Lost in communication: The relationship between hikikomori and virtual reality in Japanese anime

From Firenze University Press Journal: Aisthesis

University of Florence
6 min readFeb 20, 2024

Mariapaola Della Chiara, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

What does it mean to be lonely? When relationships start becoming meaningful and allow real communication and self-growth between its users? In an epoque where an hyperconnected world requires people to enlarge their network of relationships and affections, the alienat-ing way of life of the working metropolis paradoxically exasperates the feeling of loneliness. This twisted turn of the events has been caught in the narrative of contemporary anime, a medium that has always been very receptive to voice out the issues and discomfort of the Japanese people. The rise of the hikikomori syndrome, the rising of tax suicide among the young generations and a rejection of soci-ety are the results of this relentless social pressure. Therefore, to sur-vive this kind of reality that demands to almost obliterate one’s inner struggles to better homologate in what is deemed to be a “proper life”, many people turned to virtual reality and gaming as coping method (often choosing to get lost in them, for-getting the outer world), a dynamic that has been identified by Japanese animators as the zeitgeist of their time. Serving as an outlet from the daily-life stress and as a world to escape to when one feels overwhelmed, many anime protagonists turn to virtual safe havens to escape the public eye. In the first season of anime series Sword Art Online, by Itō Tomohiko (2012), the 15 years-old hikikomori protagonist Kirito comes to elect the virtual real-ity of the homonymous game as his “real” home; in the animated features by Hosoda Mamoru Sum-mers Wars (2009) and Belle (2021), their young characters Kenji, Kazuma and Suzu are first intro-duced as their virtual avatars, and not as them-selves, to symbolize how these teenagers feel free to express their true self only on the internet. In this paper my intention is to highlight how the hikikomori phenomenon, the result of this escape of reality and difficulty in communication, is depicted in contemporary Japanese anime. I will show how it relates with the dimensions of virtual reality, illustrating the roles that this immaterial dimension plays in different anime and the differ-ent effects it has on the “real” life of the protagonists.


After the economic crisis of the Nineties, the Japanese government faced the challenge to rein-vent the system of the Country to overcome the economic stagnation that put them on their knees. The response to this crisis was a revolution inside the structure of Japanese corporations — giving up the lifetime employment system while proceed-ing to a drastic cut on benefits, and the adoption of temporary workers as main workforce (Ozawa-De Silva [2021]: 54) — and the cultural campaign “Cool Japan” to expand the influence of Japanese soft power globally, relying especially on the ani-me industry (Yunuen, Mandujano [2016]: 78–81).Twenty years later, the results of these efforts paid off: Japan is now the third economic glob-al power in the world1 and its anime market has been in constant growth for ten years straight up to the coronavirus crisis2 (and it’s already regain-ing its previous numbers).This recovery was an extraordinary feat accomplished by the Japanese system but, as a consequence of such an extreme pressure on its workforce, it gravely exacerbated some already existent problems that are becoming a major issue in society, such as urban alienation, the hikikomoriphenomenon and, in the extreme, suicide (Ozawa-De Silva [2021]: 57). Anno Hideaki, in his master-piece Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), had already reflected how the loss of identity, the economic crisis and distrust in politics had already affected the younger generation, and soon after that the issue of hikikomori became apparent for the first time. This problem now has become more and more compelling to our society, and many intel-lectuals started researching the causes that put such a strain on their youth (Plata [2014]: 4–5).In 1998 Japanese psychiatrist Saito Tamaki published his research on “people who withdraw from society”, the hikikomori. It sparked a lively debate in the International scientific community, bringing to light a problem that was widespread, but still didn’t have a name of its own. By his defi-nition, Saito described this phenomenon as the following:A state that has become a problem by the late twenties, that involves cooping oneself up in one’s own home and not participating in society for six months or longer, but that does not seem to have another psychological problem as its principal cause. (Saito [2013]: 25)The main feature Saito identified regarding this extreme retire from society was a difficulty to have functioning relationships and commu-nication with others and, in response to that, the tendency for self-preservation by withdrawing socially. This is typical of the adolescent mind-set.

Despite common beliefs, the adolescent mind-set today continues until the late twenties, with a large number of adolescents not realizing adult-hood until thirty (Saito [2013]: 25).Exactly during this delicate time of personal growth, where the identity of the single is care-fully built and they try to build their path to the future they envision, a sequence of emotional or independence related setbacks (failing one’s aca-demic studies, not being able to sustain yourself ) can easily trigger the desire to withdraw from society. The hikikomori see as an unbearable task exposing himself to others to ask for help because of the feelings of self-hatred and shame. Afraid of further rejection, they stop having interpersonal relationships, even with their family, shutting off every communication and retiring in their rooms to create a safe environment (Saito [2013]: 85–86).Recent studies have proved that, by 2020, 1.2% of young Japanese adults had become hikikomori (Hamanasaki et al. [2020]: 808–809), generally male, with interpersonal relationship issues, close dependency to the Internet, and a high risk of sui-cide (Yong, Nomura [2019]: 1). Moreover, if this phenomenon initially was deemed to be topical and developable only in Japan, subsequent stud-ies have noticed how a hikikomori presence could be found, even if in lesser numbers than in Asia, in Western countries such as the Usa, Australia, Spain, Brazil and France (Yong, Nomura [2019]: 1). Italy in particular covers a special role in the active response to the issue, being the first Euro-pean country to start treating this condition as a social issue and providing psychological aid to the Italian hikikomori (Saito [2013]: 6). Owing to this attention, several studies have assessed how many Italian adolescents, in particular students, are at risk (or already are) of becoming hikiko-mori, and that this situation necessitates immedi-ate assistance and support. A national study car-ried out by the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Pisa Institute of Clinical Physiology reported that, among students aged 15 to 19, 2.1% (54,000 students) identify as hikikomori, 1.7% are actual hikikomori (44,000 students), and 2.6% (67,000 students) are at high risk of becoming one (Gros-so, Cerrai [2023]: 4). Another relevant element that has emerged from these studies is the close association of the hikikomori with a problematic use of the Internet, where the overuse of virtual technology may be viewed by the hikikomori as an effective surrogate to “real” human communi-cation, alienating them from actual reality (Amen-dola et al. [2021]: 107). While this position still meets contrasting opinion in the scientific com-munity (Hamanasaki et al. [2020]: 813), it is an undeniable fact how people suffering from this hikikomori syndrome perceive the virtual world of the internet and the endless possibilities it offers as a safe haven from a reality they have chosen to reject.In the next section, I’m going to illustrate how Japanese anime, a medium that always took inter-est in the issue of its own society, portrayed this phenomenon in its production, displaying several points of view and outcome of this dependance of virtual realities in the everyday life of people who struggle to fit in society and full-fledged hikiko-mori.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/Aisthesis-14363

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/14363



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