pachinko

A pachinko (pinball) parlour

For an older generation of Japanese the defining occupational hazard was karoshi — the salaryman’s death from overwork. For the post-1970 generation, however, it’s hikikomori — severe social withdrawal, often linked with addiction to the internet and video games and marked by a strong aversion to work.

Ironically, there are role-playing games parodying both karoshi (“The goal is to die”) and hikikomori (suicide is an option) available.

While karoshi could be on the decline as government and corporations respond to the problem of long hours at the office, health professionals are increasingly concerned about the tendency among younger Japanese to live in an online world of their own. One study showed that more than 1 per cent of Japanese adults suffered from hikikomori.

Another, more recent syndrome dubbed “modern type depression” seems to be related. Here’s a description from The Lancet:

Modern-type depression is characterised by a shift in values from collectivism to individualism; distress and reluctance to accept prevailing social norms; a vague sense of omnipotence; and avoidance of effort and strenuous work. It seems to mainly affect those who were born after 1970—ie, the generation growing up with home video games in the era of Japan’s high economic growth. Young people with modern-type depression tend to feel depressed only when they are at work; at other times, they enjoy the virtual world of the internet, video games, and pachinko (similar to pinball). Therefore, people with modern-type depression have difficulties in adapting to work or school and participating in the labour market, similarly to those with hikikomori.

Strange: one generation works compulsively, the next plays compulsively. Is the new phenomenon partly a reaction to parents too busy to relate to their kids (women are also more involved in the Japanese workforce now)?

But it’s not just Japan that is facing this syndrome. The authors of the Lancet article say psychiatrists in other countries report similar cases, which are more prevalent in urban areas, suggesting that both hikikomori and modern-type depression “might be indicators of a pandemic of psychological problems that the global internet-connected society will have to face in the near future.” (For more on that topic see our front page article, Paradoxes of a wired world.)

Think: Anders Behring Breivik.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet