Older, Female and Hikikomori: Japan’s Newly Precarious Population

“You know why I do all this?”

Kawagoe-san looked around her living room. Seat cushions and colorful toys were scattered about the floor. There was a wet patch on the carpet where one of the children had spilled her orange juice. Teacups and plates from the afternoon snack time were still sitting on the coffee table.

It was the aftermath of an afternoon-long gathering of 10 or so women and their assorted kids. Without waiting for the resident ethnographer to fully consider the question, she continued: “Because, otherwise, we’ll all end up nitsumatchau.”

Nitsumaru, or literally “stewed and thickened,” was a phrase often used by expatriate women who participated in my study of Japanese corporate housewives in the United States many, many years ago. They used the phrase to describe a psychological state of feeling being stuck and being flustered.

“Little Hiroshi is getting nitsumaru,” his mother would say when her child threw a tantrum during the winter months in the Midwest. “It’s been too cold for him to play outside.”

The word also came up often when they were talking about the strain they felt of domestic confinement, exacerbated by social isolation in a foreign country. Once they became nitsumaru, it got harder and harder for them to maintain the emotional equilibrium necessary to take good care of their families, a role they took quite seriously.

Kawagoe-san’s commentary was precipitated by the news of an expatriate Japanese housewife in another U.S. city, who had attempted to kill her infant daughter and herself. She reportedly had been home-bound since following her husband to the U.S., and many speculated that mental health issues caused by social isolation were behind this disturbing incident.

Kawagoe-san and her friends were all keenly aware of the harm of domestic isolation. “Being alone at home with young kids, having nowhere to go and no adult to talk to, anyone can become nitsumaru,” added Tabata-san, Kawagoe-san’s best friend, who lingered after the other women left. “It could have been any of us [who buckled under the strain]. We are lucky to have Kawagoe-san, who is willing to open up her home so we all have a place to go.”

The idea of nitsumaru was theoretically significant for my study, which centered on women’s domestic labor in the transnational context, but it also struck a personal chord with me. It reminded me of my own mother, who spent most of her adult life as a stay-home wife and mother. She was not an expatriate, but she found confinement at home in Japan intolerable. She tried for many years, to no avail, to cultivate meaningful social connections outside the home. I could recall some specific moments in my childhood when my mother seemed unreasonably moody and harsh toward me. During my fieldwork I finally had a glimpse into her struggles as a naturally outgoing person cut off from meaningful connection to the outside world.

All these thoughts came flooding back to me when I read about a recent report on hikikomori, people who shut themselves away in their rooms or houses and refuse social contacts for an extended period of time.

Once considered a largely adolescent male phenomenon, the latest study reveals the increasing number of women, especially those in the chukonen (middle to advanced) age groups, who identify as hikikomori. A broadened definition of the term may have contributed to the larger number of hikikomori overall, but what factors are behind the rise of female hikikomori, who now account for over 40% of the self-identified hikikomori population?

One of the reasons offered is the traditional gender division of labor that made it seem acceptable — even commendable — for women’s lives to center on their family and domestic space. With the heightened awareness of hikikomori as a social issue, women finally came to recognize the problematic nature of their own domestic isolation.

It seems a little strange to me, however, to imagine that women had never noticed the ill effects of their own isolation, blindly followed the sengyo shufu (full-time housewife) path dictated by society for decades, and suddenly woke up to realize that there was something wrong with their lives.

Kawagoe-san and her friends, as well as my mother, were keenly aware of the risks of domestic isolation, and sought to mitigate them in every possible way. Yet, they chose to stay in the home because — as Kawagoe-san used to put it — “it was [their] job.” If their profession — like every other profession — came with certain risks, then it was part of their job to figure out how to minimize them. The fact that they didn’t contest the gendered assignment of domestic roles should not negate their consciousness about the conditions and limitations of their own lives.

Japanese society has gone through many drastic changes since I did my field research in the late 1990s, most importantly the breakdown of the traditional family structure and increased economic instability. If earlier generations of sengyo shufu were promised satisfying and stable “golden years,” middle-aged Japanese women today can no longer count on stability and security later in life. After decades of unpaid domestic and caretaking labor, their future in a rapidly aging society is precarious, indeed.

Perhaps, then, identifying themselves as hikikomori is about recognizing themselves as socially disenfranchised. It may be an effort to make society — whose affluence depended on women’s unpaid and unrecognized domestic labor for decades — understand that they deserve at least as much sympathy and support in their old age as aging male hikikomori do.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.