Photo/IllutrationPeople involved with the hikikomori problem hand a written request urging the Tokyo metropolitan government to eliminate the age limit of its research on the issue and expand it to people older than 40 and review its policy to meet the reality in July 2018 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A 53-year-old man in Aichi Prefecture rarely leaves the house and eats the meals his mother cooks for him in his room with the curtains shut.

He never goes out in the daytime to avoid being seen by neighbors, but will only go out by car at night to a far-away convenience store for shopping.

The shut-in is emblematic of a “hikikomori,” a social recluse who stays home all the time, sometimes for years, which has long been considered a young people’s problem.

But a new government survey reveals a shocking reality: An estimated 613,000 people between 40 and 64 years of age, predominantly men, have been found to be withdrawn from society, exceeding the number of hikikomori aged from 15 to 39.

The estimate was unveiled on March 29 by the Cabinet Office, which conducted the nationwide survey of hikikomori, targeting those aged 40 to 64, for the first time.

Koichi Kitakaze, director for Policy of Youth Affairs of the Cabinet Office, who analyzed the survey data, said that the number exceeded the government’s expectation.

“We now know that hikikomori is not a phenomenon exclusive to youth,” he said.

The results highlight a dire situation of the increasingly aging nation, the prolongation of the hikikomori problem and the aging of people who suffer from it.

It is encapsulated by the so-called “8050 problem,” in which elderly parents in their 80s are forced to take care of their grown unmarried children in their 50s in one household, leading both to social isolation.

The 83-year-old father of the Aichi Prefecture hikikomori wrote a message and posted it with a picture of plum flowers blooming in his garden on a social networking service in March.

“Thank you for delivering spring to our garden," he wrote. "Thank you for not forgetting us who are in our 80s and 50s.”

The father used to be a workaholic office worker amid the high-growth period of the Japanese economy, working as a manager at a leading manufacturer.

“My family has a problem-free life,” he thought.

It all changed when his son developed anthrophobia, a fear of people, when he was in high school. He and his wife took the son to a university hospital and even put him into a psychotherapy facility that charged 10,000 yen ($90.31) per day.

For several years up until his mid-30s, the son tried to work and took various part-time jobs but quit repeatedly. He earned about 3 million yen in total during the time.

“Three million yen. That’s the income of one person’s entire life,” the octogenarian father said, pouring out his emotions. “I want him to feel proud about it as a monument of his struggle for self-independence. At the same time, I feel mortified and sad. ...”

After retirement, the father participated actively in a group of families who have hikikomori children. But most of the parents of his generation whom he met there and worked together with have since passed away.

Now, left in an 8050 household, he is somber as if he has heavy lead in his stomach, wondering what will happen to the son after he and his wife die.

He has estimated the son would have to live on his own for about 35 years, and so has saved half of his work bonuses so that the son will not die of starvation.

His parents have paid the son’s national pension payments. His wife has left recipe books in her son's room so that he can learn to cook for himself. He has taught the son how to do online shopping at Amazon.

His last hope rests on another son, who is two years older than the social recluse. He thinks that there is no choice but to ask him, who is single, to take care of his younger brother, whose hair has recently turned gray. But the father has noticed the older son has recently stopped smiling, which saddens him greatly.

The father hopes local and national governments will set up systems to register longtime hikikomori and make an intervention.

“I want to see a society where people like my son can live somehow,” the father pleaded.

In the Tokai region, a 77-year-old mother of a hikikomori expressed a similar lament.

“How long can I continue being a guardian?" she asked. "I am certainly getting older.”

Since she lost her husband 18 years ago, she has lived with her son, who is 53.

The son formerly worked for a manufacturing company, but at the age of 30, he was hospitalized for mental illness, quit his job and became a hikikomori. There is a major difference between when he feels well and when he doesn’t, both mentally and physically. He has had some job training but has remained unemployed.

She does everything, from cleaning to shopping, for her son. He doesn’t clean his own room or take the trash out. He rarely goes to a barber, not caring about his appearance.

She drives him for a routine checkup at a medical clinic. Recent news of accidents involving elderly drivers worries her because she may not pass a cognitive test for elderly drivers at risk of dementia when she renews her driver’s license.

The main income to support the household is her bereaved family pension and her son’s disability pension, and housing rental income from inherited real estate. She files his annual income tax return for him.

He enjoys the game of go and "shogi" and always checks the latest news about those board games using a mobile phone. But there is no plan for his future after she dies.

“What will he do when I’m gone or if I start having to rely on help from others?” she wondered. “I’ve always wanted to ask him that, but as soon as I start talking about it, he gets angry and refuses to listen.”

Support groups for people with hikikomori syndrome and their family members have long urged the central government to have a sense of crisis and take a deeper look at the aging issue among hikikomori. They also recommend that the social safety net for middle-aged social recluses be expanded.

Masatoshi Ito, who represents KHJ, a nationwide support organization for families of hikikomori established in 1999, said, “Hikikomori tends to be understood as a young person’s problem. But we have received a consultation from a family who lives with a hikikomori older than 60. As the problem continues longer, the person becomes older and more isolated, and it becomes harder for the family to reach out for a consultation.”

Recently, there have been incidents in which middle-aged people without a job were arrested on suspicion of abandoning their parent’s body after their deaths, heightening the concerns of people such as Ito about the 8050 problem.

Twice in the past, the Cabinet Office has conducted a survey on the hikikomori problem but only targeted people between the ages of 15 to 39. In the last such survey conducted in fiscal 2015, the government estimated that 541,000 people of the age group were hikikomori.

Support groups and experts on the hikikomori problem had urged the government to conduct a similar survey on people older than 40 as well to grasp a more accurate picture of the problem.

In response to their request, the Cabinet Office conducted the survey in December 2018 on 5,000 people at random between the ages of 40 to 64. The results show that 1.45 percent of the valid responses said they are in a state of hikikomori.

Based on that, the survey estimated that 613,000 people of the overall population between 40 and 64 years of age have the condition.

Of these, 38.3 percent are in their 40s, 36.2 percent are in their 50s, and 25.5 percent are between 60 and 64 years of age.

More than half have been in a state of hikikomori for five years or longer. A little under 20 percent said they have been socially withdrawn for more than 20 years.

They are predominantly male, as 76.6 percent of the respondents are deemed to be hikikomori, while 23.4 percent are female.

“More than 1 million people are considered to be hikikomori,” estimated Kitakaze of the Cabinet Office.

Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist speaking on the hikikomori problem, thinks that much of the blame for the fact that middle-aged hikikomori have not been considered a social problem falls on the government for its failure to research the problem.

“Local governments all over Japan and researchers have long said that more than half the hikikomori are older than 40. Nonetheless, the central government has neglected their concerns and that has contributed to disseminating a preconceived notion that ‘hikikomori is a problem of young people.' The government assumes a heavy responsibility for that.”

Saito urged the government to take action based on the survey results and offer job assistance to meet the needs of middle-aged hikikomori and create a place for them and others who used to struggle with the problem to get together and share their experiences.

(This article was written by Takashi Kiyokawa, a senior staff writer, and Shiori Tabuchi.)