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Tokyo, Hakone, and the Hikikomori. Beauty and Sadness (beneath the covers)

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 12 · 18

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already experienced half of our tour of Japan!

I tried to approach this trip with an open mind. Although I had been to Japan some years ago on business, I didn’t really see anything outside of Shinjuku near my hotel, so I didn’t think it was fair to have a lot of presuppositions about Japan before I got here and had a chance to explore the country. Still, I can tell some assumptions or expectations about what I would find here managed to bubble up.

We should really have tacked on several days in Tokyo before the tour started. As it was, we did two extra days, but it wasn’t enough. There’s a lot to see in Tokyo. Of course, the weather worked against us, too, since it really rained cats and dogs fort a while, putting a damper on our explorations.

The hotel we stayed at was not really in a good place to make it easy to get to the areas we wanted to see in Tokyo, which was a bit of a disappointment, but had been mentioned by others who had reviewed this tour, so not completely unexpected. Because of our location, we also didn’t get the full impact of the people in Tokyo. Some who had never been here before expressed surprise that it wasn’t more crowded. Again, this was due to the area we were in, as I remember feeling almost claustrophobic when I visited Tokyo the first time.

While we ate some good food in Tokyo (we’re still talking about our ramen experience) and enjoyed our visit with the retired Sumo wrestlers, there wasn’t much else to get excited about in Tokyo. The time we spent there was just too short. Some didn’t schedule any extra time in Tokyo, so I am not sure what they will remember of it.

OAT always throws in some interesting and/or “different” cultural experiences in their trips by bringing in different speakers to talk about aspects of their culture. In Tokyo we got exposed to something I’d never heard anything about before: the “Hikikomori”. This topic was an eye-opener and I have to admit that it gave me an insight into Japanese culture I find a bit unsettling.

“Hikikomori” means “acute social withdrawal,” a reference to the large number of young people in Japan who have become reclusive, hiding essentially in their parents’ homes from the rest of the world. They have no friends, quit school frequently, don’t work and just sit home, watch TV and play video games. The presenter was a woman whose daughter was Hikikomori, but later came out of her shell. The mother, based on her experience with her daughter, now works with an agency that tries to help these people so afflicted.

This affliction is attributed to young adolescents and young adults, up to around age 32 or so. But, this is misleading. The reason they call it a young person’s problem is that they stop looking for Hikikomori beyond age 32. The woman told us that she feels the problem continues into older adults and that many of these adults now approaching their 40’s and 50’s who are still living with (and living off of) their parents are going to be in trouble when their parents die off. (Yes, Japan does have some homeless and these older Hikikomori could well end up as homeless in the near future).

So why does someone become hikikomori? The reason is sad actually. In Japan, once a young person graduates from school, they essentially have one shot at getting hired by some company. That’s it. One shot, no more. The pressure on these young people is enormous! If they should fail to get hired by a company, they are now “toast” socially. Their parents are embarrassed and humiliated to have such a child; any friends they had stop coming around or calling them. These other kids are under pressure by their parents to hang out with the “right people” i.e. people with futures. They are also bullied extensively. So, they withdraw.

The woman presenting this rather awful side of Japanese culture to us kept trying to make a case that this doesn’t have anything to do with mental illness, but we weren’t buying it. Many of these kids are depressed, some severely.

Interestingly, this is not a new phenomenon and has been around for some years. The official estimate is that there are about one-half million Hikikomori today. But, given the way the government is handling this situation, I have to believe the count is much higher! These kids are only recently being offered some help through the agency our presenter belongs to. The government isn’t doing anything to help them get a second or even third chance at getting a job. Corporations take a “not my problem” attitude. Culturally, they are pariahs. I do believe that this is not going to end well for Japan. These young people not only can’t get jobs, they don’t get married. Japan’s birthrate is dropping steadily and this won’t help.

So, after this cheery little interlude in Tokyo, we made our way to Hakone, stopping only long enough to call our therapists.

Hakone was definitely a change of pace. Hakone is in the mountains in a beautiful area. Our hotel was nice (although our room did smell like an ashtray) and we enjoyed the Japanese onsen (hot bath). The idea of a public bath kind of grossed me out, but fortunately they had private baths available for those who wanted them (like Lisa and me).

On our bus ride to Hakone, we stopped to visit a mountain village called Ashigawa. Here we had a local OAT guide. This was nice. One thing we have always enjoyed about OAT is their use of both a country guide and various local guides who are experts in different areas. She was able to explain the town to us since she lived there for some years. Her narrative really was appreciated.

Sadly, she apparently is going to be the only local guide on this trip. We’re not happy about this development. Our country guide, Hiroshi, is doing a great job. But, let’s face it, he can’t be an expert about every town, park, temple or garden we visit. We’ve been discussing it with others in the group and we all feel that OAT is trying to cut some corners on cost. When you want to reduce cost, cutting service should be the last resort. Maybe it is.

Speaking of service, we’ve been blown away by the friendly and helpful service at our hotels – and virtually anywhere else we’ve been, restaurants, stores, etc. Everyone is so gracious and so polite! In Japan, everyone obeys traffic signals. At all times. We were told that if you walk down the street at 3am, it is not unusual to see someone standing at a red light, waiting for it to change green, even though there are no cars in sight. I guess in a country with this population density, order and following laws or rules is important.

We took a very short boat ride around Lake Ashi, the intent being that we would see Mount Fuji from the lake (similar to Trillium Lake and Mount Hood in Oregon). The clouds parted briefly and gave us a peek, but mostly it remained hidden until we got to a viewpoint, when the beautiful volcano made another appearance. No, this is NOT the boat we were on, we rode a large ferry boat. But there were two of these mock old boats floating around the lake. Very pretty. The fall colors around the lake were nice, too!

We are off to Kyoto tomorrow. I should have more free time there to blog (I hope). Sayonara!

 

 

 

 

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.