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Was Japan’s ‘lost’ generation ahead of the virtual curve?

Since the concept of the hikikomori recluse was first introduced by a psychiatrist in Japan nearly a quarter century ago, it has encapsulated a range of terrors about society, technology and the young.

In its early stages, the phenomenon of individuals withdrawing into their bedrooms for months or years at a stretch was considered a peculiarly Japanese problem. Theories linked it with the nation’s perceived societal and economic woes. A 2006 book, Shutting Out the Sun, deemed it the pathology of a “lost” generation created in the aftermath of the 1980s bubble.

A combination of Cabinet Office studies in 2015 and 2018 suggested that Japan may have more than a million 15- to 64-year-olds living as hikikomori in its broadest definition. In 2019 the psychiatrist who coined the term all those years ago warned that the real number may be far higher.

Yet neither the cause nor the symptoms of this issue were uniquely Japanese. As the concept was probed in greater academic, medical and socio-economic depth, it was found to exist plentifully in many other countries, especially Asian ones. In South Korea, Singapore, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere, it was ascribed different names, root causes, risk factors and possible treatments.

But the fundamental worry – that these people (mostly men) were vanes of an ill wind – was consistent. As was the idea that there was something fundamentally sinister about the confected, virtual worlds many hikikomori inhabited compared with the real world lived in by the rest of us. China’s referring to the hikikomori as “unproductive youth” captured both the contempt and disquiet that their withdrawal engendered.

Looming over all of it, of course, is the idea that reclusion has been disproportionately aided and abetted by technology. In particular, the increasingly seductive and inescapable worlds created online and by ecommerce. A 2017 regional symposium and subsequent paper concluded that increased internet use, online gaming and the consequent rise of certain addictions could play an important part in the rising rates of social withdrawal. “Online food delivery and shopping platforms that provide resources and services to the doorstep may further facilitate… disengagement,” the authors added, implicitly adding Uber Eats to its long list of societal menaces.

So far, so grim. Yet on to this largely pessimistic scene has arrived the metaverse, and Mark Zuckerberg’s bubbly peddling of the unimaginable fun and fulfilment we will all have in these new virtual worlds just as soon as technology allows it. There are near infinite possible lines of speculation of where the metaverse may be heading – some sensible, some hucksterish. To take one at random: after the creation of an immersive metaverse, how long might it be before a virtual trip to a ski resort or beach is sold or consumed as the low-carbon, morally correct choice? 

Perhaps. But to some the dangers are already clear. Within two days of Zuckerberg’s online explanations, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations – arguably the country’s most influential think-tank and affiliated with the Ministry of State Security – roared out of the blocks with a substantial position paper on the subject. Among the many strands it pulls at, the CICIR paper (which cites Nintendo’s whimsical Animal Crossing game as an early example of an immersive virtual world) foresees huge implications for the balance of geopolitical power and a “new round of reshuffling”. It sees, in Zuckerberg’s early discussion of the issue, the risk of the US using these giants as a channel for greater influence.

It also cites Japan’s “strong sense of crisis” towards the meta universe, confirming that China has been closely watching the experiences of its neighbour for lessons in what and what not to do. The Chinese paper does not explicitly mention the hikikomori, but refers to the possibility of the metaverse luring young people into a realm of “digital drugs” and long, irretrievable periods out of touch with people in the real world.

Whatever emerges here, it feels like a moment where some perceptions of reclusion might inflect. Is a withdrawal from the outside still problematic if it takes the individual to a place more widely accepted as desirable, with a vibrant society of its own? In some future light, might the hikikomori be deemed less the sad victims of society and technology gone awry and more the brave colonists of a prairie in which everyone will soon want their homestead?

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Asia business editor

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