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Brain Diving
The NHK Took My Baby Away

by Brian Ruh,

When I read about the opening of Tokyopop's print on demand store last week, I was happy to see that they were going forward with new publishing ideas. I haven't seen a copy of one of their POD books yet, but assuming they can maintain a level of quality I think the store could do well, particularly because they're making available a number of titles that had been previously out of print. One title I wish they would bring back, though, is Welcome to the N.H.K., a novel they released in 2007 which is currently listing for outrageous prices on used book sites. (I was just looking around at used book websites and the cheapest one I saw was going for $85, and most were in the $100s.)

This novel, written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, was the basis for both the Welcome to the N.H.K. manga and anime series, both of which seem to have many fans. Since the novel is just a single book, rather than a multi-volume affair so common with light novels, it is more concise than either of the adaptations and gets to the heart of the main narrative arc more quickly. The story, told in the first person, is about the misadventures of Tatsuhiro Satou, a young man in his early twenties who is a hikikomori, or shut-in, who spends all day in his apartment and only ventures outside on the rare occasions he needs to buy food or cigarettes from the nearest convenience store.

Since this whole concept of the hikikomori can be a little difficult to understand, I thought it would be helpful to first go into a little background to see why people like the fictional Satoru have come to reject Japanese society in this way. The truth is that the motivations behind each hikikomori are as unique as each individual, although there are certain patterns that often emerge. Some withdraw because they have failed (or feel they have failed) at school or work. Some withdraw because of bullying. Some withdraw because they feel awkward around people. In all of these cases, the act of becoming a hikikomori is often a reaction to Japanese societal pressures to conform and succeed, while at the same time the fruits of success like lifetime employment and owning a home seem less and less likely for young workers.

The hikikomori phenomenon is generally perceived to be a male problem; although female hikikomori certainly exist, some studies I have read peg the hikikomori population at 60-80% male. Another factor could be at work here, though; families are generally reluctant to discuss hikikomori children so it is only by seeking help is a hikikomori “discovered.” At the same time, though, general social norms in Japan say that men work outside of the home and women work inside it, so hikikomori women may be seen as less of a problem by their families and therefore are less likely to seek help, which would skew the population percentage.

A good place to start brushing up on hikikomori is this week's Read This! article – “Shutting Themselves In,” a New York Times article from 2006. Although it's a tad dated, the author does a good job discussing how hikikomori are currently treated at special centers in order to get them to become more functional members of society, and she speaks at length with Tamaki Saito, a psychologist who specializes in hikikomori and who in fact coined the term. (It's also worth noting that Saito has written on the psychology of otaku, and a translation of his book Beautiful Fighting Girl will be out next year from the University of Minnesota Press.)

In a paper presented at the American Sociological Association, Michael J. Dziesinski II, who has spent time observing hikikomori rehab clinics, says that the process of getting young men away from the hikikomori lifestyle is generally an attempt to make them become more masculine. There are a number of programs that are designed to help such people transition away from the life of a hikikomori, and at one such program, their “rehabilitation process is gender socialization, namely the adoption of working class masculinities by male ‘graduates’ of the rehabilitation center.” It's worth noting the use of “working class” here, since most of the hikikomori are from middle class families. However, in Japan once you have been outside of the school and employment system for a period of time it's nearly impossible to reenter. Although one can learn a trade and made a decent living, it would be very difficult to become a white collar worker in such cases. Unfortunately, this reveals that even in the wake of the media attention and panic surrounding hikikomori, little attention has been paid to how Japanese society and business have contributed to the problem. These same kinds of things could possibly be at the root of the “herbivore” phenomenon in Japan in which many young men seem to be more interested in fashion and living well than advancing and climbing the corporate ladder. (Of course, as is undoubtedly the case with all phenomena hyped by the media, these kinds of things need to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, as discussed last week, if you were to buy in to most of the media descriptions of the Tokyo Youth Ordinance, you'd get a very distorted view of what's really going on.)

There's often a connection made between hikikomori and otaku in people's minds, but I don't think that it's a causal or necessary one. For the most part, hikikomori don't withdraw because they want to be alone and spend more time with their hobbies. Of course, the same kinds of people who may be inclined to become obsessive about anime and manga are the same kinds of people who may tend to withdraw socially. At the same time, hikikomori need something to do to fill their time while they are shut in, and otaku-style hobbies are perfect for such individuals.

Welcome to the N.H.K.
by Tatsuhiko Takimoto

I'll admit that I don't always read books in the proper order. In the case with Welcome to the N.H.K., I started out with the two author afterwords in the back of the book before I moved on to the main story. After finishing the book, I realized that they were in fact key to understanding the motivations behind the novel. In the first, written in 2001, author Tatsuhiko Takimoto implies that the main character of the story was based on his own experiences as a hikikomori and that “the themes addressed in this story are not things of the past for me but currently active problems.” Yet he concludes with an acknowledgment that he is going to try harder (presumably to become less of a hikikomori). In the second afterword, written in 2005, Takimoto admits that his life hasn't improved much – he is still a hikikomori and he is simply living from the royalties of his book and has not written any new stories in the intervening years. Even so, he holds out a faint hope that he will one day be able to cure his condition and do away with the persistent problems that have been driving him to remain a hikikomori.

This biographical thumbnail of the author is as good a summary of any of the plot of Welcome to the N.H.K.. It is about the young Tatsuhiro Satou who both begins and ends the novel as a hikikomori. I don't think this is a big spoiler – from everything above, you should be able to see that the conditions that lead a person to become a hikikomori are complicated, and that it's not reversed by just snapping out of it one day. Instead, it's a long process that often takes months or even years, and can't really be carried out in the course of a single short novel. However, this is not to say Welcome to the N.H.K. is pessimistic – Takimoto has a rather witty writing style and even ends the book on a glimmer of hope, in spite of all of the negativity that swirls throughout.

So would it be best to classify the novel as a comedy or a drama? Although certain episodes in the book are written in a funny way and made me laugh, its overall aim seems to be more serious, and it seems clear that the author has been wrestling with similar issues of isolation and fitting into society to those that Satou is facing. At the same time, the setup for the narrative is clearly ridiculous. Satou has been living alone for many years in a dingy, cramped apartment when he gets a visit from a pair of religious proselytizers, one of whom is a young girl of high school age named Misaki. He later encounters her again when he makes a rare foray into the outside world in order to try to apply for a job at a manga café. (He is forced to do this because his parents will be cutting his allowance off.) Although he panics and runs away before he can hand out his resume, Misaki decides that she will take it upon herself to try to cure Satou of his hikikomori tendencies. At the same time, Satou and his next-door neighbor Yamazaki, a friend from high school, decide to try to break into the gaming business by creating a groundbreaking eroge (erotic game). The majority of the novel chronicles Satou's halting interactions with Misaki and his inebriated conversations with Yamazaki. (Satou spends much of his time either drunk or under the effects of hallucinogens, which undoubtedly is not good for his decision-making processes.)

The novel can at times be rather episodic, and some events don't seem to have the long-lasting effects one might think they would. For example, early on in the novel Yamazaki convinces Satou to conduct “research” for the eroge by giving him a CD filled with pictures of nude underage models. However, driven by a desire to believe that he isn't actually turned on by the images, Satou then goes online and ends up filling his computer's hard drive with all sorts of unsavory pornography. When Yamazaki confronts Satoru and says that even he is disgusted by Satoru's behavior, Satoru grabs his friend and heads to an elementary school, where he plans to stealthily take pictures of the kids while having Yamazaki take pictures of him. Satou explains that this is to “objectively look at our own ugliness, dirtiness, and unsightliness. And then, we'll be able to escape from lolicon and return to normal.” Although Satou's actions are depraved, immoral, and illegal, they are also so exaggerated that they are played for laughs in an uncomfortable way. Even so, after this incident nothing about it is mentioned again. It certainly paints a picture of Satoru's character early on, showing that he is not afraid of becoming what he perceives as the worst of the worst in society. (Although I guess it could be said to his credit that throughout the book he never tries to do anything that would cause anyone any actual harm, other than slugging it out with Yamazaki in a drug-addled stupor toward the end.) It also provides the setup for a comically-timed encounter with Misaki. However, it seems to have little overall impact on Satou's character, as if he simply forgets everything that had happened the following day.

Although Misaki spends much of the novel trying to reform Satou's hikikomori ways, the book ultimately has little to say about how this might practically happen in real life. During Misaki's counseling sessions with him, Satou knows that her amateurish therapeutic techniques aren't going to have an impact on him, but he goes along with them because she seems to be getting something out of talking with him as well. In the end, it is revealed that Misaki is as broken and isolated as Satou, but in her case it seems like there are definite external causes for the way she is feeling. Satou, on the other hand, gives only a vague account of why he withdrew from society and shut himself up in his room. Yet there is a human connection that slowly develops between these two people who don't even know how to be with themselves, much less become intimate with another person.

Although hikikomori are a specifically Japanese phenomenon, the book succeeds because it speaks to our general postmodern condition in which very few things are ever certain. The title is a reference to a drug-induced dream Satou has at the beginning of the book in which the Japanese public broadcaster NHK (Nippon Housou Kyoukai, or Japan Broadcasting Association) is causing people to become hikikomori by showing them anime, and that NHK really stands for Nippon Hikikomori Kyoukai (Japan Hikikomori Association). In the end, Satou realizes that the reason why people create conspiracy theories like this is because the world is too hard to accept as it is. Unlike games, anime, and manga, where there are often clear enemies to fight and definite lines between right and wrong, the real world is a much harder place to live in. It's hard to even identify who the “enemies” are, much less defeat them, so we create our own enemies in our minds to give ourselves something to fight against. It's one of the reasons why the mass media is so polarized these days and the War on Terror has become such a successful motivator to convince people to give up their civil liberties – if we don't have an obvious enemy, we are likely to create one or amplify the danger of one so that it feels like there is something to fight against. In an uncertain world, these actions give us a measure of comfort even when we are completely wrong.

If Tokyopop is considering additional titles for their print on demand program, I'd strongly recommend Welcome to the N.H.K.. It's a good book, and a print on demand version or a reprint would give people the chance to read it without resorting to paying an outrageous price for a used copy. In the meantime, I just have to say thank goodness for libraries and interlibrary loan, as that's how I was able to get my hands on a copy. Although Welcome to the N.H.K. is more serious than a standard light novel (its main concession to the form is the cover illustration by Yoshitoshi ABe), this also gives additional weight to the characters. It's a bit on the short side to resolve the weighty problems facing Japanese society that it tries to address, but it's a convincing self-portrait of part of the contemporary Japanese condition.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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