AT FIRST sight the detached house in the Negishi district of Yokohama appears a typical home to a normal Japanese family of four. Every morning dad leaves for work in a suit, followed by his teenage daughters, who wear uniforms on school days and make-up at the weekend.
However, closer inspection reveals one of the upstairs windows is covered with a blanket. And, from time to time, the girls’ mother can be seen sitting on the small patio holding her head in her hands.
What goes on behind closed doors is not talked about in this relatively affluent district, but the neighbours know the full story. They remember the eldest son when he was a boy who used to catch beetles in the nearby park to add to his collection. Then, about four years ago, he failed his university entrance examinations, took to his bedroom, and has refused to leave it ever since.
Known in Japan as ‘hikikomori’, or social withdrawal, it is a problem that has confused and confounded a country in which family ties are the bed-rock of society.
Parents, psychologists and politicians are still struggling to find ways to coax these recluses - who are predominantly male - out of their self-imposed exiles. But new figures released this week show their efforts to date have been in vain. The problem is getting steadily worse. And the latest government figures almost certainly underestimate the problem on a massive scale.
The latest government figures reveal more than 14,000 people have contacted counselling centres for advice about how to deal with reclusive members of their households over the past year - more than double the 6,100 cases reported in 2000.
Just under 3,300 people met advisers, nearly 20% only after they had been subjected to physical violence.
It is almost certain that many more are still choosing to suffer in silence in a country whose people are not used to asking for assistance with ‘family problems’.
Naoki Ogi, head of the private Centre for Clinical Research on School Development, in western Tokyo, estimates that as many as 800,000 people across Japan are victims of hikikomori.
He said: "In one extreme example, after returning home from work every day, one mother was told by her reclusive son to go out until midnight so he could stay in and watch television. And she obeyed him."
He added: "The condition is complex and usually brought on by a combination of problems such as bullying or excessive stress at school or in the workplace."
According to the latest survey by Japan’s health ministry, the average age of those affected is 26.7, although 14.2% are aged over 35. In 2000, the over-35 age group accounted for just 8.6%.
Three-quarters of Japan’s recluses are male and one in five has acted violently toward members of their families in the home.
Tamaki Saito, the psychiatrist who coined the term hikikomori believes there are more than a million cases.
"It is dangerous for Japanese society because such people never work or pay their taxes," he said.
"We might be able to rescue some, but half a million people will stay withdrawn from society for 20 or 30 years. We could end up supporting them for half a century," he said.
Susumu Ito is one of those who has to live with hikikomori on a daily basis. His son, 33-year-old Manabu, has suffered varying degrees of the problem for the past 17 years and has attempted suicide three times. Two years ago, Ito set up a support group called Zenkoku Hikikomori KHJ in his home town of Konan, near Nagoya in central Japan, and has been surprised at the response. More than 150 families are now members.
Recounting his own experience, he said: "It’s difficult to say when my son first began to experience hikikomori. I suppose the first signs were in junior high school, when he was around 13 years old. One day he just said he wasn’t going to school any more.
"I took him to a hospital. The doctor said he was nervous and gave him some medicine that worked for a while, but then it came back again." Manabu joined a high school but again decided that he did not want to attend classes and retreated into his own private world.
Later, after brief stints at several companies, including a finance firm and with a performing group of traditional drummers, he returned home to help his mother, Toshiko, in the children’s English school she runs.
"When Manabu turned 30, he changed again," said Ito. "He told us, ‘I can’t work, my parents are getting old, I can’t earn an income.’ That’s why he tried to kill himself, three times. Fortunately my wife found him each time."
Three years later, he appears to be stable again and is trying to set up a business selling computer games via the internet. But his father said he gets up late in the afternoon and spends all night in his bedroom on the internet. He lives in the family home, with the cat, while his parents have moved to a house about three miles away. The idea is to let Manabu fend for himself to a certain extent, yet still have his parents close at hand if he needs them.
Ito is even more upbeat about his son’s future after he returned recently from the United States, where he stayed at the home of his doctor for two months.
"When he came home, he said, ‘I’m very happy because you, my mother and father, have taken care of me,’" Ito said. "He told us he felt great. Maybe he really is getting better. Maybe we can all put this behind us now."
Japan’s health ministry classifies hikikomori as a social phenomenon rather than a disease and victims also display symptoms of insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, agoraphobia and persecution complexes.
In April, the ministry began distributing a new booklet explaining the phenomenon and offering sufferers and their families tips on how best to deal with it.
Compiled by the National Centre of Neurology and Psychiatry, the guide tells recluses that their behaviour is due to excessive stress and is purely a self-defence mechanism. "The period of social withdrawal is a recess much needed for recharging your energy and you should not feel guilty about withdrawing from society," it says.
WHILE most hikikomori sufferers are merely anti-social, the condition has led to a number of violent crimes.
Frustration at not being able to live a normal life or articulate their anguish has spilled over into attacks on friends and family and, in the most extreme cases, killings.
A 17-year-old hikikomori sufferer killed a passenger after leaving his self-imposed exile and hijacking a bus. Another kidnapped a girl and held her captive in his bedroom.
Yoichi Okuyama, who became a recluse when he was 15, attacked both his parents. He threatened them, then assaulted his mother, while his father, Masayuki, was at work.
Masayuki recalled: "I immediately called the police. We were told not to stay at home that night, since it was too dangerous.
"We spent the night at a hotel, and came back the next morning. I was still sleepy, so I rested on the sofa. Then he assaulted me."
Hikikomori is not the only social problem affecting Japanese youths. Child suicide is also a major problem. According to the latest available figures, exam stress led 192 young people under the age of 16 to kill themselves in 1999.
Japan has also been shaken by a spate of suicides involving people who have made death pacts on the internet. This year at least 15 people have killed themselves after making pacts in chat rooms. Most have committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning after sealing their rooms with plastic sheeting and duct tape.