Sea of trees

An experience of remoteness, space, natural quiet and solitude is
gained standing amongst the extensive dunes against
the vastness of the Southern Ocean.
NZ Department of Conservation


It will be a long tunnel for us.
Masahisa Okuyama, father of a hikikomori


IN THE PHOTOGRAPH the young man is sitting crosslegged on a bed, holding a sword across his knees, almost like an offering. In another photograph he holds it loosely across one shoulder. On a table in the room are a clutter of soft drink bottles, food packets and cigarettes; in one corner is a pile of bulging garbage bags. The young man looks directly at the camera, his eyes clear. He is a hikikomori – a young Japanese person, usually a man, who has shut himself into a bedroom or flat for six months or more, sometimes years, sometimes decades. (The Japanese word hikikomori combines the words hiku or ‘pull’ and komoru or ‘retire’; literally it means ‘pulling in and retiring’.) In other photographs of hikikomori I have seen, the young person turns his back, or he is pictured in profile staring into the middle distance. His face is usually obscured, his posture suggests shame. But there is an openness in this young man’s face which is at odds with his cloistered surroundings. He could be looking forward to something. He could be about to stand up, heft a pack onto his shoulder, and open the door.

There is another, more disturbing photograph of a hikikomori, wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a kind of elongated balaclava, almost like a trunk, that stretches from his face to the computer screen. He doesn’t trust his own eyes – they might stray to the bedroom around him, crowding him in – so this clunky portal keeps his focus trained. His body looks like an encumbrance to him, something to be blanked out or wished away. On a hikikomori support website, members are asked how they kill time. The replies advise the internet, music, sleep: ‘I sleep until my eyes are about to rot. I see dreams.’ Immersion is the desired state – it is an escape from physical surroundings, from the passing of time, from worried parents, from the world outside. These replies echo the idea of renouncing or throwing away the self, a state that Buddhist monks are trained to achieve. To be free of the self is to be free from worldly attachments, from uncertainty, from confusion.

THE URGE TO understand or to at least describe makes us liken hikikomori, or ‘shut-ins’, to islands – remote, generating their own weather, enclosed by an inhospitable environment against which they barricade themselves: pulling down blinds, covering windows with black paper and duct tape. If not likened to islands, they are peninsulae, or ‘almost islands’, because many hikikomori do maintain a thread of connection with the world beyond their bedrooms. They live in the homes of their parents, who bring them meals each day, who worry about them, who worry about what others will think, who wonder what they could have done to stop their child from shutting themselves in. Inside their rooms, hikikomori play video games, read, listen to music, drink, pace, or do nothing. Or they surf the internet, latching on to online communities and forums, the networks through which they can connect with others who have withdrawn. In one online support community run through Daizenji Temple near Kōshū City, Yamanashi, hikikomori can meditate with a Buddhist priest who instructs them through an online camera. Some keep their identities hidden by putting on masks, and those who are afraid to be seen at all meditate without using the camera.

The internet is also a place to pool knowledge about a state that is not often openly discussed. ‘It’s important to make them not frightened,’ writes a member of the Q&A website Quora in reply to the question Any advice or ideas on how to deal with a hikikomori? ‘If there’s something terrifying, make it nothing. And then try to let him know what the outside world is.’ The member himself is a hikikomori, he says, or ‘soon to become one’.

Hikikomori seem to vanish from the world, so it’s hard to know their true numbers. A 2010 survey for the Japanese Cabinet Office came up with an estimate of nearly 700,000, but some psychiatrists – including Tamaki Saitō, who gave the condition its name in 1998 with the publication of Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End – believe that the figure is well over one million. We know that cities can be places of profound loneliness and social disconnection. We know that in dense communities, when commuting, when working, when trying to sleep, people withdraw into themselves to cope. But the reality of so many people hidden away, as if in a forest, puts a sharper, more unnerving edge on that understanding. It threatens our broad understanding of what it is to be a human being living in the world, what it is to be one of the numbers who inform the present and the history of a place. (We can warp what we see, too: one fashion blog portrays hikikomori as if it were a clever kind of solution: ‘In times of recession, many young Japanese simply stay home. They personalise little rooms at the top of milquetoast suburban houses in exaggeratedly eccentric ways.’) Last year I was struck by the photographer Michael Wolf’s depictions of people compressed into Tokyo trains at rush hour – beautiful but ghostly images of faces behind streaked glass – which showed the ways in which people tend to endure agitating conditions: by retreating into themselves, eyes squeezed shut, bodies stiffened against walls or windows.

My own experience of self-imposed isolation is brief, but vivid. At high school, deeply shy, I tried to make myself disappear at morning breaks and lunchtimes. For some months I would go to a dressing room behind the stage in the assembly hall, where my art class was stretching, and later painting, some canvases. To get to the room you had to clamber up onto the stage and duck behind the curtains into the left wing, past reams of moth-smelling gym mats and a clutter of music stands, then jam the key into the lock before someone saw you. There was a long narrow window, where I could see people’s feet as they walked past outside. I would lie on the wooden bench in the room and watch the feet, or stare at the blank stretching canvases. I was unable to read or write because of a constant low-level anxiety that I would be found, and the anxiety produced a focus that was somehow too acute to translate words into sense – but pictures and sounds stretched and shimmered like blown glass. As the months went on and the canvases grew thick with my classmates’ paintings, my mind seemed to drift farther and farther away from my body, in its lumpy green uniform.

Neither the metaphor of an island nor a peninsula helps us to imagine the inner world of the isolated. At their heart these metaphors have only their remoteness; they don’t provide a path into or out of the state. In their abstraction, they echo, too, an unwillingness to talk openly about the condition of hikikomori. ‘In polite company, the subject of hikikomori is seldom brought up,’ Michael Zielenziger writes in Shutting Out the Sun (Random House, 2006). ‘Shikata ga nai, the Japanese say, or “It can’t be helped”.’ In Japanese, mori is a homonym for ‘forest’, and I find myself going back to the image of a forest as a way of trying to understand what happens when a person shuts themselves in; how their world, so narrowed, might fill and grow so densely that a person becomes lost in it. It is a forest, too, that has become Japan’s most well-known site for suicide. Aokigahara forest, also known as the Sea of Trees, lies at the foot of Mt Fuji, four thousand hectares wide. Its trees grow closely together, blocking the wind, and it is home to few animals and birds, so it is quiet. Each year, volunteers who patrol the forest manage to talk people out of taking their own lives there.

WHEN I THINK of a pathway out of the forest, I think of the path that the Japanese woman Keiko Agatsuma constructed between the cave where she lived and the beach. She built her path out of pieces of driftwood and covered it in washed-up fishnet to stop herself from slipping as she walked down onto the sand. A simple, cursory path made from the materials at her feet.

Agatsuma had arrived in Christchurch with a three-month tourist visa in August 1978. After travelling around the lower South Island, she took a boat to Stewart Island, a heavy backpack on her shoulders. She arrived at Freshwater Landing, where the launchmaster warned her of dangerously changeable conditions and a boggy wetland track to walk across. But she set off alone; I imagine that she didn’t look back. The launchmaster later described her as ‘wiry, tough-looking’. It took her two days to reach the Forest Service hut. She began to explore the island, foraging for food as her supply of groceries dwindled, and soon – in Doughboy Bay, just south of Mason Bay – she came across a cave with a high ceiling and overhanging rātā trees that sheltered the entrance from rain. She set down her pack at the back of the cave, where it was dry. She constructed a bed from driftwood and fishing net. She hung colourful buoys in the trees around the entrance.

It’s impossible to know for sure why Agatsuma came to such a remote place. Those who spoke to her on Stewart Island – park rangers, fishermen – said she had mentioned an abusive husband, and a feeling that she did not belong back home; perhaps that she felt barra-barra, ‘broken apart from others’, as hikikomori do. We can assume that she wanted not only to be by herself, but to feel the relief of placing a great distance between herself and her home country, the opposite of homesickness. The cave was a dwelling only: it offered no particular culture or history, asked no questions of her. However, Agatsuma was to live there for only one week. Her overstayer status was quickly discovered by authorities, and she was deported back to Japan, travelling with her brother who had come to Christchurch to take her back. The story of her isolation rippled outwards. International media were fascinated by the tale of the ‘Japanese woman cave dweller’, and she fell into Southland urban myth. She later inspired a short story (‘Of Memory and Desire’ [1991] by Peter Wells), a film based on that short story (Memory and Desire [1998] by Niki Caro), and a Noh play (Rakiura [1993], written by Eileen Philipp) – and perhaps all of these works are testament to the symbolic power of that image of a woman far from home, living inside a cave, as if in exile. It seems so far removed from the young man with his blinds pulled down in a bedroom in suburban Japan, but this is a story, too, that ripples outwards, that remains unsolved.

In her essay ‘Last call’ (New Yorker, 2013), Larissa MacFarquhar gives a brief account of a hikikomori leaving a room from which he had not ventured for many years. To receive help from the Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto, the young man has to leave his room and walk to a remote temple, where he will be expected to articulate his feelings to this stranger. Nemoto’s theory is that people have to want his counsel enough to make the journey to see him, otherwise he probably won’t be able to help them. The man has been living as a hikikomori for a long time, and now he not only has to leave his room but also his city, and walk for five hours. It is the promise of Nemoto’s help at the end of this unimaginable journey that pushes him on. As he walks, he thinks about what he might say to the priest. The account of his journey ends when he reaches the temple – because after all that time walking, and thinking, he feels that he has reached some kind of understanding. What that understanding is, it’s impossible to say. But the man feels sure enough of himself that he is able to turn around and walk back the way he came.

How can a person in isolation make their way back? The paths the isolated must build are yet so modest, using whatever tools they can find – some left by others, some scattered, almost forgotten, within the walls – to help them walk, howsoever briefly, into the world outside.

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