Hikikomori: Salt Constellations
Toward the life of a Recluse
This essay appears in issue 81 of AGNI.
Hikikomori refers both to the phenomenon and to the affected group in Japan.
Hikikomori are people who refuse to leave their home.
I watched a film about hikikomori, and it wasn’t the tightly fitted paper rolls, perfect circles stacked neatly on a shelf; it wasn’t the piles of pizza boxes and books architected into cloistral towers; it wasn’t even the shadows in the room accentuated by the downwind of evening. It was the way he said he could see sunlight move on the floor of his apartment. It was the red of the spherical imprint pressed on his hand, made by one of the rolls, that he watched and waited to disappear; it was his eyes pointed past particles of air, never meeting the delivery person’s face; it was the vagrant echo of overlapping words that he narrated in his mind as he finally placed his foot outside the door, light blinding a halo around his body but not his head.
I am not a hikikomori because I live in the Western Hemisphere, and because two months ago I spent three days in the snow with a friend.
I am not a hikikomori because I still know the rules: brush your teeth and wear clean clothes.
Hikikomori: a word with five syllables, a breath with five sounds: a misfunctioning, a flattening, an absence: a sudden recognition, a beating of the heart.
The year I was nine I began systematically staying home from school every other Thursday, because it helped to break up the week, because a week was suddenly too much to bear. That was the year I began waking up in the mornings with a large darkened body pressing down on my chest, and as I sat at the breakfast table listening to the familiar movements of celestial parental bodies around me, my sunken chest would grow brittle and ache.That was the year I began carrying small objects around with me whenever I left the house, to fill up the sunken cavity: small jade rabbit, oval locket with dusty thumbprint, worn floral handkerchief.
It occurs with individuals typically in their early twenties after they have experienced some sort of failure in measurement.
It happens gradually.
They do not leave the house because they spend their time watching television or drifting in electronic space.
They do not leave the house because they do not hold jobs.
They do not leave the house because they do not want their neighbors to see them in the circumstances of their failures.
They buy their groceries and other functional items late at night, when the city is mostly asleep and the streets are bathed in darkness.
Theoretical formulations focus on the division between inside and outside spheres, intimacy and public persona, the inability to negotiate these spaces.
Theoretical formulations mention learned helplessness and dependency.
Sometimes they go out at night, bags in hand, and look upward into a sky that is cold and beautiful.
Crickets chirp, cicadas whirr, street lamps flicker on and off with a slight buzzing sound.
A list of words and phrases: cocooning, hermit, loneliness, school refusal, selective mutism.
And beyond that, the sky littered with stars.
I cannot talk about the two years I spent in the Midwest feeling I had somehow lost my voice. It was a metaphor for something. It was living on the moon, except amidst a ghostly city, a sheet of tinted gray transparency, where the people did not seem to know that the moon is not a normal place to live. It was living on the moon, my reddened cellophane body transposed over the ghostly city, so it appeared as if I were on the street, next to a building, amidst a dusty crowd, but really my body was part of another plane.
Words like displacement, alienation, stranger.
There were the circumstances, which were normal enough: marriage, graduate school, gatherings of peers, a basement apartment on the edge of town. Even the circumstances became increasingly metaphorical: codes I could not speak, rhythms I did not follow, my upbringing as a textural sound. In the end there were only objects: wooden chair where I stacked my books, jars gathered in front of the window, a trio of random pictures I printed and stuck to the wall—as though such blitheness, blotted in the corners where the ink had run, might counter some inexplicable and suffocating weight. I wrote down phrases like book of shut and cultural muteness, like a creature in the ocean clicking haphazardly, unsure of what it is sounding for. Increasingly in those years I held the image of water in my mind: the invisible pressure, the sudden self-consciousness of a body submerged, a deep and impressionable and stunning silence.
Under the covers at night I felt my throat become raw and hot, then mostly dark. I ignored my husband, moved my books onto a stepladder next to the bed, brought in boxes of tissues and cups of tea. I wanted to know what happens to a person sick in bed who forgets there are other terrains, other countries, other people, whose only memory for years is a home underground and the objects it holds. I felt moored to the crinkly walls, the rickety carpet, the pill bugs under the radiator that curled up when I touched them.
In the Midwest, I once fell into a deep sleep in the middle of the afternoon and dreamt my mother was dead. I woke in a room full of water.
Two years later, when my husband and I left for thundering waves off the West Coast, I tried to remember the sound of my voice against the warmth of others. Sitting together around tables with familiar faces and the bright green of our eating utensils, I could speak again in full sentences, paragraphs. But I could not tell them about the moon, and it loomed large and bright behind my head everywhere I went, blinding my periphery, a massive luminary circle with thin outlines of craters.
Hikikomori: a constellation of bodies, alone in their houses, which when connected by dots or dotted lines, form a vast night sky, blinking on and off, on and off.
Inside our ocean-view apartment, the shadow of the moon would not shake, and after weeks of seeing no one except my husband during nights and weekends, I could not even imagine going out into the building hallway and coming back in with the same clothes now tainted with the outside air, speckles of dirt and germs I could not see but knew were there. On the carpeted stairs outside our unit were tiny fleas and flying insects biting at my ankles; on the bus was an invisible stain where another body pressed briefly against mine.
Every day I spent the mornings in bed, the afternoons on the couch wrapped in a blanket. When the postman came and knocked loudly on the door, I froze, heart pounding, and slid my limbs carefully under the quilt.
I imagined a world made of salt, moving slowly through white piles, a world of my own, hushed and thickened, a preserved secret. In my head were lists of past achievements. A geography of assignments I whispered to myself, underneath the blankets, first is soft crooning tones, then in sharp, angry, accusatory lashes.
Inside the house I arranged my glass jars, their cool hard surfaces, and did not touch them again; I walked around in quiet bare feet, looking at small pictures and paper stars; I chopped crisp green onions and boiled milky broths; I stood at the window for hours, watching the weather shift gradually over the ocean, a thick line of cloud like a skyward train, a shadowy spread of antique yellowing. On the weekends, my husband and I would go to buy groceries or household items. As I stepped outside the building, I felt the sunlight spill over me and my heart rise. But inside the house, where I inevitably retreated, nobody outside could witness how far I had fallen, how afraid of simple things I had become.
Hikikomori: bird-star, with hard-edged point and soft-winged flutter.
A house made of salt would be a house full of muffled desire, an echo among quiet, half-empty sounds.
A house of bleached morning light in which you wake, eyes opening slowly to the washed-out colors. Before your eyes adjust to the light of the day.
A house of objects that do not move.
A house that seeps into the earth like the shadow of a child’s song.
A house made of salt would be a house of briny weather: tepid air to refract the afternoon, eyes closed beneath a filmy blur.
A house, the way each grain sprinkled on a watercolor canvas spreads out in millimeter distances, drying like asterisks.
Literally, the term means pulling away, being confined. There was a boy who shut himself in his room for four years, and when he finally emerged, he had forgotten how to speak to others, how to carry a conversation. In another case, a girl in her twenties failed to secure the job she had set out for, and as her body began to cower and diminish, she grew more and more afraid of leaving her parents’ house.
“Hiroshi didn’t say… why it was too late at age 26 to start a career. He said only that he wouldn’t leave the house ‘until I know exactly what I want to do.’ It was typical hikikomori thinking: better to stay in your room than risk venturing into the world and failing.”
They are afraid of failing the world’s expectations. They reel at the path society has set before them, offering a small space of functionality.The aversion is more than a distaste, it is a hole, it feels like a daunting stranger.
They laugh when they are happy, when on occasion they enter the world.They can have days, even weeks, of normal functioning.
“Hikikomori can see the intangibles, but cannot speak out.”
Staying home became an obsession, a ritual. I counted the number of days between outside weather or interactions of speech. During the month that I imagined our apartment had fleas, I made up rules: 1) The bed is the only safe ground. Nothing outside touches the bed. 2) Stay in the sheets as long as possible, hungering and holding your pee. 3) Do not veer from two paths: first to the bathroom, second to the kitchen. 4) Shower, then flee back to the bed, slipping in one leg at a time as you inspect your limbs.
If I had a secret, it would be that after lying like an embryo I would feel the energy building in my joints like electricity or pipes about to burst, and when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would flail around until dust and feathers collected under the bed.
Fragments like “the desire to live a normal life but the inability to do so”; “too scared and too scarred to venture into the world beyond…”
Words like navigation, as if one were always caught longing for another set of rules, always wondering how instructions were set onto paper.
In the end, I no longer trusted myself to talk to the post office clerk, the bus driver, the department store lady with her neatly pinned badge and accumulated stature. The possibilities for failure were too great to number.
Dear Hikikomori, I would write in a letter. I am both repelled and enamored by insects. The small shell of their bodies, so easily crushed. Inside the house, I cannot stand the thought of anything else moving between these walls. I close all the curtains, shut all the blinds. I do not eat when my husband has forgotten to leave food in the house for me. I sit for hours. Some days I think to myself, tomorrow I will leave the house, tomorrow I will walk into the woods nearby, tomorrow I will smell the eucalyptus and look at small eggshell mushrooms. Some days I stare out the window and grow angry with myself, what if others could see me, what would they think. On these days even the thought of my parents makes me so ashamed. I think to myself, I have only myself to blame. I think of how there are triggers, and then things snowball. I think how easily crushed our trembling desires, how easily shaped the voice inside our head. Some days I think of God, how like an insect I must seem to him.
Hikikomori: How else can we explain birds that burrow? Penguins, seabirds, bee-eaters. Winged creatures that either fail to fly or might still otherwise wrap themselves instead in bits of shadow and earth. So intent is the instinct that sometimes even underwater creatures, already secluded and enveloped in darkness, will burrow obstinately into something as hard as rock.
Words like paralysis, inertia, obsession, dependence, pretending.
Like “anxious travelers…”
They are sometimes described as those who find themselves, mid-journey, stuck in transition, unable to reorient and too aware of the consequences of every choice to be made. Without maps or a compass with which to navigate, they revert to static. Hidden from the world, perhaps they imagine themselves as bodies at an apex, looking down as if from a plane at the green and brown earth carved through with inevitable paths and geological textures. At night it all turns to glittering lights, reminding them that their bodies are made from ancient skies.
Outside, I always felt that people were watching me. That I was doing things incorrectly. So afraid to make any movement, if no one on the bus pulled the cord at my stop, I just kept going. More and more I grew unable to make decisions on my own. Everything—how to sign an email, what to order at the counter, which toothpaste to purchase—every task deferred until I could ask my husband what to do, what the right course of action was. I knew it was a circumstance of my protected situation that I wasn’t forced to hold myself up. But I could only think of the reverberations, all the possible reverberations, and how they just kept going.
Some days I made lists. I wrote down things I was qualified to do, interested in doing. I told myself, if other people can do it. I said, you have a pattern of underestimation. I crossed things out. I rewrote them in. I crossed, rewrote. I thought of all the reasons I could not do this, all the ways in which I was ineligible. I thought of tomorrow, ten years down the line. I tried to imagine a day in this life. I tried to imagine the interview. I tried to imagine waking up to the alarm, walking to the bathroom, turning on the shower, picking clothes, picking shoes, reciting meditations, reciting again, combing my hair, filling my bag, finding coins, leaving the apartment, locking the door, walking downstairs, opening the door, crossing the street, walking to the bus stop, paying the driver, waiting for a ticket, avoiding dark stains, looking out the window, looking for street signs, searching for the address, telling the receptionist the syllables of my name.
There is an age when we become aware as children of the scope of the world, the ever-expansiveness of the universe.
Outside, things shifted and there was no stillness. I could hear the clambering of trains and the momentary stopping of its breaths. I could look out the window and see people walking with both ease and intent, toward a building or some unknown destination, and next to them on the street, cars rattled by, airplanes flew overhead maneuvered by mechanical jungles I could not fathom, and even the trees were bending and shaking in the wind. Outside in the world, things moved without a breath with which to break.
It is no wonder that as adults we found even the slightest motion difficult. We did not know where to begin. As if any tremor might cause a fragile framework, like delicate toothpick structures, to shatter. In an expanse made large that never seemed to end, I wanted a small space I could tend to, envelop in, like a garden of sheltering plants. Children alone are allowed worlds of magical thinking, but so often I woke with a feeling that could only be described as homesick, though for what I did not know.
Most of all I remembered mornings before school, the heavy weight of the house in darkness, my hair dripping cold and wet as I pulled on clothes, the shadows of the woods outside the window where I sat at the breakfast table and watched the sun rise behind the trees, the rest of the house immersed in something dark and hidden, and in that hiddenness was a vulnerability.
Fragments like “cloaked from the world”; “stagnate or drift…”
Fog drifts in and out from the ocean. Mountains in the distance become soft gray shadows. At the summit, the last light disappears beneath a swath of clouds.
On the television I once saw an interview with a woman who did not leave the house for seven years because she was ashamed of the heft of her body, she said that some mornings she still woke up and thought she wouldn’t be able to leave the bed. She allowed herself to wallow for one or two days. And then the next day, she left the house.
Hikikomori: a child’s amateur drawing of Icarus flying into the white blazing circles of the sun, his white wings covering the page in hundreds of pencil curves, his widespread wings spread outward, and one small feather dropping off in the corner.
Constellation: a map that connects one point to another in a field of illusory longing.
At the apex from which one looks out at night, when the lights of the city are gone, there is only darkness, such that everything is sunk in darkness, and the scattering of stars, though everywhere, though so infinitely numerous, are only just pinpricks, tiny infinitesimal pinpricks in the midnight.
When I was a child, I loved enclosed spaces: forts made of blankets, the corner underneath the stairs, even my baby sister’s sleeping crib. I regarded with envy storybooks about boys trapped in peaches and elderly grandparents tucked neatly every day in an old-fashioned bed. Once when I came home from school, I felt the updraft catch my body at our twenty-fourth-floor window. My mother saw me leaning out into the wind and called my school counselor. But perhaps the reason I kept creeping over, across, reaching through the window’s edge was not the desire to end something so much as the desire to fall into it, to be a part of all that was below, the green mountains and small paths, the thrush of trees and mottled dirt, the whitish water lapsing onto an isolated shoreline, thundering hard against the rocks.
One afternoon my husband and I climbed to the top of a hill to watch the moon pass in front of the sun, something that happened in similar precision only once before in my lifetime. At the summit, the wind circled back and forth in every direction, and my husband punched a tiny pinhole through a piece of paper that I angled against the sun. For a few strange moments, the earth darkened and then grew bright again. Light came in the form of crescent suns: tree leaves cast a multitude of overlapping moon-shaped shadows onto the sidewalk. They were like tiny curved mirrors reflecting the sky.
This essay is forthcoming in issue 81 of AGNI.