Photo taken by the author.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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