No. of recluses on rise in KoreaAs technology becomes a more intrinsic part of people’s everyday lives, apps and delivery services have made it easier for people to lead isolated lives.
“There was a time when I didn’t go out for two months and only played computer games in my room,” said a 36-year-old man identified by the surname Kang who has been living in his room for 17 years. When asked why he became socially withdrawn, he cited his past experience in France.
“When I was 13, my family immigrated to France,” Kang added. “At the time, I was racially discriminated against by my European friends and that experience made me an introvert. When I came back to Korea, some friends called me dumb because I didn’t talk at all.”
Although Kang entered a university located in Seoul, he didn’t have any friends and was afraid of being around people. He was exempt from military service as well due to his social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by a significant amount of social anxiety that causes considerable distress and impairs the ability to function in at least some parts of daily life. That was when he decided to resign himself to his room indefinitely.
In Japan, such people are known as hikikomori, literally meaning “one who pulls inward.” Hikikomori typically stay in their homes for periods of at least three months and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement.
While Korean media has reported on the rise of hikikomori in recent years, the national government has not yet confirmed the extent of this phenomenon. Based on data provided by the National Youth Policy Institute in 2017, it is estimated that there are about 320,000 people who live in isolation in Korea.
According to Yeo In-joong, head of the Dongnam Psychiatric Clinic in Jongno District, central Seoul, who has treated over 300 recluses in 20 years, there are thousands of reasons why people isolate themselves including social phobia, depression and schizophrenia.
Japan started to consider the phenomenon as a social problem before Korea. In 2012, people from Japan’s K2 International Group, a social enterprise to support young people with withdrawal and development issues, came to Korea and established a branch to help Korean youths.
Kobori Motomu, a representative of K2 International Korea, said he used to be a hikikomori in the past as well, during an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 23 at his office in Seongbuk District, central Seoul.
“When I turned 15, I finally was able to go outside with the help of my acquaintances,” Motomu said. “Now, I want to help others who are in the same situations based on my real experience.”
According to the data provided by K2 International Korea, of all recluses in Korea, about 30 percent of them have been living isolated lives for over 10 years. Motomu said one of the biggest reasons behind that number is that Korean society “never gives second chances to people who once failed to enter top universities and get employed in major companies.”
“In fact, most of the people who visited us to receive treatments said they ‘don’t have opportunities to start new jobs,’” said Motomu.
An employee from K2 International Korea also cited children’s “stress coming from their parents” as another big reason behind the increasing number of recluses in Korea.
“In Korea, children are becoming more and more obsessive about meeting their parents’ expectations,” he said. “Korea should recognize the issue as a social problem and exert a lot of efforts to come up with countermeasures.”
Government subsidies for the lifespan of a hikikomori amount to some 150 million yen ($1.4 million) in Japan, according to a government survey.
Kang emphasized that, just like Japan, the issue should be publicized in Korea as well.
“I’m not saying that the Korean government should just provide financial support to all recluses,” Kang added. “What I mean is that the government should help them to find work that they can do at least from their homes or introduce some counseling.”
“Just how Korean officials from local governments regularly visit the elderly who live alone, they should stop by the houses of people who are living isolated lives periodically to encourage them,” Yeo said. “As more than 80 percent of them are affected by some mental diseases such as depression and social phobia, accurate diagnosis and treatments are also very important.”
In fact, writer Kim Jae-joo who published the book about the lives of hikikomori in 2018, lived more than 12 years as a recluse in the past.
“Whenever hideous crime occurs in Korea, many reporters write articles that ‘the criminal is a recluse’ without any accurate confirmation,” Kim said. “I believe that, if people take away this kind of negative perception toward recluses, it’ll be very helpful to lead them out into the world.”
BY KIM JI-A, CHEA SARAH [firstname.lastname@example.org]