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Reflections on the hikikomori phenomenon: interview with Marco Crepaldi

The phenomenon of social isolation for long periods


From Japanese hiku (pull) and komoru (withdraw/close): literally stand aside. A phenomenon of social isolation for long periods, native to Japan but now widespread throughout the world, which affects especially the young (tendentially males, between fourteen and thirty years). We talk about it with Marco Crepaldi, president and founder of the association Hikikomori Italia, born with the aim of raising awareness on the subject. As reported on the website of this project: “the purpose is to understand, not to cure”.

Who is Marco Crepaldi, besides the founder of Hikikomori Italia?

Marco Crepaldi is a psychologist who deals with online dissemination of various topics: hikikomori is the one on which I am most competent and that I have been studying for the longest time, but I also love to space in other topics of psychology and current events. In general, I feel I am a content creator, who loves to make videos, podcasts and live: I love to talk about my skills and acquire others by comparing myself with people.

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Un post condiviso da Marco Crepaldi (@marco.crepaldi)

Galeotto fu l'anime or fault of the university? How did you approach this topic?

The first made me know the word hikikomori, the second allowed me then to deepen and write a thesis, from which then the blog was born. I would say that the anime was only the beginning of my interest, the main merit is the university.

Are there any similar associations in Japan? Do you collaborate with them?

To my knowledge, there are no national associations like Hikikomori Italia, neither in Japan nor in the rest of the world: we are very innovative from this point of view. However, I have had contacts with other associations, also in Japan, with which there are no real stable collaborations, but exchanges of information.

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Un post condiviso da Hikikomori Italia (@hikikomoriitalia)

Is there awareness of the phenomenon (and therefore a contrast) between the Japanese, or is it so normalized that the debate is absent?

They know the phenomenon well, everyone knows it, but not much is said about it: this is also due to the nature of the Japanese people, who prefer not to expose their social problems internationally. It is mainly managed by the Ministry of Health and by professionals.

What is the identikit of the hikikomori? Are there “geographical” differences? Let me explain: observed common behaviors, there are different manifestations of this syndrome in Japan, the United States and Europe?

I can tell you about some differences I found between Italian and Japanese data. For example: Italian hikikomori seem to have a less closed relationship with their parents than Japanese. In addition, it is more common for the latter to begin in post-graduate isolation than the former, which instead begin between middle and high schools.

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Un post condiviso da Mark Laszlo (@marklaszlo)

Better to talk about phenomenon, syndrome or pathology? How is it recognized by the medical community?

We can talk about a syndrome, given the similarity of the symptoms that all the cases have in common. Today the medical community does not recognize the hikikomori syndrome: I am sure, however, that, in the coming years, this word will enter the official medical language, being at the center of many national and foreign scientific studies. It is a social phenomenon, therefore not necessarily a diagnostic label: we could define it as a syndrome that can have pathological components over time.

Among the causes that lead to this voluntary isolation (I mention the site of the association) there are “the rejection of the school”, experienced as a negative environment, and “pressures of social realization”. I am reminded of the news, reported on La Repubblica a month ago, about the abuse of benzodiazepines among students to combat “anxiety by questioning”: an antechamber of hikikomori?

Surely if it is given by the social anxiety of judgment yes; if it is given by the fear of taking negative votes a little less.

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Un post condiviso da Marco Crepaldi (@marco.crepaldi)

Sociality and even sexuality of the hikikomori seem to depend on the virtual, is that it? Is there a correlation between this disorder and nomophobia, which is the fear of being disconnected?

Hikikomori is not afraid of being disconnected because it has developed a real dependence on the net; it needs it to stay connected to the world, from a practical point of view. Let’s say it depends more than others. Sexuality often does not live directly but through pornography and autoeroticism. So is sociality: through video games, forums, chat, video calls. However, it is not a type of relationality that satisfies hikikomori.

What are the difficulties that as an association you encounter every day? Are you supported by institutions, healthcare or not, or do you have to fight to open your eyes to a growing social phenomenon?

Surely we must fight: it is an increasingly known reality but not so much yet. The difficulties concern above all the search for resources to finance our services, in particular to offer free therapy sessions to children who come to us. And again: find psychologists who voluntarily lend part of their time to coordinate self-help groups of parents. It is the most important service for them: they contact us from all over Italy and often, for economic reasons or lack of territorial support, they are left to themselves.

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Un post condiviso da Hikikomori Italia (@hikikomoriitalia)

One last question: many families have turned to your association, are there cases of boys who have defeated isolation and now collaborate with you?

There are many young people who came to different events, bringing their testimony and their experience. They talked mainly with the media: journalists and television want stories, not experts like me; they want someone to talk about their pain and their suffering. Those who have decided to do so have certainly cooperated with us indirectly.

Image visuals on Unsplash