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※2020年6月1日更新
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Shut In: Lessons in Pespective and Empathy During Covid-19

A quick note on time again, before diving in. It’s been a month now. I don’t even need to finish that sentence because you all know what I’m talking about. A month isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, and under normal circumstances they simply fly by. But what a month. The biggest difference between now and a month ago is the sensation of rapid change is wearing out. My colleague, Dennis summed it up nicely recently: “The adrenaline is gone and this is just the way it is now”. There’s a certain horror in realizing that this is what it is going to be for a while. I understand that completely. There are also some ways to shift our perspective.

Last weekend I read something that really shifted my entire view of the experience that we’re going through, at least in the ways we are being affected by lockdowns and self-imposed isolation regimes. This article (here) talks about the hikkikomori (Japanese shut–ins) and their advice for dealing with self-quarantine. 

Some context for readers outside of Japan: hikkikomori refers to a social phenomenon, where both adults and children withdraw completely from participating in society, sometimes for a short period, sometimes for their whole lives. No school or work, no socializing; they spend most of their time in their rooms, not interacting physically with anyone except maybe the people they are living with. This should be striking a chord now.

There are many studies about hikkikomori, and there is no one reason for why some people choose to shut-in (mental health and social anxiety are a part of it but not the whole story). It is a defined social category though, recognized by the government. Although Japan has a unique level of tolerance (some might say empathy) for shut-ins by carving out a space for them, I’m not convinced that is solely a Japanese phenomenon. In fact I’m sure that if it were tolerated in more countries, we would see a lot more shut-ins around the world. Which might begin to happen after this.

There are a few interesting threads here. One is the obvious parallels between the  hikkikomori lifestyle and our lives now–cut-off, isolated, in our shells. The social anxiety is present too, albeit from a different source perhaps. A lot of us are actually afraid to go outside and catch the disease. Social isolation for many of us in not some opaque regulation based on an abstraction, but rather a reality that we want to consciously achieve for ourselves while this disease spreads. The fear is real, and as it happens, this fear collides with our social lives, making us fearful to be around people even as we still long for social warmth.

So it’s interesting that we now are looking to hikkokomori for advice on how to live our lives, which relates to another intersting thread. I said before that hikkikomori were tolerated, but they still face a lot of stigma and marginalization. Of course, now that we are all living in a self-isolated world, I wonder if that will change. It reminded me that every human has value, even when we sometimes don’t realize it. We never know what kind of knowledge and experiences we might need in the future. And so here we are, the social bees who once looked at shut-ins a little skeptically, a little condescendingly, eating our humble pie in our empty rooms. The most prepared for this set of circumstances were the ones who were deemed the least fit in the last, so maybe we should think about how power and people’s worth are valued. From a team puzzle game perspective especially, learning from everyone is key.

It turns out that hikkikomori do communicate and socialize–just online.They were ahead of the game in that regard. Virtual socialization doesn’t look like it will become unessential, and so it’s best for us to adapt with what we have. Communication is better than no communication, even if we get tired and bored from too many online hang-outs and Zoom parties. I don’t think we should socialize in ways we don’t want to, so as we move along in this process is will be important to build for ourselves the type of virtual social life that we want.  

The last thread that I think is especially pertinent now that we are gazing into an abyss that isn’t going anywhere, is that there really are lessons to be learned from shut-ins. They are often labeled as lazy and unproductive but I think this masks (willfully?) the truth. The hikkikomori referenced in the article create video games and DJ streaming events. Certainly productivity isn’t tethered to participating in society, as we are all experiencing. And creativity and productivity can occur even under significant mental anguish. Life has stopped in some senses, it really hasn’t in a lot of others–we never stop being able to create. And that’s a lesson that’s worth keeping in mind as this pandemic continues.

There are people who are doing ok in self-isolation and there are others who really aren’t. On the whole though, I think our society has never been prepared for this kind of social distancing. It’s just not the way our system worked. We were raised with certain notions of sociality and how to be a participating member of society. But there were some who acted differently, and maybe were a little more prepared. And now is the time that we should really be looking around for help and advice from them to guide us through the long run, in one of life’s many ironies. 

I think we can all learn from each other in different ways and support each other through this, despite our separation. Afterwards too, I hope we can remember some of these lessons as we build whatever post-coronavirus pandemic world we will inevitably build.  And I hope that this can help change the way that we value other people–those who we never thought were worth noticing. 

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, and stay connected

With love,

the staff of Nazobako/Invite Japan

(Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash)

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