Hikikomori: Hermits of Late-Stage Capitalism
26 March 2023
I’m curious how Jordan Peterson would address the hikikomori in Japan? The word “hikikomori” originates from two separate Japanese words: “to pull back” [‘hiku’] and “withdrawing” [‘komoru’]. Hikikomori are men (and a few women) who socially withdraw into their rooms and refuse to engage in interpersonal relationships or participate in the workforce.
While first observed in the 1970s, the hikikomori grew in number after the collapse of the bubble economy in 1990s Japan. There are over 500,000 hikikomori in Japan today. There are millions more on the brink of social isolation. The hikikomori express a growing dissatisfaction with the salaryman culture in Japan. Many of the hikikomori cannot stomach the expectation of a long and arduous career with no sustainable end in sight. Their retreat from society is a silent rebellion against late-stage capitalism.
The Hell of Late-Stage Capitalism
Jordan Peterson wants young men to stand up straight with their shoulders back, make their beds in the morning, and assume greater responsibility. As a psychotherapist specializing in young adult males, I’m familiar with Peterson’s rules for life and his enormous appeal and influence with floundering men. At one level, few would disagree that it’s beneficial to clean one’s room or grow in self-confidence.
Where Peterson fails young men is his refusal to acknowledge the oppressive and alienating systems that keep them in a state of existential disarray. The order that Peterson prescribes aims at addressing the chaos of the individual self. His inability to acknowledge the larger educational and economic factors contributing to what Richard Reeves calls the “male malaise” is not only dishonest but dangerous.
I can’t speak for Jordan Peterson, but I have a hunch about what he would say to the hikikomori. He would tell them their behavior is anti-social. He would exhort them to grow up, get off their computer and get a fucking job! Peterson’s exhortation would be consistent with the tendency of psychology to blame the individual for their pathology.
The young men I work with are also socially reclusive and struggle with the “responsibilities” of modern life. I would agree with Alan Teo that the hikikimori phenomenon is a spectrum. Teo and his team have worked on a new twenty-five-item questionnaire to help define and measure the syndrome. Although few men in the United States will withdraw completely we have a large number of people in their early 20s living in the basement bedroom. Oftentimes it is younger men. Struggling with work. Struggling with launching. There is some element of still being stuck in an earlier developmental stage.
When I first started working with men who failed to launch into social life, I too saw them as lazy and spoiled. After countless hours listening to their stories of being bullied, failed by the educational system and their disenchantment with the capitalist myth, I came to a different conclusion. Some young men’s flight from our frenetic society is a faint attempt to save their souls from the hell of late-stage capitalism.
Sick Soul, Sick Society
Jordan Peterson counts Carl Jung as one of his intellectual heroes. It’s a shame that Peterson does not appear to have taken the time to read one of Jung’s American students, James Hillman. Like Jung, Hillman focused on the psyche, archetypes and mythology. Unlike Jung, Hillman emphasized how these realities cannot be severed from a grounded materialist understanding of how the social impacts the individual. Michael Brooks concludes
Though Hillman never denied the role individual development, psychological maturation, and spiritual growth play in making a person content, he understood that a pained response is often a natural response to a shockingly unequal and ecologically poisoned world.
One of my favorite James Hillman books is entitled We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy- and the World is Getting Worse. The book is a series of conversations with Los Angeles essayist and cultural critic Michael Ventura. At one point in their conversation, Hillman laments that psychology still locates the psyche inside the human skin. Psychotherapy is obsessed with people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. What it misses, according to Hillman, is the sick soul of society, the deterioration of the material world and how this taints the soul of the patient.
This too is what Jordan Peterson misses about the existential plight of young men. His conversative political agenda is damaging to the individual psyche of young men and the collective wellbeing of society.
Heroes of Autonomy
Franco “Bifo” Berardi rejects interpretations of the hikikomori phenomenon that pathologize the individual. Instead, he understands their reclusive behavior as “a form of adjustment to the anthropological and social mutation that is underway, as an answer to the unbearable stress of competition, mental exploitation, and precarity.”
The hikikimori have been called hermits of modern Japan. In Christianity, hermits removed themselves from the community to dedicate their life to prayer and other ascetic practices. This retreat from the social paradoxically served to strengthen the community’s spiritual life. Hermits would intercede for the suffering and needs of those back home.
I believe the hikikimori and other socially withdrawn members of society are hermits of late-stage capitalism. Their retreat may not include intercessory prayer, but it does involve a heroic stance against the hellish conditions of capitalist alienation. Following Berardi’s interpretation of the hikikomori’s posture toward the world, I too see their isolation as a courageous disinvestment from the capitalist trance. Their silent rebellion is a move toward autonomy and away from alienation. They are opting out of the game and forging their subjectivity apart from the oppressive demands of the social.
I want to be careful not to romanticize their plunge into solitude. As Maika Elan points out, “the longer the hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure.” In their isolation, the hikikimori express a symptom of a deeper sickness in society. Their reclusion brings to light the exhausting nature of capitalism. The hikikimori’s situation signals the work needed to be done to move society in the direction of a humanizing community.
My work with socially recluse men builds on relational-cultural theory. While I don’t believe community participation takes one normative form, I am convinced that mutual, growth-fostering relationships are beneficial for individuals and society as a whole.
Jordan Peterson wants young men to clean their rooms. The hikikimori have decided to stay in their room, closing the door to societal participation. May their chosen isolation be a reminder to us all that we can distinguish our autonomous destiny from the destiny of those who want us to belong and to participate at all costs, even the death of our souls.
 Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Canada: Random House Canada, 2018).  Richard Reeves, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Man is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About it (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2022.  Michael Brooks, Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the Right (UK: Zero Books, 2020), 54. James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy- and the World is Getting Worse (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).  Franco “Bifo” Berardi, And: Phenomenology of the End (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015) 104-5.  Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (UK: Verso Books, 2015).