Photo/IllutrationParents of “hikikomori” stay-at-home children attend the gathering of an association in Seoul on June 22. (Provided by Korea Youth Foundation)

SEOUL--About 20 young people live in a three-story apartment building in a quiet residential area offering a mountain view, a short distance from the center of Seoul.

The residents share household chores such as cooking and washing dishes together. Some go to school while others work at a cafe run by their sponsoring organization.

Their lifestyle is a dramatic change from their previous situations as “hikikomori,” the Japanese term for those who live as shut-ins.

A Japanese support organization operates the facility in Seoul.

It started the activities to support hikikomori youths at the request of people in South Korea where there was no such organization.

The Japanese term became the most frequently input word on search sites in South Korea among those who found the Japanese support organization’s website, although previously the Korean term meaning “being alone in the form of seclusion” was frequently used to reach the website.

The hikikomori issue has risen to the surface in South Korea, with heightened calls to learn how to tackle the problem from its Asian neighbor.

HIGH-PROFILE CASES IN JAPAN

South Korean media focused on a pair of recent high-profile incidents in Japan including reports that the suspect in a deadly knifing rampage in Kawasaki in late May had been living as a hikikomori for decades. The media also reported on a subsequent incident where a son, who was said to have long confined himself, was killed by his father, who was worried that he might commit a similar attack against children.

While Japanese critics say that it is wrong to link those who are in a hikikomori state to such incidents, the representative of the organization said, “South Korean people have just started to recognize the hikikomori issue and think about it after the two incidents.”

In June such a social concern boosted the annual number of those who consulted with the organization above the usual 100 or so a year.

The Korea Youth Foundation, a private institution, started financially supporting the group facility in Seoul for the young hikikomori from this year.

But such actions have not yet spread to other circles. It is not clear which governmental department has oversight of the issue, and a detailed survey has not been conducted.

The only existing data is that there are an estimated 210,000 hikikomori in South Korea, made by Yun Il-gyu, 69, a South Korean legislator who was formerly a medical doctor.

“It is a big social problem in South Korea, which has a competitive society where young people cannot find a job,” said the head of the Japanese support organization that operates the shared house for hikikomori in Seoul. “There are many young people who have no opportunity to work. So, numerous people are opposed to measures to support those who have no intention to learn or work. It is safe to say that hikikomori people live a forgotten existence.”

The support organization leader gives lectures around South Korea while doing consultations with parents of hikikomori.

“The situation of the country is surprisingly similar to that of Japan,” he said.

SOUTH KOREA TRACKS JAPAN'S PROBLEMS

Kim Won-mee, 50, a mother of a hikikomori child and vice chairperson of the association of parents, which has about 70 members, said, “I sense that the issue is coming to the surface. We would earnestly like to get in touch with Japanese parents of hikikomori children so that we can learn more detailed facts and encourage each other.”

It is said that South Korea faces social problems 10 to 20 years after Japan experienced the issues.

Bullying in South Korea also became a social issue following Japan, and “ijime,” a Japanese term meaning bullying, is used as a borrowed word. Both countries also share an aging population with a diminishing number of children. Now, South Korea is increasingly being inflicted by the hikikomori issue.

Yun pointed out, based on his experience as a doctor who has been exchanging information with Japanese doctors, saying, “It is advantageous (for South Korea) to have Japan as a neighbor, which is a developed country inflicted by many challenges.

“As our social structure is similar to that of Japan, our risk of failure can be lowered if we use Japanese policies as a reference. If there is a challenge that Japan failed to overcome, we should learn from it as a negative example.”

MOTHER OF HIKIKOMORI SEES FAVORABLE SIGNS

An Asahi Shimbun reporter interviewed a mother, who is in her 50s, of a hikikomori son who lives in Seoul.

Following are excerpts of her comments.

* * *

My 17-year-old son never left his locked room except to have meals or go to the toilet. He started to miss classes when he was a third-year student of junior high school for no specific reason saying, “I do not know why I go to school.”

After that, the number of his absences gradually increased, and he dropped out of high school.

South Korean people enthusiastically support education and about 70 percent of all go on to attend college. Parents’ anxiety is perhaps greater than that in Japan. As we are in a competitive society, mothers cannot stand the public shame if their sons do not go to college. It was like a hell. As a result, I suffered from depression and would regularly see a doctor.

About one year later, I learned of the existence of a Japanese support organization that was operating in Seoul. I was offered a program where hikikomori would go to Japan and live together for several months.

I proposed the program to my son with desperate hope, and surprisingly he said, “OK.”

Anywhere was fine for me, and it did not necessarily have to be Japan, I just wanted to get him out of his room.

My son had always been using his smartphone in his room. He was fond of Japanese anime and music, and especially was really into Hatsune Miku, a vocaloid character “idol.” It might be hard to believe, but I found my son being able to speak Japanese.

In Japan, he lived in a share house and did volunteer activities.

After returning home, he has still been sitting alone in his room, but now he is saying he wants to go to college. It was very helpful for him to experience something in Japan that he could not do in South Korea.

In Japan, I participated in a gathering of parents where I met someone who said, “My son has been in a hikikomori situation for 20 years,” telling me that we as parents can share what has been inflicting us.

I read two instruction books about hikikomori, which were translated from Japanese and were very helpful.