The Possibilities that a Despairing Experience Has: What is the Meaning of Hikikomori Life?

One comes closer to the brink of death when he becomes hikikomori

In the First Issue of the Hikikomori Newspaper, I called out to the hikikomori;
‘Do not despair. Your experience must have some meaning.’
I wrote this message recalling a person who had a strong influence one me while I was hikikomori.
His name is Viktor Emile Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist who survived imprisonment at the Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp. Frankl’s words impressed me deeply probably because I identified my hikikomori life with his imprisonment somehow. When you become hikikomori you come closer to the brink of death. You lose the meaning of your life and suffer from desperation. But Frankl came out alive from the Camp. This is because he had a strong principle that prevented him from succumbing to the most fearful situation in the human history. Why would his principle offer a ray of hope for those who are suffering from hikikomori situation right now? What I wanted to tell you in the First Issue was the healing method initiated by Frankl; the logotherapy.
“Work sets you free (Arbeit macht frei).”: Through the iron gate bearing this slogan, Nazi led Jewish people into the camp. It counted about 12 million. Of those, 8 million could not survive. 95% of them were sent to gas chambers just after the arrival. The rest of them died one after another because they had to face heavy labors, hunger, tortures or human experimentations.
The infernal situation changed the victims mind: apathy, numbness and indifference. In order not to be hurt from tragic and unacceptable situation they protected their mind.

Silent Voices

Those apathetic, numb or indifferent situations might be nurtured in the mind of the hikikomori as well. Some of the parents confess their children are very quiet and show no desire for anything as if they are in good situation even if they do not go outside. What if we think in a way that there is same situation as the Auschwitz camp? Then it is no good state. It is even getting worse.
Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychotherapist, pointed out the danger that people make up life stories of the others in “To Live is to Make your Own Life Story.” He said ‘Matters hard to understand make human mind uneasy. They want to make hasty judgments of others and feel easy as quickly as possible. People who are not good at assuming others’ mind are more inclined to do so. Such people rush to form biased opinions about others.
The fact that the hikikomori do not to talk about their problems does not indicate that they do not suffer. On the contrary they might have suffering that cannot be spoken in words. Their suffering might be too grave for them to describe even by themselves. It is to deprive voices of the hikikomori if others do not let them speak out, or make up the stories that should be spoken by their own.

The Willpower to Pursue the Meaning

What do they think about, those who have lost their own voice? What they think about is very existential questioning: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ In general, the hikikomori have sufficient food, clothes and they have a place to live. Therefore, they mostly do not need to worry about their physical existence. However, here arises a question about what they live for. They seldom feel the meaning of life deeply as similar days are repeated.
They have abundant time to think about ‘Does my life have any meaning?’ Very few would find a positive answer. Why has this situation come? Despair, hatred, fatigue, or emptiness would surround them. In my own case I was easily pushed to hopelessness when I tried to question my meaning of life. In those times I should have thought according to Frankl’s words.

“Even before you ask what the meaning of life is, it has asked toward us. In this sense, humans really do not need to question why they live. Humans are asked and tested by their life. They do not have to ask the reason to live. They just have to answer to their life.”
(Viktor Frankl E.: Ärztliche Seelsorge)

You will not get any answers if you question toward your life. We need to answer to the questioning the very life is asking toward us instead. The meaning is already sent on us from our life and we just need to find it out. “Every life has meaning. You must be needed by something or someone in this world: They keep waiting for you to find them” (Frankl). He insisted that as any life has meaning, we just cannot give up hope not matter how much we suffer right now.
If your life was only for yourself and you could complete it alone, its only meaning would be digging holes and fill them over and over. Therefore, that that your life has meaning means there is some connections with somebody or something else in your life.

Three Values

As your life has meaning, how do you find it? Frankl presented clues it: creative values, , experience value and attitudinal values.
‘Creative values’ stand for that are made through creative activities or jobs. These include social labors. The hikikomori basically are not involved in any labors. Therefore it is difficult for them to make creative values. However, they could connect with these values through creative works such as painting, cooking and so on. Even when you become shut-in at home you could find the meaning of life by creating something. On the other hand, you cannot necessarily create values by doing social labors. If you work only to get the money, you do not find meaning in your job.
‘Experience values’ are expressed via experiencing something such as nature, art, etc. or loving human being. Here, the laid-offs or sick people that cannot express creative values have possibility. They find the meaning of life by sunset scenery or art impression, or thinking about someone important for them.
‘Attitudinal values’ see how they face the situation that cannot be changed by them. Human being can select to be humanistic under any oppressive situations. They can live as humans which cannot be oppressed, without their humanity being denied..

Decide the Attitude

Frankl witnessed that a person in the camp sharing his bread to someone starving. While there were some that stole others’ bread, there were also some that did not lose humanity. You lose your freedom depends on the condition you are under. But still, it depends on your decision and responsibility whether you surrender to it or not. You are not ruled by conditions. Conditions are ruled by you.
Under hikikomori circumstances, you tend to look for the reasons why you suffer in family or society. Searching the causes of your agony in the problems of past and present actually eases you by giving shape to them. However, if you stick to your past problems you would not easily step forward. That is why I would not recommend to search the causes from your past. Rather, you can choose to make use of your past for the future through finding meanings from what you have learned. You can select your decision in every moment of your life and realize those values.

Hope is What it Takes

In the Nazi camp, Frankl had to see two types of human being as described: ones who had lost hopes and the meaning of life, and the others who kept it and found the meaning. Whether they kept hopes or not decided their life and death.
Hopes are most needed especially in a difficult situation where you cannot look anything forward (Yuji Genda. Kibo no Tsukurikata). And in order to obtain hopes, you need to cope with your anxiety and uncertainty. Human beings are inclined to find out hopes in the most difficult situations.
Going through hikikomori experience is very tough and it seems meaningless. But the moments one has endured are meaningful. The meaningfulness awaits him to find it out. It is also preserved in his past and it is much more certain than unsure future possibilities. He can find out meaning and hope out of his past which seemed meaningless before.
Heidegger agreed with Frankl, with comments: ‘the past which only passed through has gone. However, the past which one fully lived can come back again.’
There is hope in any difficulties. You can still find meaning as you contain sufferings. As there was a man to share his bread in the Nazi camp, the meaning from hikikomori experience can also be shared. And the experience must bring hopes to somebody else.

Naohiro Kimura
Translation: Yukinori Maehara