Disillusioned with work and tired of life, Seiji Yoshida retired from the world for seven years, but now he’s starring in a play about the experiences of Japan’s “hikikomori,” or social recluses.
The 42-year-old spent most of his 30s locked up in his home.
“I was following the movements of life, but I was lying to myself. Apart from work, I had nothing. I had just enough,” he told AFP during a workshop for the international production.
Yoshida was among more than a million Japanese people between the ages of 15 and 64 who lead very reclusive lives, withdrawing from all social contact for at least six months, according to a 2020 government estimate.
Through an experimental theater project, two French artists hope to offer hikikomori – or “shut-ins” as they are often called in English – a chance to express themselves and regain their self-confidence.
Their play ‘Hiku’ – on view next year in France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe – aims to give hikikomori a platform for personal expression, while respecting their desire for isolation.
It features robots controlled by participants in their homes in Japan and voice recordings of conversations held through bedroom doors.
It also includes footage of small but loud street protests organized by hikikomori who are taking steps to break out of their confinement – but who feel oppressed by Japan’s demanding work culture.
“We don’t want to be forced to work! Stop oppressing us! chanted the participants during a demonstration filmed in the city of Takatsuki, in western Japan.
Yoshida, who took part in the protest, told AFP he was “very proud” to be part of the theater production.
Producers work in Takatsuki with a local organization, New Start Kansai, which provides support and companionship to hikikomori to help them gradually readapt to life in society.
“It’s a social problem…but society has made (the hikikomori) believe that the problem is theirs,” said Atsutoshi Takahashi, mediator at the association.
Nicolas Tajan, a psychoanalyst and associate professor at Kyoto University, said hikikomori often encounter difficulties in childhood.
In Japan, “the psychological difficulties of childhood and adolescence are not addressed and are not treated,” he told AFP.
“That means that in adulthood, it can crystallize into a kind of social withdrawal.”
As adults, they face additional problems as they “are looked down upon for not working,” he added, noting that “work is really a very important part of Japanese identity. “.
About ten recovering hikikomori participate in the project.
Some will control robots 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away during the play, painting messages on the floor and speaking to viewers through microphones.
Robots are “a kind of avatar” to explore “being present and absent at the same time, a recurring theme for hikikomori,” said co-director Eric Minh Cuong Castaing, visual artist and dancer.
He hopes the production will help audiences reflect on their own lives, saying that while hikikomori are sometimes seen as weak, their actions represent a kind of resistance to being “a soldier in a suit and tie”.
When the French artists began researching the project in Japan, they took the time to bond with the isolated people introduced to them by New Start Kansai.
“It was a big challenge for some of them to let us into their homes and talk to us,” said co-director Anne-Sophie Turion, who will star in the play as narrator.
She said being foreigners from another country might have made it easier, “because the usual prejudices weren’t there.”
“We found people we felt closer to than we could have ever imagined.”
Recovery can be difficult for hikikomori, who fear that once removed from society they will not be allowed to return, said psychoanalyst Tajan.
“It reinforces their avoidance behavior.”
But art can help reclusive individuals “reconnect with creativity” and envision “another world” beyond psychiatric treatment or vocational rehabilitation, he said.